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The Commonwealth Coastal Policy

Commonwealth of Australia, May 1995

1 Introduction

The coastal zone has a special place in the lives of Australians. Most Australians want to live or take their holidays there. It is a priceless national asset.

Rich in natural and cultural resources, the coastal zone is also the focus of most of Australia's economic, social, tourism and recreational activity. The Commonwealth recognises the great importance and value of the coastal zone to Australian society, the economy and, indeed, our way of life.

Coastal resources and the critical issues confronting the coastal zone have been identified, many times, in numerous inquiries and discussion papers. The most recent of these are the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts (1991) and the final report of the Resource Assessment Commission's Coastal Zone Inquiry (1993). These reports have been unequivocal about the need for a clearly articulated Commonwealth coastal policy.

Management of the coastal zone, its resources and offshore waters is shared by the Commonwealth, State (including the Northern Territory)1 and Local Governments. Although the Commonwealth's role in the coastal zone is extensive, Commonwealth involvement has in the past lacked a common objective or focus. This Policy provides that focus.

The Australian coastline is about 36 700 kilometres long. The coastal zone contains a wide range of climatic, geological and oceanographic regions which house a very rich store of biological diversity. There is a diverse and interacting mixture of terrestrial, estuarine and marine ecosystems, ranging from coral reefs to coastal forests, which directly or indirectly provide many of the resources needed for a broad range of commercial and non-commercial uses and activities. The coastal zone also contains the largest area of coral reefs and the third-largest area of mangroves of any nation, and it has globally significant populations of a number of endangered species.

The Resource Assessment Commission found that the coastal zone supports about 86 per cent of Australia's total population, including nearly half of the nation's indigenous people. In the past 20 year the zone has witnessed significant increases in population, development and tourism. About half of Australia's total population growth during this period has occurred in non-metropolitan parts of the coastal zone, particularly in the south-east and far north Queensland, in the south-west of Western Australia, and on the central and north coasts of New South Wales.

The coastal zone is especially significant because it contains a high proportion of the resources used to produce goods and services; much of Australia's commercial and industrial activity is found in land- and sea-based enterprises located in the coastal zone. In particular, it is where most of the fishing industry, and significant parts of the agriculture, forestry, mining (including petroleum) and manufacturing industries are concentrated. Provision of land, sea and air transport facilities is a major activity in the zone, as is the provision of other infrastructure associated with the production and consumption of goods and services. It is also the area providing the highest proportion of recreational and tourism opportunities in Australia.

The Commonwealth acknowledges the major role that the States and Local Government play in managing the coastal zone and the contribution they are making to improved management. Achieving ecologically sustainable use of the coastal zone is beyond the capabilities of any one jurisdiction: it requires a shared purpose and co-operation between all three spheres of government, industry and the community. Co-operation and integration are prerequisites to the ecologically sustainable development and management of Australia's coastal zone. The Commonwealth will promote co-operation between all spheres of government on coastal matters.

The Commonwealth has responsibilities that significantly affect the management of the coastal zone. It is necessary to ensure that these responsibilities are carried out effectively. This Policy is the basis for `putting the Commonwealth's house in order'. It is important to recognise that this is a Commonwealth policy and so applies only to those activities for which the Commonwealth has responsibility. Further, this Policy is but one step in the task of dealing with the many issues confronting the Australian coastal zone.

All State Governments, and a large number of Local government authorities, are also undertaking important initiatives to improve management of the vitally important Australian coastal zone.

1.1 The Purpose of This Policy

The Commonwealth Coastal Policy will provide a framework within which Commonwealth activities that may have an impact on the coastal zone will be developed and implemented. The guiding principles will also be applied in any review of existing Commonwealth policies and programs that may have an impact on the coastal zone.

The purpose of this Policy is to provide a clear statement of the Commonwealth Government's position on coastal management matters and to identify the initiatives that the Commonwealth will take to help improve the management of the coastal zone. In particular, the Policy deals with the following:

1.2 A Response to Recent Initiatives

The Injured Coastline, the 1991 report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts inquiry into the degradation of the coastal environment, was the catalyst for the development of this Policy. Further impetus was provided by the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, which sets out the broad strategic and policy framework under which governments will take action to achieve ecologically sustainable development. The Strategy contains three broad objectives. The objectives and principles of this Policy are consistent with those of ecologically sustainable development and integrate the management of environmental, community, industry and social issues in the coastal zone. The core objectives and principles of ecologically sustainable development are opposite.

