This article revisits four Australian framework policies with implications for ecologically sustainable development to consider lessons for climate change adaptation. The competition, disaster resilience, sustainable development and water policies examined underline the difficulty in developing and implementing effective policy frameworks. We find that to succeed, a national policy in this federation needs: a coalition of stakeholders advocating for their implementation; medium to long-term bipartisan support; a focus on a perceived urgent national issue; significant socio-economic benefits; a focus on a limited number of core principles and systemic legislative reform with incremental implementation over many years; the allocation by the federal government of substantial funds for state implementation; requirements to report to the Council of Australian Governments; and support from central government agencies rather than marginalisation in the environment portfolio. These qualities are not inherent in the 1992 National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development and this explains why it is now moribund. These findings suggest that it will be particularly hard to develop and difficult to implement an effective national climate change adaptation policy.