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The Australian Coastal Zone and Global Change: Research Needs

Australian Academy of Science, Becker House, Canberra. Friday 16 December 1994

A national approach to coastal management

Mr Gerry Morvell

Thank you very much. Before Colin Woodroffe and I sat down and planned this session we had hoped our timing would be absolutely perfect and that the Federal Cabinet would have made some decisions by now on a Commonwealth coastal policy and the series of actions that we have been negotiating with the state governments and local government. Unfortunately, Murphy's Law intervened and we are not in that position. So at the moment there is a submission before Cabinet. It does constrain me somewhat in the detail. I think probably there are a few people here that may have actually heard some of the points I am going to make, but I think I am in a position to give you some leads on where Australia is going in general in policy terms and, in particular, just how that policy direction relates to the input of the scientific community.

If I can just go back to what the problems are in the coastal zone. I guess Bruce articulated it very well in terms of using New South Wales as an example. One of the most difficult problems facing the policy makers at the moment is this problem of defining the coast. As Bruce has just pointed out, in New South Wales the planners have drawn a line - I do not know where it is - two or so kilometres inland from the coast which, in terms of scientific understanding of the coastline is absolute sheer and utter nonsense. However, for planning purposes in some areas it may be a very useful tool to control development in those areas. The particular problem highlighted by the dynamic nature of the coast and the problem with coastal wetlands, the estuaries and the like, was reflected in the diagram that Bruce put up.

In terms of the Commonwealth Government, the Commonwealth does not have the statutory planning power and therefore does not have to define the coast and has no intention, at this stage, of defining the coast. The Commonwealth is looking at defining its actions in terms of what it needs to do to sort out some of the problems in coastal areas. If that starts at the top of a catchment that may be thousands of kilometres from the coast, then that is where the resources will be applied and that is where the decisions will be made from a Commonwealth perspective. In reality, of course, there are already a lot of natural-resource management programs that do relate to catchment management, and if they are effective then there is no need to do anything new. I think it is important to understand that the Commonwealth has not got caught up in this problem of trying to define the coast.

The second most important issue is the fact that the Commonwealth does not really have a constitutional power to deal with most of the problems that occur on the coast. That is clearly a state and local government responsibility. That, of course, varies from state to state depending on the mix, or the sharing, of powers between those two governments. In terms of the planning, which affects the issues of urban sprawl and the like, clearly that is a state function and a local government function.

When we get offshore in coastal waters it is a little bit murkier. As we all know, coastal waters are fairly murky and, in political terms, it is very murky. Whilst there is a constitutional settlement that says that everything out to three nautical miles is under the control of the states, that is only a power that has been bequeathed to the states by the Commonwealth in the form of legislation. The Commonwealth Parliament is more than entitled to withdraw or repeal that legislation because the Constitution says that the Commonwealth has a responsibility from the low water mark out. At this stage, there are no signs in any level of government that that will change in the foreseeable future.

What I wanted to inject into your thinking is the issue of how the scientists deal with the problems or contribute to resolving the problems that coastal managers and politicians have. They are the sorts of problems that are facing the coastal zone. We would be aware of the problems which we in this room contribute to in the same way as everyone else in the community. Without going through those problems, there is one that Bruce highlighted and one I think that is very critical. That is, that the coastal zone probably is about the most dynamic area on the earth, apart from perhaps the edges of tectonic plates where there is new land forming. It would be difficult to identify a more dynamic area. Yet all of our planning decisions, all of our land use, all the things we all like to do on the coast are all based on the snapshot view of the coast: what is there, what we would like to do. We go ahead and do it and we forget that in ten years time the beach might be actually gone or might even be filling up and, by the time the next generation arrives, the beach is actually a hundred metres from where you built your house on the beach.

So there are some significant problems facing the policy makers. I think this is where the LOICZ program can contribute effectively to finding solutions to some of these problems.

Bruce mentioned the Resource Assessment Commission inquiry. I do not intend going through the 69 recommendations of that inquiry which are published in a nice brick-sized volume that ensures that most people have never read it. Trying to pick out the key features of that report, we have identified that clearly there is a need for a National Coastal Action Plan. Although there are leads to the nature of the plan it in the RAC report, there are also a lot of gaps that have to be sorted out. However, there are recommendations for an agreed set of national objectives and principles to control our use of the coastal zone.

Now, you do not get anything done in this world unless someone is prepared to pay for it. Those in Australia will recall when RAC issued their draft report about halfway through the inquiry, the economists had somewhere along the way brought up the suggestion of user pays. The media in Australia picked that up and it was on the front page of every paper for weeks on end saying Australians will be charged to go to the beach and there will be turnstiles on every beach. That was sheer nonsense; the commission never said that. It just reflected the problems of having economists run an inquiry that really had to focus on a natural resource system. However, there still is a need to spend some dollars. You cannot do things without spending some dollars. RAC came up with a series of recommendations which, when costed out, came to about $70 million over three years.

