Influencing the decision
Before having your say about a decision, it is important to figure out who the decision-maker is.
For more information about the different levels of government and the types of decisions that they are responsible for making, see How does the system work?
When having your say, it is important to be clear on what you are being invited to participate in. Is the decision-maker trying to inform you, consult with you, collaborate with you, or engage with you? The International Association for Public Participation has released a useful Public Participation Spectrum designed to help the public work out what level of participation is allowed for in each type of decision-making process.
Government decisions are required to be made in accordance with certain processes under the law. These processes often provide formal opportunities for members of the public to have their say.
Some of the most common methods for influencing decisions are outlined here.
Submissions are one of the key ways that the community can engage with environmental decision-making. In developing your submission you should be asking yourself questions like:
- What do I want to see happen?
- What do I think is good about what is being proposed?
- Where do I think changes could be made?
Writing a submission also presents an opportunity for you to share your local knowledge and experience with decision-makers. Receiving a large number of informed submissions from the community sends a strong message to decision-makers.
There are three main types of opportunities to make submissions.
1. The public has the opportunity to make submissions in relation to a range of key processes under environmental and planning legislation. Examples include:
- preparation of environmental planning instruments (policies and plans)
- assessment of development applications
- preparation of management plans for protected areas and nomination of threatened species and ecological communities
2. Government Departments often publish discussion and/or policy papers on issues as well as draft Bills regarding proposed legislation and invite public comment.
3. You may decide to make a submission about your concerns outside the formal processes mentioned above. These submissions may be in the form of letters and short documents prepared for meetings, often seeking to pro-actively raise issues before politicians and decision makers.
It is important to have a clear message that the decision-maker can respond to, and it is important to be realistic.
If you make a submission, it is a good idea to follow up with the relevant Government Department or Authority. You can do this over the phone or you can try to arrange a meeting. If you are able to meet with the decision-maker, Department or Authority, it is a good idea to summarise your submission into a one-page document which you can hand to the person you are meeting with.
- Find your Australian Senators and your Australian local Member of Parliament
- Find contact details for Australian Ministers
- Find your local Member of NSW Parliament
- Find your NSW Senators
- Find contact details for NSW Ministers
To read more about writing an effective submission, see our Fact Sheet on submissions, letters and petitions.
Writing submissions is not a popularity contest. Decision-makers will take a good idea from one person over a bad idea from many people every day.Pro-forma submissions can be effective at the start of a campaign, for example if you are trying to change the views of politicians so that they understand the depth of feeling across a community that an idea is not supported.
However, you need to follow this up by writing your own submission to engage people and tell them what idea would be better. So, pro-forma then written submission.
- Tom Grosskopf, Director Metropolitan Branch, Regional Operations,Office of Environment and Heritage
Addressing PAC Hearings or Meetings
The Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) is an independent planning body that can either advise the Minister for Planning on aspects of a particular project or, in some cases, be the decision-maker. You can find out if a project you’re interested in has been referred to the PAC by visiting the PAC’s website and searching the PAC register.
The PAC routinely consults the community to help them understand the issues involved in each planning matter. They can do this in two ways – a public hearing or a public meeting.
The distinction between a public hearing and a public meeting is important because if the PAC holds a public hearing, the merits appeal rights of objectors are removed. This means that you will not be able to bring a merits appeal to challenge the project if the PAC approves the project. For more information on merit appeal, read our Fact Sheets on Development applications and consents and the Land and Environment Court.
Where the PAC is the decision-maker, it will hold a public meeting before determining an application if there has been more than 25 public submissions about the application. The PAC's Guide to Commission Meetings is a set of procedures to guide public meetings.
A public hearing is only held at the request of the Minister for Planning. The PAC's Guide to Public Hearings is a set of procedures which explain the public hearing process.
Whether it’s a public meeting or a public hearing, appearing before a PAC is a good opportunity to ensure your concerns are being heard. This is especially important where it is a public hearing as there will be no opportunity to challenge the decision on the merits in Court if you are unhappy with the outcome (note, judicial review may still be available).
The notification requirements are slightly different for public hearings and public meetings, but generally the PAC must give reasonable notice of the hearing or meeting, including in a newspaper and in writing to certain public authorities. Public meetings will also be advertised on the PAC’s website.
The notification itself will set out the subject matter of the meeting or hearing and provide details of the time, date and venue. The notice will also provide details on how to make submissions to the PAC, including how to register to address the PAC at the meeting or hearing.
A schedule of presentations is made publicly available before the hearing/meeting. This schedule will list who will be making submissions and the time that they have been allocated. Time limits are enforced strictly.
You may be questioned on your submission at the end of your presentation.
In preparing your presentation, it is important to keep in mind the PAC terms of reference which limit what it can consider. You should also dress formally, be punctual, speak clearly and loudly and practise your submissions to ensure you will meet time constraints.
Don’t worry if you miss something, your written submission can also be considered by the PAC.
The purpose of a public meeting is to allow the PAC hear from people interested in the proposed development in the context of the Director-General’s Environmental Assessment Report and Recommendations before a decision is made on the application. Therefore people should look at these before attending a public meeting. Do these documents actually address your concerns? If not, where are the shortfalls and inadequacies? The PAC also wants people to look at the approval conditions proposed by the Department. Have your concerns been adequately covered and reflected in those conditions?
Public hearings generally occur as part of a review of a major development proposal. The purpose of a public hearing is to allow interested parties, particularly those who are potentially affected by the development, with an opportunity to present their views to the PAC. The scope of what can be discussed depends on the terms of reference for the review and the public hearing. The review and public hearings are part of the assessment process. The PAC review report and recommendation will be referred back to the Department for it to finalise its assessment of the proposal.
Public meeting – 5 minutes for individuals and 15 minutes for groups.
