Need for federal intervention in Australian coastal management
My interest in a direct and sustained role for the Australian Government knows no bounds! The appetite for such an interest was whetted in 1975 during the inquiry into sand mining on Fraser Island. I witnessed the clash between the Commonwealth Government and environmental group interest on the one hand and the Queensland Government (with the local shire) and the miners on the other. This inquiry highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of federal intervention. In subsequent years the opportunity to be a participant in various inquiries and serve on national committees reinforced my desire for clearly defined intergovernmental arrangements that would achieve consistent and sustained public good outcomes that Australians would expect from our three levels of government. We are a nation of coastal people that values living by the sea and this should be reflected in governance of coastal assets.
There are many lessons from being involved with the Australian Government on coastal matters. I have detailed some of these in a paper published last year in Ocean & Coastal Management ( 2022, 223, 106098). Nick Harvey and I continue to explore the shortcomings of the Australian federal system in CZM compared to other federated countries. Besides constitutional limitations there are also constraints placed on the bureaucracy as to how to maintain funded programs that periodically arise then lapse. Despite all the public passion in submissions to the many federal inquiries going back to 1979, our federal involvement is both patchy and erratic. We can learn from other nations as to how federal intervention can be turned into long-term effective partnerships to meet the challenges of the future. There are some signs that the tide has turned.
This is not the place to document various coastal activities of past Commonwealth governments. Some are ongoing such as those associated with the management of the Great Barrier Reef. There are those linked to international conventions ( e.g. Ramsar wetlands) that may involve devolved responsibilities to the states; and also there are those tied to post-disaster recovery and the odd election promise obtained by a successful federal candidate. But all these have been undertaken in the absence of a consistent policy framework like those articulated in recommendations of diverse parliamentary and other inquiries as well as the work of past government funded research groups (e.g. Coastal CRC and NCCARF).
Why do we need more direct and sustained federal engagement in coastal management? A clear argument can be made on the importance of the coast to the economy and the well-being of its citizens 80% or so who live in coastal cities, towns, villages and dispersed locations. It is not just its precious coastal environments that matter, but livelihoods and lifestyles that depend on a healthy coast. Yes the coast is a “contested space” and it becomes more so as population continues to rise around our waterways and climate change forces continue to bite. We cannot escape the travails of sea-level rise (SLR) which will at some stage not too far away have national consequences on public and private assets and values including the functioning of ports and airports ( e.g. a barrage across the entrance of Botany Bay?). Then there are the implications of the fiscal imbalance between three levels of government: the feds have the money, the states have the power, and local governments the responsibility (c.40% of public infrastructure in coastal areas is held at a local level). Yet the federal government does possess constitutional powers and with political will it could work more collaboratively and supportive of state and local governments. This includes migration intake, national defence, information collection, research priorities, and insurance and banking. And it can make laws that require in certain circumstances consistent outcomes from the states.
The Commonwealth Government should be taking an intergenerational perspective towards coastal management. Here I argue for a degree of leadership that would drive longer-term consistency in planning in and around coastal spaces that are highly likely to be exposed to SLR in the near to far future. Along with other colleagues I would argue that medium to long-term guidance from the federal system would be helpful. It is important to think ahead knowing that there will need to be a process of continually adjusting our planning decisions within a nationally agreed adaptation pathways framework. We need to define who and what is going to be harmed by SLR and understand regional differences in the nature of exposure that will require some form of adaptation. This is no easy task and although we have some ideas of range of vulnerability to climate change in coastal areas following the 2009 First Pass Risk Assessment of the former Dept. of Climate Change, we have no accepted approach to planning for change. Here is where the new National Climate Risk Assessment process and the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) offer scope for taking an intergenerational perspective.
Actions to prepare for and prevent present-day disaster risk provisions are fine (so-called “disaster ready funding”) but impacts of SLR and more energetic extreme events cannot be ignored. Consistent adaptation guidelines and tipping points should be framed in such a way that state and local governments can apply them with the understanding that they are working within an approved pathways framework that reduces risk and local conflict. The guidelines must also apply in a consistent way to all federal agencies that operate in coastal spaces.
This opens up other avenues for improved and/or new ways the Commonwealth Government can act to mitigate adverse coastal impacts. The national EPBC Act is currently under review. Environmental groups are aware of a range of issues including one that greatly concerns me, namely cumulative impacts (CIs) (see blog 248, October 2023). Specifically I foresee continued harm to Ramsar wetlands through actions of governments and the private sector that impact adversely on water quantity and quality of these migratory bird habitats. The revised legislation must provide for assessment of CIs for all Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES) including World Heritage sites.
Where the Commonwealth can have its greatest impact on property developments is through its constitutional powers over insurance and banking. This is a subject I will explore further in a subsequent blog. For the moment I note that two arms of federal activity may be pushing in contrary directions. On the one hand we have the interest in disaster risk reduction and adaptation (both to reduce post-disaster payouts). On the other there are efforts to reduce rising insurance premiums in hazardous areas thereby facilitating continued occupance and development in high-risk areas that will be subject to repeated and even worse disasters. It is important to address such a contradiction.
I have longed dreamed and argued for a National Coastal Zone Management Act along the lines of that in the 1972 USA law. Such legislation is based on key principles of partnership and consistency in addressing coastal problems. Here national guidelines would be reinforced by incentives from the Commonwealth for states and local councils to operate in ways that both protect valued coastal environmental assets while meeting the objectives of a growing economy and social well-being. The pressures on the coast are intergenerational and so require leadership that embraces such challenges. A national coastal law would give structure and permanency to governance required to meet those challenges.
Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2023. For correspondence about this blog post please email firstname.lastname@example.org