Local Government in SA

The three tiers of government - local, state and Commonwealth - work together in various ways to govern and provide services to the community.

Although each tier of government operates differently and has very different powers and functions, each has an important role to play in Australia.

Local government is an elected system of government directly accountable to the local community.

Councils possess unparalleled knowledge about the needs of their local area and for this reason, local government is often referred to as the ‘grass roots’ level of government.

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);
  • greater demand for local services (eg. recycling or immunisation of school children against Meningococcal C).

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).

Council funds, supplemented in some cases by funding from state and Commonwealth governments, are used to deliver a diverse range of services to their local communities.

Delivering services and facilities relies on the rates collected from ratepayers within a council’s boundaries. Council rates are a form of taxation, and as the main source of funding for councils, they are essential in enabling councils to deliver all of the services and facilities that your community relies on.

Council rates make up about 70% of the revenue received by councils.

The remaining 30% is made up of:

  • Statutory charges 3%;
  • User charges 9 %;
  • Grants and subsidies 14%;
  • Investment income 1%; and
  • Reimbursements & other 3%

Council rates are less than 4% of the total taxes paid by Australians.

Total Taxation Revenue Distribution for all levels of Government

Source: ABS Catalogue Number: 5506.0 - Taxation Revenue, Australia, 2017-18

Taxation revenue by level of government

The Commonwealth Government levies and collects all income tax, from individuals as well as from enterprises. It also collects a portion of other taxes, including taxes on the provision of goods and services.

The revenue base of state governments consists of taxes on property, on employers' payroll, and on the provision and use of goods and services.

The sole source of taxation revenue for local governments is taxes on property.1

The graph below shows the total taxation revenue collected by all levels of government in Australia from 2012-13 to 2017-18.

Total Taxation Revenue by Level of Government

The graph below indicates that in 2017-18, the Commonwealth Government collected around 81% of total taxation revenue, State Government around 16% and Local Government around 3%.

Total taxation Revenue by level of government 2017-18

There are a number of grant programs which flow between the levels of government and therefore an alternative presentation of revenue considers the level of government at which revenue is used rather than simply collected.

The graph below shows adjusted taxation revenue, from 2012-13 to 2017-18, taking into account the flows that occur between the levels of government in Australia and the impact that this has at each level.

Adjusted Taxation Revenue by level of Government

The below graph indicates that in 2017-18 the Commonwealth Government received around 58% of adjusted taxation revenue, State Government around 36% and Local Government around 4%. There was also around 2% where the jurisdiction is shared or unclear (ie. public universities).

Adjusted Taxation Revenue by level of Government 2017-18

1 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) – 5506.0 – Taxation Revenue, Australia, 2017-18

This section is based on information available in ABS Catalogue Number: 5506.0 - Taxation Revenue, Australia, 2017-18. This publication contains statistics of taxation revenue collected by all levels of government in Australia.

More information is available at https://www.abs.gov.au/

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.

There are 68 individual autonomous councils in South Australia. Each council covers a defined geographic area that varies in size, population, and environment. Despite these differences, all councils have the same general powers and responsibilities, and the discretion to choose many of the services they provide.

To find contact information for individual councils please go to SA Councils


The Local Government Act 1999 sets out the role and functions of a council.

This includes:

  • being a representative, informed and responsible decision-maker in the interests of its community;
  • participating in public policy development and planning activities with the other tiers
    of government;
  • providing and co-ordinating services and facilities that benefit its area, ratepayers, residents and visitors;
  • developing its community and resources in a socially just and sustainable manner;
  • providing for the welfare, wellbeing and interests of individuals and groups within its community;
  • representing the interests of its community to the wider community and other tiers of government;
  • planning at the local and regional level for the development and future requirements of its area.
  • managing, developing, protecting and conserving the environment; and
  • regulating local activities such as development and building, keeping animals, parking, and maintaining public health.

Some of these responsibilities include regulating and enforcing laws.

Councils must provide regulatory services in accordance with specific responsibilities and powers defined by the Local Government Act 1999 or other legislation.

Examples include:

  • waste collection;
  • zoning, planning and building safety;
  • fire prevention and hazard management;
  • dog and cat management and control;
  • parking control; and
  • public health and food inspection.

