Government roles and responsibilities

This section deals with the roles and responsibilities of governments in Australian coastal management. The important managerial activities of private landowners and community organisations are dealt with elsewhere. During the 1990s there has been a re-examination of the coastal management roles of all spheres of Australian government as policy development has responded both to increasing awareness of pressures on the coast and to international concerns over the global environment. Changes in policy and in management arrangements have been the subject of detailed discussion in Haward (1995), Kay and Lester (1997), Thom and Harvey (2000), and Wescott (1998).


Australia has a federal system of government, involving six states and two territories. At the coast, Commonwealth, state/territory and local governments all play a significant role. A fourth level of management, that of Aboriginal owners or custodians, is unique to the Northern Territory, where the traditional owners control 84% of the coastline (Zann 1995, p. 78).

Under the Offshore Constitutional Settlement 1983-1990, the states generally have jurisdiction over marine areas to three nautical miles offshore; and, through international agreement (UNCLOS III, 1994), the Commonwealth controls an Economic Exclusion Zone that extend to 200 nautical miles (370 km) offshore. There are necessary exceptions to this zonation; for example, the Torres Strait has been divided by international treaty, and gulfs and bays are under the care and control of the state government.

Commonwealth responsibilities

The Commonwealth has, under the Australian Constitution, few powers that relate directly to environmental management. However, it has an important role in coastal planning and management through its indirect financial and funding powers, by leading national policy-making in a range of related areas, and through its influence, particularly through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). The changing overall patterns of Commonwealth and state government relations are especially salient to the actual role played by the Commonwealth in coastal management.

In the past the Commonwealth has used, or threatened to use, its constitutional powers to determine significant coastal decisions, in spite of state opposition. For example, in 1974 the Commonwealth forced an inquiry into sand mining on Fraser Island through its Environmental Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 and then, in 1976, determined the cessation of mining – in the face of Queensland government outrage – through its withdrawal of export licenses to Dillingham Murphy Ores. In the 1990s the Commonwealth and the states have proceeded in a less confrontational manner.

The Heads of Government agreement in 1999 has the potential to make significant changes to Commonwealth-state relations over the environment. The resulting Act, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) came into effect on 16 July 2000. The Act replaced a number of Commonwealth statutes, including:

Environmental Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974

National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 (declaration and management of significant land and sea areas)

World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983

• Endangered Species Act 1992

• Whale Protection Act 1990.

The EPBC Act gives the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment the power to regulate environmental impact assessment and approval of activities in an area, matter or item of 'national importance', or for which Australia has international obligations. The Act defines matters of national importance as:

• World Heritage Areas

• Ramsar wetlands

• threatened or endangered species

• migratory species

• Commonwealth marine areas

• nuclear actions.

Other matters could be added to this list by regulation. Actions affecting Commonwealth lands may also require approval.

Actions, commenced after 16 July 2000 that might have significant impact on matters of national environmental significance must be approved by the Minister. With regard to coastal areas, these could include, for example, coastal development, fishing, aquaculture, and vegetation clearance.

Commonwealth approval of actions runs in parallel with state processes, which still apply. Penalties for failure to comply with the EPBC Act can be severe: including imprisonment and fines up to $5.5 million.

The Act specifically addresses biodiversity. The EPBC Act gives protection to listed threatened species, threatened ecological communities, listed migratory species, listed marine species and all cetaceans. The Act provides for the identification of threatening processes and critical habitats and for the preparation of recovery plans, threat abatement plans, and conservation plans. This appears to be a radical change to Commonwealth-state relations, giving the Commonwealth the powers to make direct management intervention in parts of a state's lands and waters.

Other Commonwealth legislation is directly significant at particular parts of the Australian coast, including:

• Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975. Entering a place of natural or cultural significance on the Register of the National Estate places obligations on Commonwealth decision-makers

• Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. The Commonwealth has a direct role in managing the Great Barrier Reef in partnership with the Queensland government

• Native Title Act 1993. This Act deals with the recognition and protection of native title rights and interests.

The Commonwealth also has a direct role in managing coastal lands and waters of Defence establishments, such as part of Jervis Bay, and through the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA). The Commonwealth is the regulator for maritime safety and shipping and sea dumping and offshore resource exploration. The Commonwealth is the initiator of a great deal of research throughout the coastal zone, through the CSIRO, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), the Australian Geological Survey Organisation (AGSO), and the Bureau of Resource Sciences. It also funds significant national data services through the Bureau of Meteorology, the Hydrographic Survey and the National Tidal Facility.

Australia has entered into a number of international declarations and agreements that deal with environmental issues at regional, national or international levels. Some of the more important conventions are shown in table 4.1.

Some international agreements require action primarily by the Commonwealth, for example a national state of the environment reporting process is both

Table 4.1 Some international conventions signed by Australia

The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)

Endorsed by the United Nations General assembly, 1992.

