Minister Stokes’ coastal announcements ‘an historic breakthrough’?

The analogy of ‘an historic breakthrough’ was lost on some, but to those who had attended the estuary management workshop or the 23rd NSW Coastal Conference at Ulladulla on the state’s south coast, the Australian Coastal Society’s description of Environment Minister Stokes’ announcements on the direction of the government’s Stage 2 coastal reforms in this way was most apt. John Corkill explains …

On our field trip, we’d looked at local beaches, lakes and lagoons, and heard reports of the successes and challenges facing local agencies managing these complex, highly dynamic parts of our coast.

That intermittently closed and open lakes and lagoons (known as ICOLLs) and the management of their entrances to the sea present some of the greatest challenges for local government in coastal zone management and planning, was ably demonstrated by presentations by local agency staff, though this was, perhaps, something many delegates already knew from examples closer to home.

When its entrance is closed, any rain in the catchment will increase the height of water in such a lake, leading to inundation in some areas, until there is enough rain to raise the lake’s water level to the point that it breaks through the sandy beach berm which closed its communication with the sea. Once breached, the scour of outflowing waters usually cuts a channel across the beach, connecting the lake’s waters to the sea, until the tide changes… or more rain falls.

This opening of the lake or lagoon may occur regularly or infrequently and might persist for days or weeks – or perhaps only hours – depending on local conditions, until the water level in the lake recedes, the beach berm is rebuilt and the entrance is again closed by the action of the sea.

These infrequent openings of coastal lakes’ entrances to the sea, due to major rain events and associated catchment run off are thus often referred to as ‘historic breakthroughs’.

In the 23 year history of the NSW Coastal Conference this year was the first time the relevant Minister attended the annual conference dinner, let alone provided a keynote address. Anticipation that there might be ‘an announcement’ had grown since the minister’s attendance had been confirmed, and he did not disappoint the audience of more than one hundred coastal management professionals from local and state government agencies, academia and the private sector.

What the Minister said on 13 November

After entrees and a small fanfare, Minister Stokes announced four major elements of the ‘stage two’ of the governments coastal ‘reforms’ in a speech which was at times candid, considered and comical. These were the government’s plans for:

  • a new Coastal Management Act 2015 to replace the 34 year old current Act,
  • the re-establishment of a new Coastal Council to provide independent advice to state and local governments;
  • a new publication, the long over-due Coastal Zone Management Manual to update and integrate earlier manuals for coastline and estuary management and planning; and
  • a coastal management funding ‘toolkit’ to unlock funding and collaboration.

What to make of what the Minister said

The first of these – a new Act – is, in the view of the Australian Coastal Society (NSW), a bold but necessary step. The Coastal Protection Act 1979 (NSW) needs substantial overhaul, and is now serious wieldy after numerous amendments by successive governments to both add and repeal provisions. More significantly, its designated focus on ‘protection’, code for building seawalls, pre-dates the emergence of ‘integrated coastal zone management’ (ICZM) as the cohering philosophy of international best practice. Further, while the construction, and maintenance, of massive defensive structures will continue to be necessary in certain places, it is not now considered the first or best, most cost-effective option for managing coastal hazards under climate change conditions in many locations. Hence new legislation which facilitates a range of coastal management options is needed. The legislation is yet to be revealed but it seems that the government intends to require adopted coastal zone management plans to be integrated into councils’ new planning instruments. The release of an exposure draft of the legislation and round of consultation were foreshadowed.

The re-establishment of a Coastal Council under the new Act, to involve a range of coastal interests and expertise is less controversial. It too is consistent with current best practice of engaging relevant stakeholders when developing policies and considering the ecological, social and economic implications of decisions which are likely to affect a range of public and private interests. The diversity of representation on the council, its role and the scope of its powers, remain to be seen but ‘in principle’ the involvement of expertise on, and insight into, coastal management issues from outside of government, is sound public policy. (It has long been seen that the former Coastal Council’s abolition in 2003 by the then Labor government was a retrograde step, contrary to best practice and a major set-back to good governance in coastal management in NSW. Indeed the Coalition, then in Opposition, opposed it. The characterisation of ‘the coast’ by the then minister as being just another natural resource of economic value, that should fall under the aegis of the new Natural Resources Commission, completely misunderstood the importance and the complexity of ‘the coast’ for social and ecological functions, and under-estimated the need for inter-agency co-ordination and leadership in coastal zone management in NSW. The passage of time has shown it to have been shallow, politically expedient ‘analysis’ which led to very poor public policy outcomes.) Perhaps it is ill-advised to suggest that a new Coastal Council will provide ready answers to many vexed coastal management problems, but it’s fair to say that there’s greater chance of innovative responses being recognised and applied with a new Coastal Council, than continuing without one.