In terms of the Commonwealth, RAC suggested that the Commonwealth legislate to establish an Act to provide for financial assistance to the states and local government. In many ways, I think that was modelled on the US program, where there is a federal program through which funds are provided to the states under certain conditions.

Finally the RAC recommended the establishment of a National Coastal Management Agency. I guess that is one of the few things that I can quite clearly tell you is not going to go ahead. Our Minister, Senator Faulkner, has already indicated in the Senate that the Government will not be proceeding with that. There are two reasons for not proceeding: one is that it was intended to be a national agency, in other words, a joint agency with the states, but no state wished to participate in such an agency so it was failed from the start. Secondly, RAC never really set out a sound argument of why you set up another bureaucracy to run coastal management when we still have not sorted out the problem of the 1700 bureaucracies already making decisions in the coastal zone.

The theme that came through RAC and has certainly come through all the other discussions and negotiations that are going on, is the need for an integrated approach to coastal management. Internationally and nationally 'integrated coastal management' is the buzz word. There are many definitions of it. I think the definitions we have got up there (refer Overhead 1) will suffice for the purpose of getting a policy perspective into this.

Overhead 1


Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) is a process consisting of a legal and institutional framework to ensure that:

Development and management of coastal zones are integrated with environmental and social goals and:

decisions are made with participation of those affected




key issues



Most importantly, in my view, are the building blocks of integrated coastal zone management. The actual definition of integrated management does not really mean anything; it is just a set of words that everyone feels comfortable with. But what does it really mean on the ground? I think this is where the building blocks come in. What we are talking about is really a systems approach to the coast: the development of partnerships between the organisations that are decision makers in the coastal zone. You will notice earlier I said there were something like 1700 decision-making bodies in the coastal zone. That was a figure that came out of some background work by RAC, but no-one has said those 1700 organisations are illegitimate or do not have a legitimate role to play. What they are saying is that they are just not talking to each other and not coordinating their activities. So the development of partnerships between government and between agencies is seen as a key way of moving ahead.

There is a need to focus on the key issues (refer Overhead 2). All of us can identify dozens of things that need to be done in the coastal zone, and when you move out of this room I can guarantee I could sit down with a group from the Institution of Engineers and come up with a completely different hundred things that need to be done. I could go up to Townsville and sit down with the Marine Park Authority or AIMS and come up with a whole new set of things that need to be done, or the coastal managers in the states who will want a different set. You cannot do everything at once. Someone needs to work out what are the important things, what are the key things, that will change coastal management.



Fourthly, there is a need to involve the stakeholders. I guess that is reflected in the process that Bruce mentioned, with the New South Wales coastal policy. Three other states - Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania - are going through the same process of a public consultation on their proposed new coastal policies. But it needs to go beyond that; it needs to go beyond just asking people what they think should happen. It needs to involve them in the actual planning decisions at the local level and, more importantly, it needs to involve all of the groups in the community in the actual management of our coastal areas. There are ways of achieving that and the Landcare programs that have focused on rural Australia give a good lead to the way in which the communities can be effectively involved in addressing resource management problems.

Finally, the perennial problem for governments of balance: where does the balance lie between development interests and conservation interests, as two ends of the spectrum? Clearly there is a political judgment to be made and, depending on what colour of government we have in the states or Commonwealth, you get different political judgments about where that balance lies. Certainly, it does lie somewhere around the 50 per cent mark. People want to live in the coastal zone; our industries need to operate in the coastal zone. We cannot turn it all into wilderness areas and national parks. At the same time, we do need to have those areas set aside for conservation purposes and for recreation purposes, and just for the spiritual well-being of all of us. So, somewhere along the way, we need to find that balance.

Over the past year the Commonwealth has been negotiating with state and local governments in an Inter-Governmental Coastal Working Group. The work of that group has now ceased and the work has been incorporated into the submission that is currently before Cabinet. The work of that group will also be incorporated into submissions of state cabinets. But the states at the moment are waiting for a lead from the Commonwealth to see which way it goes. There is nothing particularly secret in what is up here. It has been discussed openly in the states and it is drawn heavily on a lead from the Resource Assessment Commission about where we need to go in Australia in managing our coast.

