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Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

The Commonwealth Coastal Policy

Commonwealth of Australia, May 1995

2 Commonwealth Policy on Coastal Zone Management

2.1 Commonwealth Responsibilities for Coastal Management

The three spheres of government share responsibility for management of the coastal zone, its resources and the offshore waters.

The legislative basis for planning and management of the land area of the coastal zone is primarily provided by the States; Local Government is generally responsible for the day-to-day decision making. The Commonwealth and the States both have responsibilities in the offshore area. The States have been granted title to the seabed within 3 nautical miles of the territorial sea baselines and concurrent legislative power within the same area. The Commonwealth has primary responsibility from 3 nautical miles to 12 nautical miles in the territorial sea and beyond to the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone and the edge of the continental shelf.

Under the Australian Constitution, the Commonwealth has power to legislate with respect to enumerated subject matters, most of which are set out in section 51. Powers relevant to the coastal zone include those with respect to interstate and overseas trade and commerce, fisheries in Australian waters beyond territorial limits, taxation, defence, lighthouses, quarantine, corporations, petroleum and minerals beyond 3 nautical miles, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, territories, and external affairs (in relation to matters physically external to Australia and in relation to giving effect to Australia's international obligations). The Commonwealth relies on a combination of these powers to give effect to its legislation.

The Commonwealth may also influence coastal zone activities under section 96 of the Constitution, which gives it power to grant financial assistance to the States. For example, section 96 grants are used to make payments to the States for natural resource management programs such as the Ocean Rescue 2000 Program and the National Landcare Program.

The Commonwealth also has a substantial financial interest in the coastal zone: in 1991-92 it spent approximately $373 million on activities such as marine research, geoscience, navigation, sea safety and search-and-rescue programs, coastal catchment management, transport infrastructure and foreshore management. The Commonwealth is concerned that its funds be directed to where they are most needed and it wishes to identify more effective and efficient ways of achieving sound coastal management objectives. Under the Offshore Constitutional Settlement (OCS), co-operative arrangements have been agreed in relation to petroleum, minerals, fisheries and marine parks and reserves. For example, the OCS provides the basis for the Commonwealth and the States to agree on whether the administration of a particular fishery should be undertaken by one or the other of them or jointly. The normal arrangement remains that, unless other agreement is reached, the States control fishing to 3 nautical miles and the Commonwealth from 3 to 200 nautical miles. The Commonwealth's Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Act 1967 and the Offshore Minerals Act 1994 provide the legal framework within which exploration and development are managed beyond the 3 nautical mile limit.

In contrast, each of the State legislatures has a general power to make laws 'for the peace, order and good government' of the State (the wording varies slightly). Further, under the Commonwealth's Coastal Waters (State Powers) Act 1980 each of the States has, in effect, the same general power in the marine area to 3 nautical miles from the territorial sea baseline (commonly referred to as 'coastal waters'). The Northern Territory has similar power under a separate Act. Any State law that is inconsistent with a valid law of the Commonwealth will, however, be invalid.

Under Commonwealth legislation enacted in 1980, the States and the Northern Territory were also granted title to the seabed of coastal waters. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 continues to apply to the whole of the Great Barrier Reef region, as defined in that Act, and the seabed title vested in the State of Queensland is subject to the operation of the Act.

In November 1990 the Commonwealth extended the limits of its territorial sea from 3 to 12 nautical miles; on 1 August 1994 it established a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone and a 24 nautical mile contiguous zone. This brings Australia up to date with what is allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which took effect on 16 November 1994.

With the exception of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the Commonwealth's responsibilities for marine conservation in Commonwealth waters are prescribed in three Acts administered by the Australian Nature Conservation Agency. The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 provides for the declaration and management of resources in land or marine areas under the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth and for the protection of a variety of marine wildlife, including dugong, turtles, seals and sea birds. The Whale Protection Act 1980 prohibits the killing of or interfering with any whale, dolphin or porpoise in Commonwealth waters. The Endangered Species Protection Act 1992 provides a basis for conservation of endangered species and for mitigation of any processes that threaten them.

The Commonwealth also has responsibilities under the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975. Under this Act, the Australian Heritage Commission enters places of natural, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and historic significance on the Register of the National Estate. Unless there are no feasible and prudent alternatives, Commonwealth decision makers are obliged to ensure that they take no action that might adversely affect places on the Register; if there are no reasonable and prudent alternatives, they must minimise the adverse effects.

In addition to this, Australia has many obligations and engages in a number of activities in the coastal zone because it is a party to various international treaties and conventions. These cover such matters as maritime pollution, shipping operations, oceanic oil pollution, environmental data collection and service provision, coastal navigation, preservation of flora and fauna (including whales, dolphins, seals and migratory birds) and their habitats, and the conservation of World Heritage properties. Agreements may be bilateral (for example, the Japan-Australia Migratory Birds Agreement), regional (for example, the Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific Region), or global (for example, MARPOL, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships).

At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 Australia endorsed Agenda 21, Chapter 17 of which deals with ocean and coastal issues; coastal nations committed themselves, among other things, to the following:

The need to develop an integrated approach to coastal zone management was confirmed at the 1993 World Coast Conference.

