Effective governance and inter-organisational cooperation is key to progressing Australia’s journey toward the circular economy. At the local governance level, inter-municipal cooperative partnerships in waste management (‘IMC-WM’ partnerships) are a widespread phenomenon throughout Australia, and the world. This paper aims to analyse waste management in Australia through a governance perspective and inaugurate the scholarship on understanding the complex interactions between actors and institutions designed for regional cooperation. To this end, we explore the partnerships’ institutional characteristics, joint activity outputs and the internal relations observed between participants. Data were collected through a nationwide census survey of Australia’s IMC–WM partnerships and a short online questionnaire to the municipal policy actors (councillors, executives and council officers) who participate in them. The investigation observes that a diversity of innovative institutional responses has emerged in Australia. However, within these partnerships, a culture of competitiveness antithetical to sustainability is also detected. Despite competitive behaviours, the partnerships perform very well in cultivating goodwill, trust, reciprocity and other social capital values among their participants—as well as a strong appreciation of the complexity of municipal solid waste (MSW) policy and the virtues of regional cooperation. This dissonance in attitudes and engagement dynamics, it is suggested, can be explained by considering the cultural-cognitive influence of broader neoliberalist paradigms. As the first scholarly investigation into Australia’s experience with regional cooperation in waste management, this research reveals the macro-level structures and ascendent micro-institutional dynamics shaping the phenomenon.
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