Probably the most important, I guess from a policy perspective on the part of the Commonwealth, is that we have no policy framework at all for Commonwealth decisions in the coastal zone. Despite the fact that some states like to believe that the Commonwealth has no legitimate role in coastal management, a quick look at Commonwealth responsibilities, Commonwealth legislation and Commonwealth expenditure programs suggests that the Commonwealth has a very important role in coastal management - a role that is often overlooked by the states and which usually results in problems with project developments.

Turning to the action plan I would just like to highlight the item called 'capacity building', which unfortunately some people do not seem to understand (refer Overhead 3). The capacity building is intended to be those things that enhance our ability, or enhance the ability of our planners and managers, to do their job better. Bruce touched on a couple of these and certainly there is strong support from the states, from local government, to have a program for professional development of our planners and managers. They have all come out of universities at some stage and have a snapshot view of the world and the way things should be done. But that is where they are left. They are never brought up to date with outcomes of research, or the new policy directions governments wish to take.

Overhead 3


Commonwealth Responsibilities National Responsibility


There is a need to sort out the research issue although just what the problem is has been very difficult to grasp. Some people say there is not enough dollars for research; others say there are plenty of dollars for research but there is no communication of research outcomes to the planners and managers. Certainly there is a need for monitoring and better collection, storage and accessibility of data. Clearly there needs to be some support for research to improve the planning process which, after all, is the starting point for all decisions in Australia on coastal management.

Finally just to stimulate some thinking and discussion today, and clearly today is not going to be the final discussion on this subject, what could an Australian LOICZ program look like? The first option is always do nothing (Overhead 4).

Overhead 4


Some of you are close enough to the political system to know that governments do not do anything unless there is a demonstrated need to do it; someone has got to identify a reason for doing something. So the starting point is always: do you have to do anything?

I guess the other end of that extreme is to seek a whole lot of money for a whole lot of new research. I guess to some extent that was the process we went down the path with the IGBP program two years ago, with all of the other core programs but it did not get accepted by Federal Cabinet as a priority. Somewhere in between is actually to have a program to look at some niche research. I guess most of the people in this audience are researchers in the field and you are getting money from somewhere; so we are not exactly working in a drought when it comes to money for coastal research. Maybe it needs to be improved; maybe there are some gaps that need to be identified, and we fund those.

The fourth issue on the earlier overhead was to look at improving the research infrastructure: this problem of communication, the problem of coordination, the lack of an integrated approach, the problems of dealing with the interdisciplinary approach to research. That does not mean we get rid of the discipline approach to research, but we have to make better connections between them. I think the climate change program is a good example of how that is being done. The IPCC work in assessing climate change is another example where there has been a lot of interaction between disciplines that have actually influenced policy direction throughout the world.

The last item up there is building links with coastal managers and other professional groups. I know that the Institution of Engineers have looked at this issue of research but they have looked at it from their perspective - which would be a very different perspective from the one you would bring to it. Somewhere along the way these different perspectives need to be brought together, and maybe the LOICZ program could go a long way down that path to doing that in Australia. I noted the other day, when the Australian presentations were made, that virtually all of the core programs said, 'We're already doing a lot of research that's relevant to IGBP'. Therefore there is not the need to actually establish new programs although they may need new money. I think that is probably true with the coastal-zone research community. There is a lot going on that is relevant to the LOICZ program.

I notice Bob Burne with his AGSO display out here has already captured that philosophy: in his heading he said that the work that is going on fits neatly with, I think, Focus Two of the IGBP program. So maybe that is an area in which people could think about moving with the LOICZ program. Maybe it is a series of workshops that brings together people on a more regular basis, to look at where you are going and to build up a program that has more influence on the policy directions in coastal management. Thank you very much.

Professor Graham Farquhar: Thanks very much, Gerry. I liked the comment there about the role that the IPCC has. We had an interesting exchange about this on Monday. In my view, the IPCC has a very important role in terms of bringing an overview of scientific research to government in a way that scientists understand, because it goes through peer review; everybody gets a go; everybody gets a guernsey. I think it is actually quite a good model, personally, that we should use for other areas of IGBP research. We need to have, not an IPCC because climate change is obviously only one part of global change, but we need to have some equivalent of the IPCC process, I believe, for a number of other things like biodiversity, like desertification and so on. Well, one nice thing, I guess, is that the climate change does affect coastal zones, and so coastal zones can get a guernsey already in this process. The difficulty with extending it, of course, is finance. The IPCC process itself is not a cheap one, but nor would you expect it to be if it is going to be thorough.

Anyway, having said that, I am a great supporter of the process and a lead author myself on another area. I would like to call Professor Roger McLean, who is from the Department of Geography and Oceanography here in Canberra, from ADFA - the Australian Defence Force Academy - and he is going to speak about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Coastal Zones and Small Islands: An Update.