In addition to its legislative role, the Commonwealth has a broader concern with overall national economic, social and environmental outcomes, including coastal zone outcomes. The Commonwealth is an active player in the coastal zone in a number of capacities:

Commonwealth responsibilities, including immigration policy, taxation policy and investment in infrastructure, also affect on urban coastal development. For example, the Commonwealth may invest in road infrastructure which increases the accessibility of coastal regions. This in turn may lead to an increase in urban development in coastal areas previously regarded as too distant from major employment centres. An illustration of this is the growth of the Gosford/Wyong area which followed the opening of the freeway linking the central coast of NSW to Sydney.

Annexes A, B, C and D contain a list of, programs, strategies, legislation and international treaties relevant to the Commonwealth's role in the coastal zone.

2.2 Shared Responsibilities

Coastal zone management is complex because all spheres of government have legitimate interests and responsibilities in the zone. All spheres are under increasing pressure from the community to deal with coastal issues and no single sphere can manage the coastal zone on its own.

Considerable benefit can be gained from governments working together to share solutions, approaches and resources for dealing with what are often common problems. Given that coastal management needs to take into account site-specific needs and local community values, this shared experience should be used to develop, as far as is practical, management responses at the local and regional level.

The Commonwealth intention is that its agencies will behave as 'good government citizens' when discharging their responsibilities that impact on the coastal zone. Put simply this means that Commonwealth agencies should, wherever possible, have regard to state and local planning and environment protection laws, regulations and processes except where to do so would conflict with an overriding national interest. This is consistent with initiatives such as the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment, which aims to engender a co-operative approach to environmental management by the three spheres of government in Australia.

A lack of integration across sectoral interests within government has repeatedly been identified as a cause for great concern about the effectiveness of coastal management. The number of agencies with sectoral management responsibilities that affect the coast and the unclear boundaries of responsibility contribute to this lack of integration.

The Commonwealth's view is that the best way to achieve integration of Commonwealth programs affecting the coastal zone is for agencies and authorities to retain existing responsibilities while increasing co-ordination between them, ensuring that programs and policies share a common goal and meet the Government's objectives for use of the coastal zone.

The Commonwealth takes the view that the establishment of a national agency to be responsible for all coastal management matters is unrealistic and unnecessary. The range of coastal management activities and the need to recognise the roles of all jurisdictions mean that a central agency would be inappropriate.

In recognition of the role of State and Local Governments in coastal management, Commonwealth agencies and authorities will, wherever possible, seek to work co-operatively with these other spheres of government to achieve Commonwealth coastal management objectives.

2.3 Coastal Management Objectives

The underlying goal of the Commonwealth Coastal Policy is ecologically sustainable use of the coastal zone. This means that through the Policy the Commonwealth will do whatever it can, within its area of responsibility, to ensure that development of the coastal zone improves Australian's total quality of life, now and in the future, in a way that maintains the ecological processes on which life depends.

To achieve this goal, the activities of Commonwealth agencies and authorities in the coastal zone will be guided by a number of specific objectives, which will provide a common focus for Commonwealth actions. New Commonwealth initiatives in the coastal zone will be consistent with these objectives and existing programs will be reviewed to ensure that they are consistent with the objectives. It should be emphasised that Commonwealth actions alone will not ensure that use of the coast is ecologically sustainable: this is a responsibility shared by all Australian governments, industry and the community.

The following objectives are adaptations of the recommendations of the Resource Assessment Commission's Coastal Zone Inquiry. They represent a statement of the overall outcome that the Commonwealth seeks to achieve and they are consistent with the objectives of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development. Terms such as 'use' and 'management' include within their meaning the use and management of resources for conservation purposes.

The Commonwealth's objectives for coastal management follow.

Sustainable resource use

Public participation

Knowledge and understanding

2.4 Guiding Principles for the Management of Coastal Resources

The Resource Assessment Commission recommended that clear principles be established to guide any decision making that affects the coastal zone. After very extensive consultations with conservation, industry and community groups and the various spheres of government it put forward a set of such principles in its final report.

The establishment of guiding principles for use by Commonwealth agencies will help to integrate government coastal management activities and to achieve the Commonwealth's coastal zone management objectives. It will also help to ensure that Commonwealth decisions affecting the use of the coastal zone are more open, consistent and systematic.

The principles listed in this section are comprehensive and it is intended that they will be used by Commonwealth policy and decision makers. They reflect the complexity of the issues that compete for attention in the coastal zone. They are not mutually exclusive; rather, they reflect the need to balance competing values in order to achieve ecologically sustainable development. No single principle is considered predominant.

Decision makers will be expected to exercise judgement in the application of competing principles. The basis for such judgement must be made explicit and, wherever appropriate, public.

The principles that follow are based on the recommendations of the Resource Assessment Commission and they are consistent with the principles of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development. Terms such as 'use' and 'development' include within their meaning the use and management of resources for conservation purposes.

Sustainable resource use

Integrated assessment