A New Wave: Coastal Reform in Australia

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Four Australian states have specific coastal management legislation half of which is new and only came on stream in 2018. So, what is happening?

Given the lack of federal coastal policy or legislation, some states recently decided to introduce their own coastal reforms either through new coastal legislation, policies and guidelines such as in New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria (VIC).  States without specific coastal legislation such as Western Australia have updated their coastal planning policies and guidelines, particularly related to hazards and climate change adaptation.

These changes are broadly in line with a changing focus identified from the international coastal management literature.  A recent detailed scientific literature review suggests that coastal management is gradually moving towards systems perspectives, cross-boundary management strategies and an integration of marine and terrestrial environments.

In Queensland the 1995 coastal legislation hasn’t been significantly altered since it was introduced but between 2012 and 2017 there was coastal policy reform which went through a see-sawing implementation phase following changes of government. The result is that although climate change, coastal adaption and sea-level rise were initially removed from policy, they had been restored by 2016.  However, it appears that aspects of legislation on coastal management and protection have become weaker because of other legislative changes, particularly in planning.

Coastal reform in NSW has been in the pipeline for some time as outlined in a number of Bruce Thom’s ACS blogs. Before the new Coastal Management Act 2016 could be implemented it needed other critical coastal management instruments to come on line such as the coastal management environment planning policy (coastal SEPP); a new and comprehensive Coastal Manual and a new advisory Coastal Council.  Once these key coastal management instruments had been approved, the new Coastal Management Act 2016 took effect in April 2018.

The new NSW coastal management system is unique in a number of ways.   It includes a sustainable and integrated approach to coastal management in order to mitigate risks from coastal hazards, including the effects of climate change.  It attempts to provide better integration across the coastal and marine continuum. Coastal hazards are clearly categorised. There are four clearly delineated coastal areas linked to specific development controls in the planning legislation through the coastal SEPP.

An important element in the NSW coastal reforms are the requirements for councils to prepare and monitor Coast Management Plans (CMPs) linked to an integrated planning system.  There is also a Coastal and Estuary Grants Program to assist in preparing these CMPs.  One of the more innovative reforms introduced to the NSW coastal legislation is perhaps the inclusion of sediment compartments which have to be taken into account by local government in their preparation of CMPs.  This requirement, in some ways avoids previous problems with piecemeal and ad hoc private protection and application of state-wide sea-level rise benchmarks by adopting a more holistic and integrated approach to coastal management.

The new VIC Marine and Coastal Act 2018 which took effect in August 2018 has objectives including the need to protect and enhance marine and coastal environments, to acknowledge and engage with traditional owners, to manage coastal hazards and risks including impacts of climate change, and to take a sustainable approach to the use of marine and coastal resources. A major reform is the deliberate integration of catchment with coastal and marine planning and management. Regional coastal boards have been abolished and responsibilities transferred to broader coastal catchment boards. A new independent Marine and Coastal Council has been created but Coastal Policy and Coastal Strategy documents are not due for completion until December 2019.

These coastal reforms are discussed in more detail in a recent paper in the journal Marine PolicyThis paper examines new coastal legislation, policies, manuals, and government documents and the rationale and triggers behind these reforms. These are discussed in the context of Australian governance structures and the international coastal management literature.  The paper concludes that the latest wave of coastal reform in Australia represents a non-uniform state-led push for a more integrated approach to coastal management including, adaptation to climate change, sustainable development, a systems-based approach to coastal processes and inclusion of both marine and terrestrial environments.

Hopefully, the reforms in NSW and VIC are the start of a positive move toward a more integrated approach for coastal management in Australia.  It will be important over the next few years to monitor how they are implemented in practice.


Words by Emeritus Professor Nick Harvey, Department of Geography, Environment and Population, University of Adelaide. Please respect the author's thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2019. For correspondence about this blog post please email austcoastsoc@gmail.com