Strengthening the role of Australian Mayors

Strengthening the role of Australian Mayors
03 October 2012

ACELG has released new research on the changing role of mayors in Australia and how that role might be strengthened. Entitled `Australian Mayors: What Can and Should They Do?`, the paper was written by ACELG Director, Professor Graham Sansom as part of broader research on governance improvement undertaken by the UTS-Centre for Local Government for ACELG.

The discussion paper seeks to fill one of several significant gaps in research and discussion around political governance in Australian local government. It reviews relevant literature and recent developments in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, and concludes that if local government is to perform effectively and meet growing community expectations, the capacity of its political arm needs to be enhanced. In this regard, the paper suggests the office of mayor seems a good place to start. The final section of the paper sets out a suggested framework of mayoral functions and associated legislative provisions to support an enhanced role.

The research involved wide-ranging interviews and consultations with mayors, chief executives, government officials and stakeholder representatives in all three countries. Additional project support was provided by the Commonwealth Secretariat (UK) and the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

The research complements the recent ACELG paper Political Management in Australian Local Government: Exploring Roles and Relationships between Mayors and CEOs written by Chris Aulich and John Martin, as well as new research being led by UTS-CLG that covers different dimensions of political governance.

For further information contact: Sarah Artist, Assistant Director of the UTS-Centre for Local Government, 02 9514 4896 or [email protected].

Download the paper.

Further detail [Executive Summary]


Recent decades have seen significant developments in the role of mayors across the world. These developments have mirrored the widening international discourse on local governance and civic leadership, and are part of broader changes sweeping through local government. Australian local governments have been subject to wide-ranging reforms that have addressed structure and efficiency, strategic planning, asset and financial management, community engagement and accountability, and corporate governance. However, little attention has been given to how the intended direction of such reforms interacts with frameworks for political and community governance. This contrasts markedly with the consistent focus on trends in local politics evident in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe. In those countries particular attention has been given to the importance of mayors as civic leaders, and there has been extensive debate about, amongst other things, how the role of mayors should be structured and evolve, as well as the relative merits of different models of governance.

This paper seeks to fill that gap – at least in part. It builds on recent practice and debate in Australia, New Zealand and England to explore a possible Australian model for what might be described as a ‘semi-executive’ mayor: one with more responsibilities and greater authority than is generally the case at present, but who remains subject to a ‘separation of powers’ between the political realm of policy and strategy on the one hand, and the management realm of administration and program implementation on the other


What emerges strongly from both the literature and international discourse is a perceived need for what has been described as local ‘facilitative leadership’ or ‘place-based leadership’ grounded in local government and, in particular, the office of mayor. It is argued that more effective civic leaders are required in order to, among other things:

  • Engage the community and other local stakeholders in formulating a strategic vision and supporting plans
  • Secure political support within the body politic for the adoption and concerted, consistent implementation of strategic plans and associated budgets
  • Maintain ongoing partnerships with others involved in implementation, especially sound inter-government relations in which the local voice is heard and respected.

In Australia, specification of the responsibilities and authority of mayors varies greatly both within and between the states and Northern Territory, but apart from Queensland, attitudes to the role of mayors could fairly be described as ambivalent. There is an apparent reluctance to institutionalise strong local leadership through the office of mayor, and only in Tasmania, Western Australia and the City of Adelaide are mayors specifically tasked with that responsibility. However, recent legislation to further enhance the role and authority of Queensland mayors, and to introduce a directly (popularly) elected mayor for the City of Geelong in Victoria, appear to reflect a growing belief that more effective civic leadership is needed, and can be seen as emblematic of a broader shift in that direction.

Such developments echo moves in New Zealand and the UK, where popularly elected mayors with significantly increased responsibilities have been introduced in Auckland and a number of English cities. The New Zealand government has announced plans to extend the Auckland model to all mayors across the country, giving them the authority to appoint deputy mayors, to establish committees and to approve committee chairpersons, and to exercise leadership over the development of plans, policies and budgets.

Future considerations

The final section of this paper outlines a legislative framework that might be applied in Australia to enable mayors to exercise facilitative, place-based leadership. It suggests a set of principal mayoral functions and prerogatives, and legislative provisions that would give effect to them. Where possible, those provisions draw on an existing Australian local government Act.

The indicative framework reflects a conclusion that the functions of mayors – who are already generally acknowledged as the principal member of their councils – should be updated and re-codified to match other changes that have occurred in Australian local government. Except in Queensland, the structures and norms of political governance have largely failed to keep pace with the expanded functions of local government, and especially the growing expectation that councils will act more strategically to reflect and represent the needs and aspirations of their communities, and to ensure sound management of community assets. These goals cannot be achieved unless the political arm of local government has the capacity to discharge its responsibilities effectively alongside those of management. To build that capacity, the office of mayor seems a good place to start.

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