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Where to start your government career: federal or state?

GradAustralia

If you want to launch your graduate career in the government sector, this article will help you decide if you should focus on federal or state government.

The government sector offers unique graduate job opportunities throughout Australia and though it may seem simple deciding that you want to launch your graduate career working in the government – the next question is – federal or state?

Australia’s government

But first thing’s first – what is ‘government’ and what does government do? Understanding what government and public service are is the first step on your way to deciding whether a career in the public sector is for you.

In Australia, we have what’s called a ‘federal’ system of government. This just means that the powers of the Australian government are split between a central government, known as the Commonwealth Federal Government, and the six state governments.

At the state and federal levels, our government is separated into three ‘arms’:

  1. The Legislature – they make the law
  2. The Executive – they enact the law
  3. The Judiciary – they interpret the law

You might have heard the Legislature referred to by its other name, Parliament. Parliament is made up of democratically-elected representatives who come from political parties – the people you vote for on election days – and is split into two parts, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The House of Representatives has 150 members who each represent a different part of the country, called electorates. Each electorate has roughly the same amount of voters, which means the bigger states have more representatives than the smaller states.

This is why the Senate was established. The Senate basically exists to stop the bigger states from using their higher representation in the House of Representatives to bully the smaller states. This is because unlike the House of Representatives, membership in the Senate is divided evenly between the states.

A new law can only become a reality if it gets voted on by a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate – no small feat when you consider how much politicians like to argue!

Most graduate jobs in government will be in the Executive arm. The Executive comprises all of the different government departments and agencies, most of which have graduate roles that you’ll be looking at.

There are currently 18 different departments in the federal government ranging from Education, Health and Employment to Finance and Foreign Affairs and Trade. There are also a large number of more specific agencies such as Australia Post and the ABC. The states also have their own departments and agencies.

All of these departments and agencies work to put the laws that are passed by Parliament into action by focusing on the administration of their particular area. The kind of work that is done can vary greatly between departments and ranges from in-depth research to hands-on project-based work.

The third arm of government, the Judiciary, is responsible for enforcing the law and deciding whether the other two arms of government are acting within their powers. The Judiciary is used to refer broadly to the courts, the judges, magistrates, adjudicators and other support personnel who ensure that the laws of Australia and of each state and territory are followed. What does it mean to work in the public service?

So we know what the government is, but what does it actually mean to work in the public service? Well, working for the government can mean many things! Despite what you may think, government employees are not all administrators. Not only do government departments look for graduates from all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of experience, but they also employ people in a range of professional roles including accountants, scientists, economists, engineers, lawyers, doctors, nurses and librarians.

The good news is that it doesn’t matter what you’ve studied, where you’re from, or who you know – there is a role for you in the public service. You can find out more about government roles here.

Despite the stiff competition, there are plenty of opportunities available, and there has never been a better or more exciting time to work in public service. As of June 2017, there were 1,956,800 people working in the public sector in Australia, which makes the government the largest employer in Australia (by a large margin!).

The government now

There has also been a big cultural change in the public service that has led to a more corporate style model of best practice being used. Just like in the private sector, cost-effectiveness and accountability are now big considerations for government departments. Because of this change, it is now more common than ever for public servants to move into corporate roles, and vice versa.

Choosing a career in the government is no longer the one-way ticket to Boringville that it appears to be in movies and on tv. This is one of many misconceptions about life as a public servant. Want to know the truth about what working for the government is really like? Then venture forth and read how we have debunked four of the biggest myths that have been spread for years about joining the public service.

Federal v state

Now you know what the government is and have navigated through the maze of myths to find the truth about what it’s like to work in the public service. The next big question you will need to ask is what the differences are between working for the federal government compared to working for one of the state governments (for the sake of simplicity when we say ‘state’ governments we mean the governments of the six states as well as the two mainland territories of Australia).

These differences range from the kinds of issues each government deals with, to the kinds of laws they have the power to make, to what kind of roles are available for graduates.

The things that are dealt with by the federal government are all written in the Australian constitution and include areas of national concern like finance, defence, foreign affairs and trade, immigration and social services. The things that the state governments deal with are basically just everything that is not otherwise handled by the federal government. Some of the major state responsibilities include schools, hospitals, roads, environment and emergency services.

As you can see, the federal government has different responsibilities to the state governments, however, they often overlap and interact with each other. For example, think about having to see a doctor at your local public hospital (though hopefully, you have never had to!). This process might appear simple – you rock up, wait for what seems like hours in the waiting room, and then see the doctor – but it actually involves a number of issues that are handled by different governments.

The federal government provides health funding to the state governments and also handles Medicare, while the state governments handle the management of the hospital itself (using the money it receives from the federal government), as well as ambulance services (if necessary). A visit to the hospital wouldn’t be possible without the federal and state government working together.

You might then be wondering what happens when the federal and state governments pass laws that conflict with each other. Well, rather than spending hours arguing about it (though this does seem to be a favourite past-time of politicians), the Australian constitution actually provides a handy rule that says whenever the federal and state governments disagree, the federal law will come out on top.

Making the right choice

But what does all this mean for you in your quest to find the ideal graduate job? Well, knowing the differences between the federal and state governments provides an important indication of the kind of work you will be doing if you decide to pursue a job in the public service.

Generally speaking, if you like the idea of working on the ‘big picture’ and shaping policy that affects the whole country, you may prefer to work for the federal government. For example, graduates in the Department of Finance contribute to the shaping of the national budget each year. The work done by the federal government will usually have a farther reach and affect more people than work done by the state governments. On the other hand, you might prefer to do project-based work that is more specific and that has an immediately recognisable impact. This kind of work is more in line with what is done by the state government where you will be more likely to tackle short-term projects.

Which government you want to work for may also depend on practical implications. The majority of jobs in the federal government are based in Canberra, as this is where most of the departmental offices are located. Depending on how much you enjoy visiting Questacon, this might be a positive or negative factor. You might relish the chance to move to the nation’s capital and work from our political epicentre (we’re also told that there has been a boom in trendy new cafes and restaurants opening up in Canberra over the past few years). However, if you love your home state or wouldn’t consider moving to Canberra, then seeking opportunities at the state government level will make more sense for you. For more information about moving to Canberra, check out our complete moving guide.

In terms of other practical implications such as pay and benefits, the federal and state governments operate on similar (though not identical) systems. The differences are too minor to really factor into your decision, however, you might want to consider that the cost of living in Canberra is cheaper than most major Australian cities.

Whether you’d prefer to work at the federal or state government level will depend on a variety of factors, as we’ve shown you. However, what will likely be the most important factor will be the kind of role you are actually looking for, so let’s take a closer look at what roles are available in the government and public service.