Governing Australia: three levels of law-making

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Australia has three levels of law-making—sometimes referred to as three levels of government—that work together to provide Australians with the services they need.

Three levels of law-making in Australia

Three levels of law-making in Australia

The three levels are:

  • federal Parliament—legislates, or makes laws, for the whole of Australia
  • six state and two mainland territory parliaments—make laws for their state or territory
  • over 560 local councils—make local laws, called by-laws, for their region or district.

Each level of government has its own responsibilities, although in some cases these responsibilities overlap.

Australians aged 18 years and over vote to elect representatives to federal, state/territory parliaments and to local councils to make decisions on their behalf. This means Australians have someone to represent them at each level of government.


In Australia the term 'parliament' refers to an assembly of elected representatives, which has one or two houses, and which makes laws for the country or state/territory. Most parliaments have a head of state—the Queen, who is represented by the Governor-General or state governor.


The three level system of Australian Government was an outcome of federation in 1901, when the six British colonies–New South Wales, Western Australia, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania–united to form the Commonwealth of Australia. Up until the 1850s each colony was run by a non-elected governor appointed by the British Parliament.

By 1860 all the colonies, apart from Western Australia, had been granted partial self-government by Britain (Western Australia became self-governing in 1890). Each had its own written constitution, parliament and laws, although the British Parliament retained the power to make laws for the colonies and could over-rule laws passed by the colonial parliaments. By the end of the 19th century, many colonists felt a national government was needed to deal with issues such as defence, immigration and trade.

For federation to happen, it was necessary to find a way to unite the colonies as a nation with a central or national government, while allowing the colonial parliaments to maintain their authority. The Australian Constitution, which sets out the legal framework by which Australia is governed, resolved this issue by giving Australia a federal system of government. This means power is shared between the federal government and state governments.

Under the Constitution the states kept their own parliaments and most of their existing powers but the federal Parliament was given responsibility for areas that affected the whole nation. State parliaments in turn gave councils the task of looking after the particular needs of their local communities.

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