If our heritage includes those places that we have ‘inherited’ and want to pass on to future generations, then the notion of ‘outlook’ is an essential element of heritage. The outlook for Australia’s heritage will depend on the manner in which the Australian Heritage Strategy is embraced, resourced and implemented, not only by the Australian Government, but particularly by the other partners on which the success of the strategy relies.
The Australian Heritage Strategy, which was launched in December 2015, establishes a new outlook for heritage conservation and management in Australia. Responding to many of the issues raised in Australia: state of the environment 2011, the strategy positions the Australian Government to lead major change and foster innovative approaches in partnership with the states, territories, private owners and community groups.
Since 2011, several factors have significantly influenced the context for Australia’s heritage. There has been a growing understanding and acceptance that climate change poses a major threat to both natural and cultural heritage places. Indigenous involvement in land and sea management has expanded, although the fragmented jurisdictional approach to Indigenous heritage remains. There have been some significant investments through the National Environmental Research Program (and subsequent National Environmental Science Programme), Protecting National Historic Sites, Your Community Heritage, Community Heritage and Icons, and other Australian Government and state and territory programs. However, overall, the public-sector resources allocated for heritage management have remained steady or declined. Limited resources have been available to assess the state and condition of Australia’s heritage through the state of the environment process. The Australian Heritage Strategy acknowledges the importance of additional funding sources, and offers some truly innovative approaches, such as a promise to explore a heritage lottery.
The systems used to manage Australian heritage continue to be cumbersome: land reserves, inventories and statutes. These structures do not yet adequately identify, protect, manage, resource or celebrate the integrated nature of our nation’s cultural landscape. Our heritage remains at risk from the impacts of climate change, the threats arising from development and the resource implications of population growth.
The National Reserve System continues to improve, particularly through the addition of substantial Indigenous Protected Areas, but it is not yet comprehensive, nor adequately representative. Declining funding for parks agencies, relative to the increasing extent of the National Reserve System, increases the risk of less effective management in the future. Statutory listing of natural heritage places and reservation of an appropriate set of landholdings are hampered by factors such as conflicting perceptions of value. Climate change poses major risks to natural heritage, which also continues to be threatened by inappropriate land use, development pressures, wildfires, loss of habitat and invasive species. The ultimate impact of these pressures will depend on the ability of scientists and managers to work together, and on commitment to well-resourced, proactive management rather than belated reaction to crises. Adverse effects can be minimised through thorough understanding of natural heritage resources, recognition of the benefits of public–private partnerships and a whole-of-landscape approach, which fosters ecological connectivity.
Australia’s Indigenous heritage remains inadequately documented and protected, and incremental destruction continues. The continued inclusion of additional Indigenous heritage places within protected reserved lands is therefore particularly important, as is increasing involvement of Indigenous people in sustainable land and sea management. Although declining Indigenous language is a cause for concern (insofar as language is an indicator of traditional culture), there are noteworthy improvements in knowledge and practices, which support Indigenous cultural traditions and connections to Country.
Many Australian historic heritage places remain in good condition. However, despite some focus on improving the calibre of statutory lists and registers, they remain inconsistent and incomplete. Historic heritage conservation could be better supported by planning and assessment systems, and continues to be threatened by development, often because heritage is identified during impact assessment processes, rather than proactively. There has been little progress in providing improved incentives for private owners of heritage places.
The Australian Heritage Strategy strongly emphasises the need for effective communication and commitment to best practice, through partnership with professional and community groups, such as Australia ICOMOS, the Australian Committee for IUCN, and the National Trust of Australia.
There is strong national leadership expressed in the Australian Heritage Strategy, but the commitments to implement that strategy are not yet commensurate with the asserted value of Australian heritage that ‘underpins our sense of place and national identity, and makes a positive contribution to the nation’s wellbeing’ (Australian Government 2015a:7).