The condition of coastal areas around the world continues to decline despite over 50 years of integrated coastal management efforts. A myriad of institutional instruments such as legislation, policies and plans influence decisions made in the coastal zone. Despite this, there is limited comprehensive analysis of the degree to which institutional arrangements are focused on coastal issues and able to progress coastal management objectives. To address this gap we developed and applied an intentionality and substantiality framework to analyse 92 instruments with a role in coastal management at State, regional and local scales in Australia. We found that: (i) threats to Australia's coast are not adequately identified or managed via institutional instruments; (ii) institutional instruments do not make a contribution to coastal management unless intentionally designed to do so; and (iii) even in the presence of intention, comprehensiveness in the proposed actions is limited. The lack of comprehensive action is particularly evident in instruments operating at the local scale. Consequently, a reliance on local scale support to meet coastal management objectives in isolation is misplaced. While some States have recently implemented coastal reforms, the findings show that the decline in coastal condition is unlikely to be comprehensively addressed through current institutional arrangements.