Victorian Coastal Management in 2017

Connecting Coastal Champions

I travelled to St Kilda last Wednesday evening and enjoyed the delights of The Esplanade. I can see why it attracts so many on a warm spring evening with temperatures in the low 30s, the water was a fair bit cooler. Cars descended onto the surrounding streets as the multitudes gathered to parade and enjoy themselves as the sun set over the waters of Port Phillip Bay. I met with Sue Mudford and other Australian Coastal Society types in a very crowded restaurant. It was delightful experience.

Next day I presented a keynote at a forum organised by the Central Coast Board on “Connecting Coastal Champions” at the kind invitation of Ross Kilborn and Jacquie White. My topic was “Translating science into coastal policy”. I followed a talk by Will Guthrie from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, quite a mouthful so referred to as DELWP. He outlined the Government’s initiatives in coast and marine management but essentially offered no new information. This gave me an opportunity to comment on these initiatives after I had dedicated the talk to Peter Cullen and briefly commented on the work of the Wentworth Group in reviewing estuary aspects of the Murray Darling Basin Plan and NSW coastal reforms. In mentioning Cullen I alluded to his great 2006 speech on “Speaking Truth to Power” (available on the Wentworth Group website), and his work on coastal management in Port Phillip Bay in the 70s. Specifically, he published a paper in the Coastal Zone Management Journal in 1977 (v.3) noting the complexity of issues, overlapping role of various agencies with different agendas, and inadequate process for technical evaluation.

This led to ask the question “have things changed”?

Not quite ten years ago I was asked to advise the Standing Committee on Environment of the House of Representatives chaired by Jenny George on a review of climate change and the Australian coast. It reported to Parliament in 2009, the so-called George report. This report reviewed the governance arrangements of coastal management in different states and concluded that the then model used in Victoria was the most effective. This model involved a State Coastal Council with an independent Chair, three regional coastal boards (RCBs) all working with a coastal team in the Department. At that time I was impressed with the apparent independence of the RCBs working with communities to deliver coastal actions. Staff in the agency were in a position to take recommendations from the Council to the Government for decisions. From the outside it all looked quite integrated and a model worth considering in other states.

Sadly it seems that this structure did not meet the interests of successive governments. As far as I can determine there has been a downsizing of technical expertise in the responsible agency with outsourcing of many projects. Funds have dried up at the RCB level. The current Victorian Government commenced a consultation process on a new coast and marine bill. At the forum I expressed concerns about the outsourcing, reducing in-house expertise in DELWP, and how the current bill plans to “reduce the complexity of advisory bodies by phasing out the Regional Coastal Boards”. The emphasis appears to be on strengthening coastal CMAs and ensuring regional catchment strategies better reflect integrated catchment, coastal and marine issues. This all sounds very nice. However, I suspect these are initiatives designed to disappoint. CMAs are traditionally rural focused and it will take extraordinary political will to ensure coastal environmental health issues are given priority when required. I used the emerging Gippsland Lakes problem as an example where different agencies have potentially conflicting interests. You need a strong RCB properly resourced (both financially and technically), backed by community interests, and prepared to fight for coastal values all the way to the courts if necessary. But I guess I’m dreaming!

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2017, posted 27 November 2017, for correspondence about this blog post please email