The release of a new manual is long overdue. While the old versions, the NSW Government’s Coastline Management Manual (1990) and Estuary Management Manual (1992) have proven to be durable texts, an update and integration are definitely in order. A new manual should provide a common framework and up to date technical information for councils’ coastal zone management and planning, including guidance to councils on managing a range of coastal hazards, including sea level rise. According to the Minister’s speech, compliance with the manual will again be necessary in order to ‘act in good faith’ and obtain the exculpation from legal liability under s 733(3) of the Local Government Act 1993 (NSW). The production and release of the manual, whenever that occurs, will finally fulfil a promise made by Deputy Premier Andrew Refshauge in 2002.

The ‘funding toolkit’ was the least explained element of the Minister’s announcement. However, the Minister did say several things about it in his speech. He said that there would be no further ‘ad hoc’ funding of coastal protection works; that any projects funded by the state government would need to be defined in adopted coastal zone management plans (CZMPs) certified by him as Minister; and that financial contributions for coastal protection works could and should be able to be obtained by councils from private interests who benefitted from the works, using a set of ‘cost sharing principles’ to apportion the costs of coastal zone management. Notably the Minister referred back to compliance with the manual as being ‘the key to unlock funding’. Many present took that comment to mean that the State government would continue to provide some funding for coastal management works, where the case for public expenditure had been clearly established..

Further, the Minister made it clear that the NSW Coastal Policy 1997 and other stand alone polices, will be incorporated into the new legislation. (Presumably this includes a range of other relevant State Environmental Planning Policies eg SEPPs 14, 26, 50, 71). This should mean that the direction of coastal management policy will not change radically, and these crucial policies will have statutory effect, rather being merely matters for consideration, which can be easily ignored. Though this is a positive indication, it will be important to ensure that relevant provisions of the Bill reflect the former policies, and there is no loss of environmental protection under the new legislation.

All these initiatives are seen as being in line with current best practice in integrated coastal zone management, and together they represent the first major program in updating the legal, policy and governance framework for coastal zone management in New South Wales for many years.

What the Minister also said …

Stokes’ speech had more than announcements however. Unusually, his outline of the new headline measures followed his declaration that the government’s Stage One ‘coastal reforms’ were now complete, his frank admission that they had not been well handled, his apology for the lack of direction in the stage two reforms thus far, and his acknowledgement that many people had felt frustrated and abandoned by the government’s approach to date. And he made it clear that he understood that a big part of the challenge facing coastal managers was that coastal hazards were being amplified by climate change impacts. These candid remarks were welcomed by many delegates as well overdue, ‘most appropriate’ and refreshingly frank for a minister.

Importantly Stokes then reaffirmed that coastal zone management and planning required local and state governments to work together to address the “significant problems the community expects us to resolve”, effectively putting paid to the notion that this task would be devolved entirely to local government. What was needed, the minister said, was for local councils to move forward, not back track, in their coastal zone management planning, and provide well developed plans which could be certified by the state government, to unlock funding for their implementation.

What the Minister didn’t say …

Of course was what was not said out loud by the Minister but understood by all present was that for any of these plans to come to fruition the Liberal / National parties’ Coalition government would need to be re-elected and gain the support of the minor parties in the NSW upper house. Thus the implementation of the Stage Two coastal ‘reforms’ announced by the Minister will, in fact, be the work of the next government, formed after the NSW state election on 28th March 2015.

What does NSW Labor say?

Since the Minister’s speech the NSW Opposition has not commented on the elements of the Stage 2 coastal reforms announced, so it remains unclear, at least for now, whether the NSW Labor will support these important initiatives in upgrading NSW coastal zone management, either in the next few months as the alternative Government, or after March next year as the NSW Opposition. We shall see…

John R Corkill OAM is the spokesperson for the Australian Coastal Society (NSW Branch). He was member of the Coastal Council of NSW 1999-2003 and is now a post-graduate researcher and candidate for PhD at the School of Law & Justice, Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia.