Overview of challenges to effective management


Without detracting from positive trends in some areas, successive SoE reports have highlighted consistent problems and trends for the Australian environment. These include:

  • the continuing loss of Australia’s biodiversity
  • the growing risks posed by invasive species
  • increased pressure on our coastal areas because of competition for resources
  • incremental destruction of cultural heritage
  • increased pressures because of a changing climate.

The suite of environmental policies adopted in Australia and aspects of current management arrangements require review and further improvement to address long-term, systemic environmental challenges.

Across each of the thematic reports in SoE 2016, it is clear that the effectiveness of current management and governance arrangements for Australia’s environment is hampered by a number of challenges, which are both longstanding and generally consistent across all sectors.

The SoE themes identify the following key challenges to the effective management of the Australian environment:

  • lack of a nationally integrated and cohesive policy and legislative framework that deals with the complex and systemic nature of the issues facing our environment, and provides clear authority for actions to protect and maintain Australia’s unique natural capital
  • poor collaboration and coordination of policies, decisions and management arrangements across sectors, between different levels of government (national, state and territory, and local councils) and managers (public and private), and over time
  • inadequacy of data and long-term monitoring
  • a lack of follow-though from policy to action
  • insufficient resources for environmental management and restoration
  • inadequate understanding and capacity to identify and measure cumulative impacts, which reduces the potential for coordinated approaches to their management.

Leadership, collaboration and coordination

Environmental governance in Australia is complex, involving all 3 levels of government (national, state and territory, and local government) and numerous private-sector parties.

At the national level, the EPBC Act is the Australian Government’s centrepiece of environmental legislation. It provides a legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places, as well as water resources in relation to coal-seam gas and large coalmining developments. It includes a national scheme under which matters of national environmental significance, as defined under the Act, are directed to the Australian Government, with the states and territories responsible for environmental matters of state and local significance.

The EPBC Act has specific requirements for processes such as identification and listing of species and ecological communities as threatened, and for the development of conservation advice. However, it does not include provisions that require the long-term protection and/or restoration of natural capital, investment in priority actions, implementation of actions, or monitoring and reporting.

In addition to the EPBC Act, the Australian, state and territory governments have comprehensive sets of policies and legislation to regulate and manage the environment. Australia has more than 100 laws and policy instruments addressing the management of the marine environment (Haward & Vince 2008). But, in some cases, national, state and territory laws are not consistent, overlap or leave gaps.

Across the board, the evidence reviewed by successive SoE reports (including SoE 2016) highlights the poor coordination of policies, decisions and management arrangements across sectors, and between different levels of government and managers (public and private) as a key constraint on management effectiveness in Australia. Examples include the following:

  • Currently, many of the planning and delivery functions for our cities are characterised by complex and overlapping processes, and lack clear lines of accountability and effective cross-sectoral approaches and coordination.
  • Heritage management in Australia is undertaken by all levels of government, with considerable overlap, inconsistency and lack of clarity about the respective roles of each.
  • Coastal management in Australia uses a range of approaches by multiple levels of government. Although some plans and management arrangements operate at national or regional scales—for example, under the EPBC Act—the bulk of management is done by state and territory governments, and local councils. For most coastal management issues (such as responding to threats to economically valuable infrastructure as a result of climate change), there is a lack of national coordination.

Coordination between sectors sharing common resources remains low, resulting in inadequate accounting for all pressures on a resource, and inconsistent collection and recording of data, which inhibits regional and national oversight.

The lack of national leadership, collaboration and coordination can have a number of effects:

  • Policies and programs may not work effectively together and may even work against each other.
  • Programs and activities may not be coordinated or may be replicated, resulting in wasted resources or lost opportunities.
  • Pressures acting across jurisdictions may not be addressed effectively throughout their range.

To some extent, the opportunity for effective coordination and collaboration between jurisdictions in Australia may have decreased since 2011 because of the abolition of several national-level ministerial and Council of Australian Governments working groups, which previously provided a forum for discussion, sharing of ideas and practice across jurisdictions, and forging coherent, national approaches to specific issues.

Adequacy of data and long-term monitoring

Since 2011, there have been a number of initiatives aimed at improving our environmental knowledge. For example, the introduction of NESP, a 6-year $142.5 million research funding initiative of the Australian Government, continues work started under the National Environmental Research Program to provide applied environmental science to assist decision-makers understand, manage and conserve Australia’s natural environment.

In addition, the Australian Government has supported research infrastructure projects that collect, store and share data across disciplines, and that are developing tools to integrate and analyse these data, including the:

These initiatives have greatly expanded the information available for assessments included in SoE 2016. Despite this considerable progress, it is still widely acknowledged that there are a lack of data and evidence for assessing the effectiveness of most policies, programs and investments in environmental management in Australia. Inadequate long-term data and monitoring limit our ability to establish adequate early warning of threats and identify opportunities for adaptive management.

