Politics and the coast: Some reflections

Professor Bruce Thom


There are many components to coastal management, but the one that I find most intriguing is the intervention (or non-intervention) of politics. At national, state and local levels of government, political dynamics create situations that can change the course of policy implementation. The result can divert attention from a planned and agreed course of action to something else for better or worse.

Since 1975 I have experienced actions by politicians that have led to significant changes in the way the Australian coast is managed. Participation in federal inquires has highlighted the need for coastal scientists to be involved in the inquiry process. However, it soon became apparent that the outcomes of these inquiries could be problematic when political factors were taken into account. The Fraser Island Inquiry took us into the strange world of political agreement at the federal level but not with Queensland. Subsequent parliamentary and Resource Assessment (RAC) inquiries have had lesser impacts. Individual federal ministers have made varying contributions from the extreme of being a coastal “champion” to showing little or no interest. The result has been a switching on and off of coastal NRM by the Australian Government.

At state and local levels a similar pattern can be observed. Each state has a defined statutory responsibility for coastal planning and management. Over the last three decades I have observed varying degrees of interest and commitment. Debates over the potential impact of climate change have had the effect of changing policies and administrative structures often at short notice. Changes can take place both at election time and within a period of government with change in ministers. Often good policies can be thwarted by local councils where the political perspective differs from the intent of the policy.

This paper will offer examples of how politics has influenced coastal management in Australia. My experience highlights the importance of being in a position to engage with the politics but not to get frustrated by its inconsistencies, vicissitudes and personalities.

Member, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists