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Local Government in SA

The term "Local Government" refers to the system in which 68 local Councils operate in South Australia. The Constitution Act 1934 (SA), the Local Government Act 1999 (SA), and the Local Government (Elections) Act 1999 (SA), create the legal framework within which Local Government operates and the four-yearly election process which underpins the representative nature of Local Government Councils.

Democratically elected members make up Local Government councils and with staff support and in partnership with their local communities they manage more than $23 billion worth of community infrastructure and invest more than $2 billion a year in providing services to people who live, work, do business in, and visit local council area.

More than one in three people voluntarily choose to exercise their democratic right by voting in council elections.

As with other democratically elected governments, ie. the State and Federal Governments, councils have powers to raise revenue (primarily through council rates) to provide and maintain infrastructure and services, to regulate activities (such as building development) and to impose penalties if local regulations are breached (for example dangerous dog attacks).

The Local Government system in SA is integral to the democratic system of government in Australia which provides vital economic, social and environmental support for communities. Since the 1960s councils' roles have steadily expanded. This is due to:

  • community standards and expectations growing along with economic growth (for example a higher number of vehicles per household leads to demand for safer local roads/traffic management and the emergence of Legionnaire's Disease creates new environmental health inspection requirements);
  • limits to the growth in the size of both Federal and State public services and greater legal requirements (eg. building fire safety inspections now done by councils and higher workplace safety standards affecting all employers);
  • and greater demand for local services (eg. recycling or immunisation of school children against Meningococcal C).

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How councils operate

Councils largely operate autonomously within the framework of the legislation and are primarily accountability to their local communities. They are generally not subject to Ministerial direction by either State or Federal Governments. Sometimes, such as in the area of planning and development, Councils work jointly with the State Government, and their decisions may be subject to advice and direction from State Government. To find out more about the legal framework for Local Government click here, or you can find the Local Government Act 1999 and other relevant legislation on the SA Government's legislation database - click here.

Local Government in South Australia is typified by:

  • high standards of operational competence and accountability;
  • sharing resources, working consultatively and cooperatively with other Councils and other spheres of government;
  • low net debt and conservative management of finances;
  • expanding roles to respond to community demands and service gaps.



In general terms councils have two layers of accountability and transparency systems - primary accountability to the local communities whom they serve and accountability to State legal and administrative review systems (and in some instances to Federal ones). In many cases the levels of accountability are far more robust than for State/Federal governments. For example, neither State nor Federal governments are legally required to have strategic plans or to consult on them as are councils. Another example is the council's annual program and budget which a Council is required to consult on, and to hold a public meeting about. Neither State nor Federal governments have such requirements, indeed they make a practice of placing journalists in a "lock up" to prevent the public finding out about budgets before they are finalised and delivered.

A more obvious example is that councils are legally prevented from having an equivalent of Cabinet meetings held in secret. All council meetings - related to by-laws or other legislative processes or executive decisions such as adoption of budgets must be held in public. Rather than holding weekly secret meetings, Councils can only close meetings for a limited number of reasons (such as discussing prices they wish to apply when selling or buying a council property) and these must be recorded item by item. Council use of these provisions is extremely low (generally less than 3% of all business items).

Elections remain as the fundamental accountability in a democracy, however for local government accountability goes well beyond 4-yearly elections. Councils are required to publish comprehensive annual reports and are required to include a range of information in the reports by law - including audited financial statements. Councils are also required to put certain information on the internet and you will find their annual reports on council websites. They are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. They are also subject to the following complaint/review systems:

  • Internal Review - each council is required by the Local Government Act to have its own complaints handling system for general and competition complaints from business.
  • Financial Audit - each council is required to have annual independent financial audit consistent with Australian Standards and with requirements on auditors to report irregularities externally as well as to the council.
  • Ombudsman - complaints, typically where a person is not satisfied with how a council has dealt with a complaint.
  • Police and Courts - Councils are subject to the same criminal laws as other organisations. Issues involving such matters as theft, bribery or corruption should be referred directly to the Police.
  • Conflict of Interest - has a range of special requirements and complaints can be referred to the Office of State/Local Government Relations.
  • A range of other review mechanisms are in place around specific issues including roles for Workcover, Discrimination/Equal Opportunity bodies, the ERD Court, Competition Complaints Secretariat, and so on.

Councils also regularly review ratepayers' and residents' attitudes to their systems and services provided.

Compounding Financial Pressures

Councils are under increasing financial pressure for several reasons:

  • Demands on councils often follow the growth in the economy but local government revenue is not keeping pace (see the graph below).
  • Councils in South Australia get an unfair share of Federal funds, in fact the lowest per capita of any state or territory for local road funding.
  • Legal requirements by Parliaments on councils have increased over the past 30 years without required resources being provided (this sort of transfer is commonly referred to as "cost shifting").
  • The need for extensive upgrading of ageing community infrastructure, eg roads, drains, footpaths, much of it constructed between 1960 and 1980.

Relative Taxation

The graph at right shows the relative growth of government tax revenues over the past 30 years.

At the same time Councils' financial arrangements are open and transparent. Local Government identifies its total taxation charged to each ratepayer via a single rates notice (payable quarterly). This is not the case for the wide range of taxes imposed by Commonwealth and State Governments.

Introduction to Local Government

Please find linked below a copy of the Introduction to Local Government Workbook. The workbook was prepared and is updated by the LGA Education and Training Service as part of an induction pack for new Local Government staff and provides an excellent explanation of how Local Government in South Australia works.

Introduction to Local Government Handbook(195 kb)

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