Advocacy 101: The division of powers: where to start?

23 March 2022

Knowing where to turn to and identifying what policy portfolio or what level of government you need to approach when beginning your advocacy journey can be a difficult first challenge.

Having worked in the Legislative Assembly, it wasn’t unusual for members of the public to contact the wrong representative at the wrong level of government or the wrong portfolio with a question that couldn’t be answered. This would be frustrating for the constituent as they would experience delays in receiving an eventual response.

This confusion can also be capitalised on by elected representatives such as during the pandemic when blame for quarantine failures, immigration exemptions, and vaccine rollouts was apportioned from state governments to the federal governments and vice versa. No wonder why the regular voter is confused.

The three levels of government in Australia are distinct from other government systems we may be familiar with in New Zealand and Great Britain for example. While each level of government has their own portfolio responsibilities, in some cases this power is concurrently shared between levels of government through distinct policy or regulatory silos. This division of power compartmentalises the immense functions of government. Federal powers are defined in the Constitution, with remaining functions of government being assigned to the states and territories through the Constitution’s silence. These ‘residual powers’ include portfolios such as schools, police, utilities and hospitals which are not mentioned in the Constitution.

It can be hard to keep pace with the landscape and constant flow of information or hastily developed social media campaigns. To help with overcoming this, we are sharing some content from the Parliamentary Education Office.

Division of power: Federal Government

Image demonstrating that the Federal Government is responsible for trade and commerce, postal and telecommuncaitions services, foreign policy, taxation, census and statistics, weights and measures, bankruptcy and insolvency, quarantine, lighthouse, lightships, beacons and buoys, fisheries, currency, copyright, marriage, immigration and defence.

Division of power: state and territory governments*

Image demonstrating that state and territory governments are responsible for schools, hospitals, roads and railways, public transport, electricity, water supply, gas supply, mining, agriculture, forests, community services, consumer affairs, policy, prisons and ambulance services.

*Don’t forget that in the ACT, the Legislative Assembly combines the powers of both state and local governments, so typical local government functions such as roads, rates, rubbish, planning and pet control are also within the remit of the ACT Government.

Concurrent powers

Concurrent powers are those which are shared between federal and state/territory parliaments. These powers, while capturing the same portfolio, are distinct from each other. For example:


  • Federal Parliament: university sector
  • state and territory parliaments: schools, teachers, vocational education


  • Federal Parliament: responsible for obligations under international treaties
  • state and territory parliaments: protection of the natural environment, approvals for new developments, waste management


  • Federal Parliament: payments to doctors, hospital benefits and pharmaceuticals
  • state and territory parliaments: hospitals

Marriage and divorce

  • Federal Parliament: decides who can get married
  • state and territory parliaments: decide how marriages are registered


  • Federal Parliament: taxes on income and company profits
  • state and territory parliaments: stamp duty, payroll tax and other smaller taxes.

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