This is a declaration rather than a binding agreement. The declaration re-affirms and extends the UN Stockholm Declaration of 1972. New principles added to the 1972 document include: the polluter pays principle; the precautionary principle; environmental impact assessment; public participation; 'vital role' for indigenous people and women.

Agenda 21

(Part of the UNCED declaration, above).

This is an action plan which commits countries to implement the principles of UNCED, including national, regional and local strategies for ecologically sustainable development and state of the environment reporting.

Chapter 17 'Protection of the Oceans, all kinds of Seas, including enclosed and semi-enclosed seas, and coastal areas, and the protection, rational use and development of their living resources'. This lengthy chapter commits states to integrated management and sustainable development of coastal areas and their exclusive economic zone. This aim is explored in detail. It supplements and builds on LOSC, 1982 (below).

Convention on Biological Diversity Signed: 5.6.92

Entry into force for Australia: 29.12.93

The objectives are the conservation and sustainability of biological diversity, and the equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change

Signed: 9.5.92

Entry into force for Australia: 21.3.94

Aimed to achieve stabilization of Greenhouse Gas emissions. Monitoring and reporting on Greenhouse gas emissions; research on responses, including coastal vulnerability to sea level rise.

Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage

Signed: 23.11.72

Entry into force for Australia: 17.12.75

This is a legally binding trealy. Australia is obliged to protect World Heritage List sites.

The objective of this convention is to promote co-operation among nations to protect heritage which is of such universal value that its conservation is of value to all people. The Great Barrier Reef and South West Tasmania are examples of coastal or marine areas covered by this convention.

Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar Convention)

Signed: 2.2.71

Entry into force for Australia: 21.12.75

This convention originated as a way to protect wetlands important to migratory birds as habitats. In 1990 the name was changed to reflect the interest in the conservation and protection of all wetland values and to encourage their management in line with ecologically sustainable principles. Roebuck Bay, Western Australia, is an example of a significant coastal area listed under this convention.

International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (1946) and Protocol (1956)

Signed: 2.12.46

Entry into force for Australia: 10.11.48

This convention was originally an instrument for the controlled harvesting of whales, but has evolved into a means to effectively end commercial whaling. The Commonwealth Whale Protection Act, 1980, protects all cetaceans in Australian waters.

Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (1979) Signed: 23.6.79

Entry into force for Australia: 1.9.91

This is a binding agreement to which Australia is a signatory. The convention commits signatories to take action to conserve migratory species. An agreement for the conservation of the albatross is currently being formulated.

Bilateral Agreements on the protection of migratory birds (CAMBA, JAMBA)

Australia has negotiated bilateral agreements with China and Japan to protect migratory species of Australian birds. The agreements also foster scientific and cultural interchanges between the countries involved, as well as reinforcing the Ramsar Convention.

Apia Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific Region (1986)

Signed: 12.6.86

Entry into force for Australia: 26.6.90

Establishes a framework for nature conservation in the South Pacific, especially in relation to migratory and endangered species. This is a binding agreement on a number of conservation principles, but no targets are set to measure progress.

Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources of the South Pacific Region (SPREP)

Signed: 24.11.86

Entry into force for Australia: 22.8.90

This convention provides a binding umbrella agreement which requires parties to manage pollution. States are encouraged to identify issues of concern and to enter into agreements to address them.

Torres Strait Treaty

Signed: 18.12.78

Entry into force: 15.2.85

The treaty determines the maritime boundary between Australia and Papua New Guinea. The two countries have agreed to take special measures to protect the marine environment and the way of life of the traditional inhabitants of the Torres Strait.

UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOSC) Signed: 1982

Entry into force for Australia: 16.11.94

This a binding agreement which delimits states' jurisdiction at sea, primarily with regard to resource use and navigation.

This convention establishes conservation and management regimes for fisheries in exclusive economic zones. It imposes obligations to prevent, reduce and control marine pollution from land, the atmosphere, and vessels and from dumping. It also includes a regime for the enforcement of marine pollution laws.

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 (modifed 1978) (MARPOL1973/78)

Entry into force for Australia: 14.1.88

A binding international convention that requires annual reporting of incidents involving ship-based pollution.

part of Agenda 21 and a condition of Australia's membership of the OECD. However, most issues involve state powers and need ratification by the states. Frequently the Commonwealth has set standards (as for example in the ANZEC Water Quality Guidelines), and required reports and management plans (for instance management plans for Ramsar sites). Most conventions involve reporting responsibilities, often involving the states and local government: this places a number of significant coastal conservation issues (e.g. wading bird habitat) on agendas for funding and action, from which they might otherwise be absent. Conacher and Conacher (2000, p. 13 8) though has noted significant slowness in Australia's record of implementation of international agreements, involving many coastal and marine sites.

The Resource Assessment Coastal Zone Inquiry (Commonwealth 1993a, p. 90) noted that the implementation of these treaties requires an integrated approach from all three tiers of government. It might also be noted that within the workings of the Australian system of cooperative federalism, there is an expectation that the Commonwealth will take the lead in such integrated action.

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