Ecologically sustainable development: goal, objectives and guiding principles

The goal is:

Development that improves the total quality of life, both now and in the future, in a way that maintains the ecological processes on which life depends.

The core objectives are:

The guiding principles are:

These guiding principles and core objectives need to be considered as a package. No objective or principle should predominate over the others. A balanced approach is required that takes into account all these objectives and principles to pursue the goal of ESD.

Source: National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (1992, AGPS, Canberra, pp. 8-9).

The Resource Assessment Commission was established to provide independent advice to the Commonwealth Government on complex resource management issues. In October 1991 the Prime Minister commissioned it to conduct an inquiry into the management of building, tourism, mariculture and associated development in the coastal zone. The Commission presented its final report to the Prime Minister in November 1993.

Its conclusions and recommendations were reached following extensive consultation with community groups and individuals and with State, Local and Commonwealth government agencies. During the Inquiry the Commission received 734 written submissions and held numerous public hearings and meetings. One of its major conclusions concerned the need for co-operation between all spheres of government to improve coastal zone management.

Since the Resource Assessment Commission presented its findings, the Commonwealth has been engaged in negotiations with State and Local Governments to develop co-operative initiatives in coastal management.

A draft Commonwealth Coastal Policy was released for public comment in December 1992. Eighty-four submissions were received. The views expressed in those submissions and the recommendations of the Resource Assessment Commission have been taken into account in the preparation of this Policy.

1.3 What is the Coastal Zone?

What exactly is the `coastal zone'? This is a difficult question to answer because coastal managers everywhere have used definitions that differ according to the problem at issue. Definitions have focused on prescribed widths either side of the shoreline, administrative boundaries such as local government areas adjacent to the shoreline, or systems such as catchments that flow to the sea. These definitions all have advantages and disadvantages, again according to the problem at issue.

The Resource Assessment Commission found that, if the coastal zone is defined by coastal local government areas or by coastal drainage basins, the coastal zone occupies approximately 17 per cent of the Australian land mass.

When most people think of `the coast' they picture something wider than the beach but narrower than river catchments. There is a consensus that the term `coastal' relates to the land-sea interface: disagreement usually centres on how far inland and how far seaward the zone extends. This Policy does not propose the establishment of statutory management initiatives, so the need to strictly define the landward and seaward boundaries is diminished. Obviously, any discussion of coastal matters must focus on the shoreline, coastal waters and islands, estuaries and other tidal waters, coastal wetlands and the land immediately adjacent to these features.

For the purpose of the actions of the Commonwealth, the boundaries of the coastal zone are considered to extend as far inland and as far seaward as necessary to achieve the Coastal Policy objectives, with a primary focus on the land-sea interface. This means that, although the coastal zone includes terrestrial and marine areas, the initiatives in this Policy have not been developed to deal with all issues associated with catchment and marine management.

This definition of the coastal zone applies to both continental Australia and its external territories. The definition will also facilitate Commonwealth co-operation with all State and Local Governments (including Norfolk Island), which have adopted various definitions of the coastal zone to meet local statutory requirements and the needs of management systems.

1.4 Why Does Anything Need to be Done?

Australia's coastal zone supports most of the nation's population and much of its economic and social activity. As a consequence, sound management of the zone is of profound importance to the maintenance of many of Australia's important ecological systems as well as to the socio-economic development of the nation as a whole and to the Australian way of life. Coastal management is not simply a matter of environmental protection.

In the past 30 years many inquiries have found that Australians are concerned that the quality and character of the coastal environment have diminished and that very little is being done to stop further damage. While many of us are concerned about damage to the coastal environment we also want to continue to use the coast for a wide variety of purposes. There is a risk of the coast being loved to death.

Any general curtailment of development in the coastal zone is not an option that can reasonably be pursued: it would have serious implications for the Australian economy and the welfare of all Australians. On the other hand, if nothing is done to protect the coast there will be an increased risk of permanent damage that will significantly affect the standard of living in Australia and the future amenity of coastal ecosystems. The challenge is to manage the use of the coast in such a way that undesirable impacts are minimised.