Public participation to strengthen and legitimize planning processes

Published: 21 July 2016
Last edited: 30 September 2020
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This solution ensured the local communities were actively engaged throughout the most recent planning process for the GBR Marine Park. Going above and beyond what is normally required for public engagement in the legislation guaranteed high legitimacy for this planning process. It also provided detailed information for the park planners, and facilitated the engagement of many others (locally, nationally or internationally) which subsequently led to a better planning process overall.


Scale of implementation
Coral reef
Deep sea
Marine and coastal ecosystems
Seamount / Ocean ridge
Coastal and marine spatial management
Ecosystem services
Local actors
Protected and conserved areas governance
World Heritage
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Poor governance and participation
Aichi targets
Target 11: Protected and conserved areas
Target 18: Traditional knowledge


Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia


Ensuring the wider community is actively engaged throughout the planning process. The process for public participation when preparing a Zoning Plan in the GBR is set out in the legislation and is a requirement to legitimize the planning process. The most recent public participation process exceeded expectations and led to challenges like an unprecedented number of public submissions, mis-information, unrealistic expectations and the silent majority.


Planners and local communities, and everyone with an interest in the future of the GBR

How do the building blocks interact?

These building blocks outline how effective public participation is an important part of achieving a good outcome in any planning process. Dealing with written public submissions is discussed in BB1, including receipting submissions and coding the information. A focussed form for submissions is also suggested to assist both submitters and planners (while not precluding any other information that anyone may wish to submit). BB2 discusses how to deal with those who do not write a submission (the ‘silent majority’) but who still have interests in the planning area. Further aspects for effective public participation are also discussed, including:

  • possible ways to address deliberately distorted or mis-represented information (BB3);
  • the benefits of continuing public engagement throughout the process and why this is more effective (BB4);
  • the value of preparing targeted educational material but also the essential need to ensure the planning team has a good understanding of the various industries who may be affected (BB5);
  • the critical role of politicians and the need to have them engaged throughout the planning process rather than involving them only at the end (eg. when hoping for legislative ratification) (BB6).


Significant changes were made between the draft zoning plan and the final zoning plan, primarily due to high levels of public participation. Many of the modifications to the draft resulted from the detailed information provided in public submissions and from other information received during the planning process. The final zoning plan came into effect in July 2004 and achieved its objectives; it protected the range of biodiversity of the GBR in a way that minimized the impact on the users as far as was practicable. The final plan included many compromises and no one group got exactly what they wanted; everyone felt somewhat aggrieved. However, there was also widespread recognition that the public input had effected huge changes during the planning process and everyone had multiple opportunities to have their say. The high levels of community involvement and visibility of the process due to media attention ensured that members of parliament were well aware of the extent of public participation and the significant changes that occurred between the draft and the final plan. Media attention, interest-group lobbying and government involvement all lead to legitimacy, not only for the plan, but also for implementation and enforcement.


To facilitate and encourage public participation, the GBRMPA embarked on a comprehensive community awareness campaign. Considering the interest in the GBR at local, national and international scales, the consultation program was designed and conducted to reach all interested groups, but with a focus on local communities. During the two formal phases of community participation, staff visited every major town adjacent to the GBR and conducted over 600 meetings in some 90 locations, with thousands of people attending. During these consultation periods, the GBRMPA distributed thousands of submission brochures and there were over 2,000 media items in newspapers, on TV and radio, and on the web. In addition, there were hundreds of other meetings, update newsletters and other communications outside the two formal consultation phases. The GBRMPA knew that the rezoning of the Marine Park would generate public interest. However the level of interest far exceeded expectations. What eventuated was the most comprehensive process of community involvement and participatory planning for any environmental issue in Australia’s history. The 31,600 written public submissions received - 10,190 in the first formal phase and 21,500 in the second phase commenting on the draft zoning plan - were unprecedented compared to previous planning programs in the GBR. All these comments necessitated the development of faster and more effective processes for analysing and recording the information that was received by the GBRMPA. A large number of submissions involved spatial information, including some 5,800 maps in the second formal phase alone. The GBRMPA considered, coded, and analysed all submissions, including this spatial information, and digitized or scanned the maps. Many modifications were made to the draft plan - in some locations, limited options were available to modify the proposed no-take areas, particularly in inshore coastal areas, while still achieving the recommended minimum levels of protection. In November 2003, the revised zoning plan and a regulatory impact assessment were presented to the federal minister and tabled in the Australian Parliament. At this time, the federal government also introduced a Structural Adjustment Package to assist fishers, fishery related businesses, employees, and communities adversely affected by the rezoning. The final zoning plan achieved its objective of protecting the range of biodiversity and formally came into effect 1 July 2004

Contributed by's picture

Jon C. Day ARC Centre for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

Other contributors

ARC Centre for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University