President’s column – 24 July 2020

Coastal councils are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place when it comes to rising sea levels and storm-related coastal erosion.

We saw it demonstrated again this week when the Central Coast Council – under fire from residents whose beachfront properties had been destroyed or damaged by a severe storm the previous week –called for a natural disaster to be declared at an extraordinary meeting on Monday.

Had that declaration eventuated, affected residents would have been able to seek assistance and the council would have been able to access state funds to repair storm-damaged infrastructure.

The State government denied them, leaving Council on their own to try to address residents’ anger as best it could.

“This is not a time for blaming each other,” Mayor Lisa Matthews stoically said. “It is a time for us [local councils and the State Government] to work together to deliver long-term solutions for the Coast, including for those who have been so terribly impacted by this event.”

She is right, of course. But while councils are at the cliff face, other levels of government are not as engaged in suffering the losses or helping with solutions – short and long term.

On the bright side, the Australian Coastal Councils Association has done an outstanding job of advocating for greater investment in mitigation as well as commissioning research to better understand the risks going forward.

Their work, and that of others, has informed ALGA’s active advocacy on disaster mitigation investment and climate change adaption funding, particularly for our smaller councils facing coastal, riverine or bushfire risks.

While it is known that sea levels have been, and will continue, rising in the coming decades, the standard approach remains more or less to fix storm-damaged infrastructure and then hope for the best the next time a low weather system develops off our coasts.

What’s needed is more likely to involve the need for extensive betterment programs and or large-scale engineering to protect homes and infrastructure.

If such fixes are beyond us due to cost or engineering limitations, people, their homes and extensive infrastructure assets may need to be demolished. Relocating owners who have specifically chosen coastal homes won’t be easy.

Short of dramatically increasing rates and charges, local governments cannot possibly take on these tasks by themselves. At a broader level, it is probably beyond most state and territory governments too.

That was underlined last year when a Western Australian coastal erosion report said it would cost $110 million over the next five years –  “wiith additional funding in the long term” – to manage the impacts at 55 locations across the state.

Premier Mark McGowan’s immediate response was to call on the Federal Government’s help, not just for money, but for nationally coordinated policy to combat rising sea levels.

“Managing coastal erosion should not just fall on to the lap of local and state governments, especially given the negative impact climate change is having on our coastlines,” the Premier said at the time.

So, we get back to the need for closer Commonwealth/State/Local cooperation.

When they last convened in Adelaide in November 2019, the Federal and State Meeting of Environment Ministers (MEM), with ALGA as a welcome observer, agreed to establish an intergovernmental working group “to collate existing information on coastal erosion and inundation hazard risk management, and propose a collaborative approach to coastal erosion for consideration through a future meeting of environment ministers”.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 has put a halt to MEMs this year. However, other ministerial meetings, such as Transport, Emergency Services, Food Regulation, Planning, and Local Government, have continued to be held – and those are just the ones ALGA participates in.

And now the Federal Environment Minister says there can’t be a MEM whilst the system of ministerial forums is being remodelled following the Morrison Government’s decision to scrap COAG and replace it with an expanded National Cabinet.

What most haven’t noticed is that the Prime Minister’s new structure does not mention the word “environment”, and nor does his extensive list of other forums he wants remodelled.

The words “climate”, “mitigation”, “adaption” or “coastal erosion” don’t appear anywhere in the structure – and it is difficult to see where these types of issues will be coordinated at the national level under the new reforms.

Regardless of what you think is causing rising sea levels, it makes little sense for there to be no MEMs, or no coordination of policy and funding at the national level, or no mention of “environment” in the new National Cabinet structure.

It makes even less sense for Central Coast Council’s grief to be dismissed because ALGA has been left out of National Cabinet or, potentially, its subsidiary reform councils. It is our job to represent you, and our presence on these national forums is therefore vital but under significant threat.

Out-of-work Australians desperately need new jobs. Our coastline needs help, assets need protecting. The solution seems obvious – and ALGA will continue to call for it – while we can.

David O’Loughlin,
ALGA President.