Other services are provided at the discretion of the council. Discretionary services vary from one council to another and depend on the size and geographic location of the council area, number of people living in the area, physical environment, priority needs of the local community, and available resources and funding.

Examples include:

  • street lighting;
  • library and information services;
  • parks, ovals and sporting facilities;
  • swimming pools and leisure centres;
  • community facilities and halls;
  • coastal care;
  • support services for elderly people and people with a disability;
  • tourism initiatives;
  • wetlands and water resource management; and
  • promoting economic development.

In 2017-18, the ‘average’ SA council spent:

  • around 37.3% of its operating expenditure on ‘Infrastructure’, which is made up of spending on Transport (such as roads and footpaths), Recreation (such as parks and gardens, jetties and sporting facilities) and Community Amenities (such as public toilets, cemeteries and other community facilities);
  • around 25.4% of its operating expenditure on ‘Community Support’, which is made up of spending on Community Support (such as community centres, services for the aged and disabled, child and youth health services and community transport), Business Undertakings (such as council-owned caravan parks, car parking and community wastewater management), Libraries, Health Services (such as immunization and other health services), Cultural Services (such as performing arts, heritage and art museums), Public Order and Safety (such as crime prevention, emergency services and fire prevention);
  • around 21.1% on of its operating expenditure on ‘Environmental Services’, which is made up of spending on Other Environment (coastal protection, street cleaning, street lighting and other protection of the environment), Waste Management (solid, green and recycling waste collection and disposal) and Agricultural Services (agricultural water, pest control and land care);
  • around 11.6% on of its operating expenditure on ‘Development’, which is made up of spending on Regulatory Services (dog and cat control, building control, town planning and health inspection) and Economic Development (employment creation programs, regional development, support to local businesses and tourism promotion); and
  • around 4.6% on of its operating expenditure on ‘Administration’, which is made up of spending on Governance and Administration (such as finance charges and balance of amounts not allocated to other functions).

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 areas.

A council comprises of:

  • a principal member of the council who is either elected as a representative of the area as a whole, or a member of council chosen by the members. A principal member elected by the electors is called the mayor. A principal member chosen by the members of the council is generally called the chairperson, although the council may decide to use another title; and
  • a number of councillors – who, depending on how the council is constituted, may be elected to represent a ward (which is a specific geographic section of the council area), or to represent the council area as a whole.

If a council has wards it may choose to have both area councillors and ward councillors. If a council does not have wards, only area councillors are elected.

All council members are elected for a four-year term (or less if elected at a supplementary election during the council term) and regardless of whether they are ward or area councillors, have a responsibility to consider the interests of the council area as a whole.

Council members combine to form the council that meets formally and makes decisions. Individual council members have no authority to make decisions on behalf of the council, it is the elected council as a whole that has this power.

The role of the mayor or chairperson is to:

  • preside at meetings of the council;
  • carry out the civic and ceremonial duties of the office of principal member;
  • provide advice, if required, to the CEO between council meetings regarding the implementation of a decision of the council; and
  • act as the principal spokesperson of the council (unless the council determines otherwise).

Council members are part of an incorporated body which has responsibility for carrying out the duties and exercising the powers conferred on the council by the Local Government Act 1999 and other laws.

The Local Government Act specifies that council members must:

  • represent the interests of ratepayers and residents;
  • provide community leadership and guidance; and
  • facilitate communication between the community and the council.

The working relationship between council members and council staff is very important.

Each have separate but complementary roles:

  • Council members decide the overall strategic direction of the council and set the policies and plans.
  • Every council must appoint a CEO, who is the most senior member of the staff. Staff, through the CEO, undertake the administrative actions required to achieve the council’s strategic directions, policies and plans.

The CEO is responsible to the council:

  • for the implementation of council decisions and the general administration of council functions and affairs;
  • for employing and managing all other council staff;
  • to act as an adviser to council members; and
  • to ensure the council acts within the law.


Council Meetings

Council meetings are held at least once a month. Copies of the agenda and minutes are made available on individual council websites.

Decisions of the council are made by a majority vote of the members who are present and entitled to vote (for example, they may be precluded from voting by the conflict of interest provisions of the Local Government Act 1999).

Committee Meetings

Councils establish committees to assist with the wide range of activities and functions for which councils are responsible, and to increase opportunities for community input in policy development.

In addition to councillors, committees can include community or skills-based members appointed by the council.

The roles and tasks of committees vary.  A council may establish a committee to:

  • enquire into matters and provide and make recommendations to the council;
  • carry out a specific project or task on behalf of the council;
  • manage or administer property, facilities or activities on behalf of the council;
  • oversee works on behalf of the council; or
  • exercise, perform or discharge delegated powers, functions or duties.

Confidential Items

From time to time, circumstances make it necessary for a council or a committee to discuss a matter confidentially (for example if the item relates to personal affairs or legal issues or those that have commercial implications for the council), and the public may therefore be excluded from the meeting for this item. The meeting agenda will identify those items where it may be necessary to discuss them in confidence.

Section 90 of the Local Government Act sets out what factors must be considered when excluding the public from attendance at a meeting.

To close a meeting to the public, the council or committee must apply for an order which will specify the reason for the order, duration of the order or the circumstances in which the order will cease to apply, or a period after which the order must be reviewed.

Informal gatherings

Councils can also hold informal gatherings to allow for discussion, undertake planning, deliver training, hold workshops or to encourage informal communication between councillors and staff. Where the informal gathering involves discussion of a matter that is, or is intended to be, part of a formal meeting of the council, the gathering must be open to any member of the public, unless the council or CEO has declared it to be a confidential informal discussion.

These gatherings are not formal council meetings and no decisions can be made at them.


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 and transparency are far more robust than for State/Federal governments. For example, councils are legally required to have strategic plans and to consult on them with their communities.

Councils are also required to have an annual business plan and budget which they are also required to consult on, and to hold a public meeting about. Councils normally consult on their draft annual business plans between April and July and consultation must remain open for at least 21 days.  A summary of the council’s endorsed annual business plan is then sent every ratepayer with the first rates notice of the financial year.

A more obvious example is that all council meetings (related to by-laws or other legislative processes or executive decisions such as adoption of budgets) must be held in public. 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 relatively 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.

Councils 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.

The Local Government (Elections) Act 1999 sets out the requirements for council elections - how they are to be conducted, who can nominate, who can vote, and how the votes are to be counted. Further information on council elections can be found here.

In South Australia the Electoral Commissioner is the Returning Officer for all council elections. The Returning Officer is independent of councils and is responsible for running the elections and ensuring they are conducted in accordance with the law.

Types of elections

There are two forms of elections held in local government - periodic elections which are held on a regular four-year cycle, and supplementary elections which are held when a position becomes vacant (for example, because a council member has resigned).

All council elections are conducted by postal vote. The Returning Officer posts out ballot papers to all electors, who cast their votes and post them back.

Periodic elections

Periodic elections are held at four-year intervals in November. The next one will be in November 2022.

Supplementary elections

Supplementary elections are held if a casual vacancy occurs between periodic elections (subject to a few exceptions), or a periodic election fails for a reason such as the number of nominations received was less than the number of vacancies.

Voting in council elections is open to a broader range of people than state and federal elections.

You must be on the council voters roll to be eligible to vote (and stand as a candidate) in council elections.

The voters’ roll for council elections has two components – the State (House of Assembly) electoral roll, and the council supplementary roll.

If you are already on the State (House of Assembly) electoral roll (which means you vote in State elections) then you are automatically on the council voters roll for the address at which you enrolled.

If you have moved house or changed your name, you need to complete a new enrolment form, available at your local Post Office or at the Electoral Commission of South Australia office located at Level 6/60 Light Square, Adelaide or by calling them on 1300 655 232 to request a form be sent to you.

Others who are ratepayers may also be entitled to be enrolled on the council supplementary roll. For example, you can vote in a council election if you own a rateable property in the area, regardless of whether you live in it. Another important difference is that businesses and bodies corporate can vote in council elections. In order to do so you must register on your council’s supplementary roll.

You may be eligible to register on the council supplementary roll if:

  • You have been resident at your current address for one month and are not on the State electoral roll
  • You are a sole owner/occupier of rateable property
  • You are NOT an Australian citizen but you have been a resident at your current address for one month
  • You are a landlord for rateable property
  • You are an organisation/business owner or occupier of rateable property
  • You are a group of owners or occupiers of rateable property.