Australian Government’s roles, responsibilities, and powers with respect to environmental management in general, and coast in particular, has been the subject of interminable debate. Judith Wright touched on this in her magnificent book Coral Battleground on the Great Barrier Reef in 1977. It had been the subject of detailed legal analysis in 1974 in the National Estate—Report of the Committee of Inquiry on which she served. Later federal inquiries including that of a House of Representatives Committee in 2009 (the “George Report”) also explored options for greater federal involvement in coastal management. It is a recurring theme which has long attracted my attention (see selection of presentations on my members page of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists).
Earlier this year the Australian Government opened a consultation process for a new National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy. They noted how climate adaptation is a “shared responsibility” seeking to “provide a clear and practical pathway for resilient Australia”. This would include amongst other things the strengthening of national coordination to manage physical climate change impacts such as floods and sea level rise. The consultation paper noted that we all have a role to play in adapting to our changing climate as recognised and agreed by the then Select Council on Climate Change in 2012. It was made clear that basically the role of the Australian Government is restricted to:
- Provide national science and information
- Manage Commonwealth assets and programs, e.g. Kakadu and Commonwealth areas
- Provide leadership on national adaptation reform
- Maintain a strong, flexible economy and a well-targeted safety net.
This “agreed” role from 2012 forms the basis for consideration of what we can expect from this level of government despite all the arguments over the decades of what else to expect in a sustained way from our federal government. Of course, we know that from time to time the Commonwealth has initiated funded coastal “programs” and even policies which have been very beneficial. However, they are not sustained (e.g. Coastcare, MCCN, CRC for Coast; NCCARF). Furthermore recommendations from parliamentary and other federal inquiries are rarely supported by the Australian Government. There are reasons for this which I have discussed elsewhere and elaborated upon at the recent Coast to Coast Conference in Cairns (July 2021). But what has recently emerged are a number of opportunities for the federal system to possibly become more supportive in a permanent way.
Where there is scope for some form of policy intervention impacting on coastal management is through powers invested in the Commonwealth through s 51 (xiii) and (xiv) of the Constitution. These powers relate to banking and insurance. Previous legal discussions on federal powers have ignored these provisions. Several recent inquires and reports provide scope for a more direct role that links back to the fourth dot point noted above on the economy and the need for a “well-targeted safety net”.
In May 2017, the Australian Government directed the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry into the supply of residential home buildings, content, and strata insurance in northern Australia. The report was released in December 2020. It addressed concerns over insurance availability and affordability and examined the role of competitiveness in insurance markets. Specifically it looked into barriers to entry, expansion and/or exit in the supply of insurance in northern Australia, impediments to consumer choice, and the extent to which profits of insurers are, or expected to be, commensurate with risk. It found that high premiums in cyclone affected areas were leading to a rise in uninsured homes and that consumers need more choice and more control. Premiums were shown to be significantly more expensive in northern Australia and there was almost double the amount of underinsurance and non-insurance compared to the rest of Australia. This report was reinforced by the finding of the Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements which noted how such households have reduced financial capacity to recover from a natural disaster leading to more pressure on governments for assistance in recovery.
It did not take long for Treasury to respond to the ACCC report. Traditionally this agency has not been supportive of actions to help underpin insurance for homeowners or occupiers damaged by natural disasters. But in May this year, it released a report requesting feedback on 23 questions to the paper titled “Reinsurance pool for cyclones and related flood damage”. The pool would be backed by an annually reinstated Government guarantee of $10 billion. Submissions closed a month later. I was alerted to this report in July and received permission to put in a late submission to the “Cyclone Reinsurance Pool Taskforce”. What is being proposed is a reinsurance pool covering risk to property damage that would assist in lowering premiums for householders and small businesses by decreasing the cost to insurers of reinsurance while also encouraging more to get insured. However, I raised concerns over definitions of “cyclone-related”, where exactly is “northern Australia”, and need to understand adverse impacts of providing insurance that would have “maladaptive” consequences. The fact that few if any insurers cover storm surge or direct impact of the sea on properties was not discussed in the Treasury paper.
More recently (16/9/21) the Reserve Bank released a paper by Kellie Bellrose et al. on “Climate change risks to Australian banks”. This builds on other work by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) on estimates of the impact of climate change on banks. This paper offers insights not just to impact on value of assets but also to issues of uncertainty about the magnitude of risks. It uses one approach to provide preliminary estimates of the possible scale of risks climate change poses to bank’s housing and business exposures. Part of the paper discusses physical risks of extreme events as well as those “exposed to the more persistent but gradually emerging effects of rising temperature, rainfall and sea level”; what they term “chronic physical risks”. They highlight how the price of properties could decline sharply particularly if properties are uninsured or underinsured (those exposed to impacts of the sea?). Coastal inundation is one of the 5 hazards for which risks are assessed using a method that provides forecasts aggregated by suburb. Of significance is a conclusion that “Within the major capital cities, where the majority of properties are located, the highest risk regions are mostly located on the coastline”; highlighted is SE Queensland (Fig.3). They go on to say, “The risks in these regions could further increase if the affected communities find that access to, or affordability of, insurance becomes a challenge”. Well it certainly will be if the reinsurance pool region as envisaged in the Treasury paper is only confined to “northern Australia” and excludes cyclone effects in southern Queensland and northern NSW.
These three reports from ACCC, Treasury and Reserve Bank, represent a shift in thinking from federal agencies towards possible ways the Australian Government can become more involved in the transition to a more challenging world driven by climate change. It is early days to see how far intervention may go and if so, what will be the consequences for coastal living and livelihoods. The private sector is busy thinking about how investment in such hazard prone areas will take place as shown in the warnings coming from the superannuation industry (SMH, 2-3/10/21). It will require an improved understanding of market-led adaptation and financial risks and the extent to which regulation of some sort will be required to prevent harm to people, property, and environmental conditions.
Note: on 7 October, the Biden Administration in the USA released climate adaptation and resilience plans from across 23 federal agencies. I found reference to coastal adaptation under NOAA in the Dept. of Interior plan on page 11. These are worth a read as an example of how a government can produce plans in relatively short time across the spectrum of its roles and responsibilities. Can we do it in Australia?
Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2021. For correspondence about this blog post please email firstname.lastname@example.org