Representatives of Australian coastal communities have gathered this week to discuss the major challenges they face. Delegates at the conference in Rockingham, Western Australia, represent 40 councils around Australia, some falling within the 24 federal electorates held by a margin of 5% or less. In contrast to the federal budget, climate change is at the top of their agenda.
Sea-level rise, floods, storms and bushfire were common concerns. The Australian Coastal Councils Conference’s May 6 communique demands national action:
Coastal councils and their communities call on the Australian Government to play a leadership role in developing a co-ordinated national approach to coastal management by adopting a set of policy initiatives based on the recommendations of the bipartisan Australian Parliamentary Coastal Inquiry.
Challenges of growth and change
Australia’s population is set to grow from 24 million to 40 million people by 2050. On present trends, this growth is likely to be concentrated in coastal regions, mostly along the eastern seaboard.
Australian Coastal Councils Association chair Barry Sammels, the mayor of Rockingham, observed:
Coastal seats are among the most vulnerable at the forthcoming election. Some of them are growing very rapidly, and others are changing demographically as ‘sea-changers’ migrate to coastal areas and people with young families are relocating from the cities in search of a better quality of life. This invariably means these regional coastal electorates, which have traditionally elected conservative political candidates, are becoming politically more volatile.
These communities are “at the forefront of climate vulnerability”, Sammels said. They are already dealing with coastal erosion and the prospect of rising sea levels and more frequent and extreme weather events.
Coastal communities, in particular those which are changing in character, are demanding these risks be taken seriously. … They currently feel there is a lack of commitment from both major parties to deal with these threats.
Lack of urgency at the top
While bipartisan interest in cities policies is growing, this needs to be extended to coastal regions experiencing big changes on several fronts – demographic, economic and environmental.
The lack of long-term strategic coastal planning puts both communities and environments at risk. The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef illustrates the impacts of environmental change on tourism, jobs and long-term economic security.
We need a national plan to support local councils to better manage coastal urban development, climate change and the consequences for their communities. We have had over 25 national reports leading to largely no action.
In the communique, coastal councils reasonably call for action on key recommendations of the comprehensive 2009 parliamentary inquiry:
We propose that the following recommendations of the coastal inquiry be adopted:
That the Australian Government, in co-operation with state, territory and local governments, and in consultation with coastal stakeholders, develop an Intergovernmental Agreement on the Coastal Zone to be endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments.
The Australian Government ensure that [the agreement] forms the basis for a National Coastal Zone Policy and Strategy, which should set out the principles, objectives and actions that must be taken to address the challenges of integrated coastal zone management for Australia.
Despite much-reduced federal funding, the National Climate Change Adaptation Facility continues to help inform action by local government. Clearly, however, better long-term planning is required. This requires deeper institutional support, including a national perspective on urban growth in the context of climate change.
Action has begun locally
Finally, not all coastal planning and management is achieved through law and policy. A great deal of activity occurs locally through goodwill and collaboration. To highlight three examples:
in the west, the Peron Naturaliste Partnership involving nine local councils in the south-west, which won the 2016 Australian Coastal Award for Climate Adaptation
in the south, the South East Councils Climate Alliance in south-east Melbourne
in the north, a wide range of stakeholders in north-east Arnhem Land work together under the Dhimmiru Arnhem Land Sea Country Plan.
Such collaboration and innovation deserves long-term funding from higher levels of government.
We may have got this far without an integrated approach to coastal planning and management, but without it there is no way we will be able to manage coastal growth with the projected demographic, economic and climate changes.
That’s why local councils are demanding immediate action on a national coastal policy to meet the needs of our coastal communities and environment. To ignore their call is a very significant political risk indeed.