On 29 July 2021 Associate Professor Beverley Clarke delivered a keynote address ‘The changing prominence of coastal Natural Resource Management in Australia’ at the 15th Coast to Coast National Conference—Australia’s biennial national coastal management event. Sadly, the face-to-face delivery in Cairns was foregone due to the Covid lockdown, but the online program was highly effective and the presentation generated useful discussion and initiated opportunities for policy engagement.

Natural resource management broadly refers to decision-making about the use and protection of the natural resources that supply a wide range of goods and services, like food, clean air and water, recreation, biodiversity, and heritage. Since the 1980s Natural Resource Management (NRM) in Australia has been an ‘ambitious’ experiment in community engagement and governance innovation. But, NRM has now entered a fourth phase. Governance of NRM is complex and requires the commitment of numerous organisations at a range of scales. Mechanisms for coordinating NRM policy and programs across government departments have been noted as having variable effectiveness across Australia. While terrestrial NRM programs have been thoroughly reviewed over time, coastal NRM programs have not. Beverley’s keynote provided an overview of NRM transitions and their impact on coastal programs across Australia, comparing strategic vision, coordination mechanisms and impact between and within Australian states.

In her keynote, Beverley focused on an area underrepresented in the NRM literature: the influence of public policy process and government administration on the effectiveness of the design and delivery of NRM programs. There have been many reviews of past Commonwealth schemes complete with recommendations. However, changes to funding cycles and foci, ephemeral staffing, and changes of government have affected the capacity of Commonwealth (and other levels of government) to respond to these review recommendations.

Beverley’s address used John Kingdon’s ‘multiple steams approach’ to help explain the emergence of coastal NRM in the 1990s. It presented an update on Australia’s 36 NRM Regions that have a coast. A selection of 10 NRM regions showcased variation including networking mechanisms, roles of Boards of management, inclusion of coasts in strategic planning frameworks, and provision of on-ground support through both funding and facilitation. She concluded that the role of the Commonwealth government has receded over time, and it is unclear if opportunities like that of the 1990s will realign for a renewed coastal NRM focus.

However, in the talk she stressed that there is a robust governance architecture in place as well as established networking mechanisms which add value to current grant programs. The recently released Future Earth Sustainable Oceans and Coasts National Strategy 2021-2030 advocates for the reestablishment of a grassroots program which is a positive step and the beginnings of a new wave of agitation towards a coastal agenda by the Commonwealth.

-Dr Beverley Clarke