Public hearing – 5-10 minutes for individuals and 15 minutes for groups.
Given the time limitation to speak, your speech/presentation should be concise and focus on the key issues. Additional information can be provided in writing.
- Paula Poon, Director, Commission Secretariat,Planning Assessment Commission
Addressing Parliamentary Inquiries
From time to time the State or Federal Government will seek the views of the public when it is reviewing legislation or implementing significant new law. Usually, the first step is to write a submission addressing the terms of reference. The Committee responsible for the law will then invite people and organisations to address the Parliamentary Inquiry at a Hearing.
Working with Government Departments
Positive outcomes can be achieved when the community and the Government collaborate to improve the environment. There are many opportunities for the community to work with the Government to improve the environment, including taking new ideas about how to conserve and protect the environment to the Government, participating in consultations for protected area plans of management, appearing at a public hearing about a development application, and nominating a species for protection under environmental law.
Arrange a meeting with the Department
There is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting, even if you have already made a written submission. Try to meet with the Department to discuss your submission. Have they read it? What do they think? Get some feedback about the effectiveness of your submission. This meeting is a second opportunity for you to explain your position, and respond to what the Department thinks about it.
- Warwick Giblin, Environmental & Social Adviser, OzEnvironmental Pty. Ltd.
A decision made by one decision-maker will often impact a matter that is regulated by another Government Department or Authority. For example, an application to the NSW Department of Planning and Environment for the approval of a development that impacts water resources is also relevant to NSW DPI - Water. Decision-makers are often required to notify Departments or Agencies who regulate matters that may be impacted by the activity. There is nothing stopping the public from getting in touch with relevant Departments or Authorities to voice their concerns or discuss the decision.
Contacting Ministers or Members of Parliament
On some issues you may wish to phone, write, fax, email, or meet with the appropriate Minister or your local Member of Australian or State Parliament. Written contact is usually most effective, initially, as actually getting appointments to visit may be difficult.
Don’t forget, you can also contact the members of the opposition party, such as shadow ministers.
Read more about contacting Ministers or Members of Parliament on the Australian and NSW Parliament Directories:
- Australian Ministers
- All Australian Members of Parliament
- Australian Senators
- Australian Shadow Ministry
Contacting local government
Engaging with local government can be an excellent way to raise an issue of concern within your community. As for other levels of government, you have several options, from a phone call to more ongoing contact. Here are some ideas:
- Contact your councillors to raise your concerns or to seek further information.
- Attend council meetings and use them to raise your issue: there is usually a time at each council meeting where the community can speak. You may need to organise this in advance.
- In relation to development applications, councillors often attend site inspections as part of their assessment of the application. Community members can organise their own site inspection and request that Councillors attend. Think strategically – for example, time a site inspection so that Council has a meeting directly afterwards.
While there is no absolute legal right for members of the community to speak at council meetings, if you do wish to speak at a council meeting your council will have policies about this. For more information about speaking at a meeting, contact your local council.
You can read more about engaging with your local Council on the Division of Local Government website, How to have your say in Council.
Working with local councils
It is helpful to council if you can put forward a realistic alternative. For example, say that you are opposed to a development of this scale, and that you would like to see a smaller alternative. Give councillors a way forward that is workable and acceptable.
- Simon Clough, Deputy Mayor, Lismore City Council
Petitions can be used to try to bring a particular concern or issue to the attention of Australian or State Parliament. Petitions may have a wide range of intentions, such as:
- Requesting legislation be introduced or passed;
- Requesting existing legislation be repealed; or
- Requesting that other actions be taken.
Petitions to government, while perhaps not as effective as a number of individual letters or submissions, can give you the numbers to encourage decision makers to take your concern seriously. For example:
- If a petition to the NSW Legislative Assembly contains over 500 signatures, it must be forwarded to the relevant Minister and the Minister must provide a written response on Parliament’s website.
- If a petition to the NSW Legislative Assembly is signed by 10,000 or more people, the subject matter of that petition is set down as an order of the day for discussion by the Legislative Assembly as a matter of public importance.
Petitions may be presented to any person, to local councils, or to the Australian or State Parliament. Petitions to Parliament must be presented by a Member of Parliament.
There are guidelines for the format of petitions to State and Australian Parliaments that must be complied with:
Email petitions are not accepted by Parliament.
Collaborating with others
Working on your own can be difficult. It is a good idea to look for other groups or individuals who are interested in the same issue as you, and share knowledge. People may come together as a group because of a shared concern over an issue or set of issues. Networking is a big part of effectively engaging with the system and gathering information. Often, the more contacts you have, the easier it will be to achieve your aims. Groups may engage with the Government by responding to government proposals or applications that are being assessed by the Government. They may also approach the Government to discuss new ideas for environmental protection.
Incorporation gives a group a legal identity separate from its individual members. Incorporation can benefit individual members of the association by protecting them from legal liability for the actions of the incorporated association in certain circumstances. For more information about incorporating an environmental group, see our Fact Sheet on incorporating an environmental group.
Use diverse methods of communication. I used every method available. Different methods of communication suited different purposes.
- Cherie Saxby, Coordinator, Save Cooper’s Paddock Share information
I started a database of State and Australian government contacts, company contacts, media, councillors, environmental groups, and individuals and I keep adding to it. If anything happens here I send an email to the appropriate group but I only use it when I have something new to report. We work with and share information with other communities on issues that affect us all.
- Kathy McKenzie, Putty Community Association Work with others
Step up and lead when you need to, but step back and rest and let others have the experience as well. If one group doesn’t work for you find another one, or better still start your own, and then form coalitions with others when urgent issues arise.
- Sharyn Cullis, Secretary, Georges River Environmental Alliance
This project has been assisted by the New South Wales Government through its Environmental Trust.