For example, planning for the built environment often fails to include biodiversity and heritage assets as key and valuable components. We also do not know the effectiveness of development approval systems in dealing with cumulative impacts.

Our understanding of even the most iconic and well-known species in Australia is often patchy. Sufficient knowledge of the ecosystem processes that maintain the 99 per cent of species that account for Australia’s biodiversity is missing.

It is not possible to ascertain whether our identified, listed and protected Indigenous heritage places are adequate, because of the lack of national coordination and data sharing.

We do not know whether investments in recovery and threat abatement planning or on-ground activities (such as those supported through the Green Army) are effective. Current data are not sufficient to determine whether the resilience of particular ecosystems is improving as a result of interventions, or to provide adequate information about ecological boundaries and potential ‘tipping points’.

Translating policy into practice

In some sectors, Australia has had a history of investing significant resources in the establishment of strong environmental policy, government and management frameworks. However, these efforts are often then undermined by a failure to fully implement key policies and strategies.

Gaps between the potential of policy and the actual results achieved can occur for a range of reasons, including procedural timelags, knowledge gaps, perceived trade-offs between environmental protection and economic objectives, and difficulties working across different governance levels.

In one example, since 2011, there has been a dispersal of responsibility for the National Water Initiative before actions have been completed. In another, a 2015 review of Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030 found that it had not effectively influenced biodiversity conservation activities, there were insufficient national-scale data to comprehensively report national progress, and some targets were inadequately specified to assess progress.

The Australian Heritage Strategy provides a good starting point for the effective management of Australia’s heritage, and positions the Australian Government to provide strong leadership for fundamental changes, and to foster innovative approaches in partnership with the states, territories, private owners and community groups. Ultimately, its effectiveness will depend on the resources and efforts put into implementation.

Managing cumulative impacts

Since 2011, understanding of how pressures interact to generate cumulative impacts and how contemporary management systems struggle to deal with cumulative impacts has improved. However, similar to other countries, Australia’s capacity to identify and manage the cumulative impacts of multiple pressures on the environment is generally poor.

The lack of recognition of the cumulative effects of multiple pressures on the environment, and the lack of coordinated approaches to assessing and managing these pressures, have the potential to result in gradual declines, despite appropriate management at the level of the individual pressure, sector or jurisdiction.

In several sectors, significant damage and change to the environment occurs as a result of the accumulated effect of many small, individual actions that by themselves have minimal effect. For example, incremental destruction is a major threat to Indigenous heritage. Many sites are destroyed following conscious, lawful and seemingly well-informed decisions because assessments are made on the basis of impact on individual sites rather than a comprehensive consideration of cumulative impact.

Despite appropriate management at the level of an individual sector or jurisdiction, the tendency for poor coordination across sectors and jurisdictions can also exacerbate this failure of management, resulting in duplication of efforts, and an inability or failure to account for all pressures on the environment.

A number of factors hamper the management of cumulative impacts, including legislative constraints, lack of visibility of future developments, and the lack of practical frameworks for quantifying and assessing cumulative impacts and then assigning relative risk to individual decisions.

There are lessons to be shared to improve management through ongoing investment in, and implementation of, a range of cumulative impact and risk-based methods that are being developed. For example, in the Australian marine environment, methods are being developed to assess the cumulative nature of multiple impact sources. Some sectors have identified the need to incorporate such research into management frameworks for better accounting of cumulative impacts, as seen in the following examples:

  • The Australian Fisheries Management Authority and the Commonwealth Fisheries Research Advisory Board have identified development of cumulative risk assessment methods as a priority for research.

NESP’s Marine Biodiversity Hub has developed an outline for monitoring of marine biodiversity, based on identifying the links between values and pressures (Hayes et al. 2015).

Another example is the Australian Government’s Bioregional Assessment Programme, which provides transparent scientific information to better understand the potential impacts of coal-seam gas and coalmining developments on water resources and water-dependent assets, such as wetlands and groundwater bores. This program enables managers to scan current and future pressures on particular water resources, and make decisions on acceptable impacts in a planned, rather than reactive, way. It offers the most open and accessible data, information and assessment approach in Australian natural resource history.

Such approaches could improve monitoring and assessment of the environment, including dealing with the cumulative impact from multiple pressures.

Overview information
Jackson WJ, Argent RM, Bax NJ, Bui E, Clark GF, Coleman S, Cresswell ID, Emmerson KM, Evans K, Hibberd MF, Johnston EL, Keywood MD, Klekociuk A, Mackay R, Metcalfe D, Murphy H, Rankin A, Smith DC, Wienecke B (2016). Overview: Overview of challenges to effective management. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/overview/topic/overview-challenges-effective-management, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65510c633b