Condition and integrity



This section examines the condition and integrity of Australian heritage places according to both jurisdiction and nature.

World Heritage

In 2011, the Australian Government, in consultation with state governments produced a periodic report on our World Heritage sites. An obligation of the World Heritage Convention, the report assesses whether the World Heritage values of our 19 properties inscribed on the World Heritage List are being maintained. Australia's report synthesised information and views provided by World Heritage property managers, Australian and state government agencies, consultative committees, Australian representatives from the International Council on Monuments and Sites, and the Australian Committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Australia's periodic report is generally very positive, acknowledging Australia's expertise in World Heritage management, available human and financial resources, and the legislative protection of the EPBC Act. Nonetheless, the report found that the three most significant factors affecting World Heritage properties in Australia are:

  • invasive and alien species or hyperabundant species
  • climate change and severe weather events
  • social or cultural impacts on heritage (including changes in traditional ways of life, as well as impacts of tourism).

Management needs identified in the report include further work on indicators and monitoring, and improved education, information and awareness building.22

In 2008, an Australian World Heritage Advisory Committee was appointed to provide a forum for liaison between the individual World Heritage area advisory committees and advice to the government on cross-cutting issues. The committee has met face to face on three occasions, and has provided advice and recommendations to Australian Government and state officials and to the Environment Protection and Heritage Ministerial Council (now abolished), but its activities are constrained by limited Australian Government staff support and other resources.

National heritage

National heritage is identified and managed by the Australian Government under the EPBC Act, in accordance with amendments made in 2003, which created the National Heritage List and the Commonwealth Heritage List. The first review report on these lists, covering the period from 1 January 2004 to 30 June 2008, was published in 2008.23 In accordance with requirements specified in the EPBC Act, this report is highly focused on the processes followed and compliance with them, rather than providing an independent assessment of the condition and integrity of listed places.

Studies of natural, Indigenous and historic heritage completed for this SoE report suggest that identified places with national heritage values (including all of Australia's World Heritage places) are in good condition and retain a high degree of integrity. This finding reflects that the overwhelming majority of these places are in public ownership, were often subject to conservation planning as part of the listing process, and in many cases are specifically managed for conservation purposes.

However, there have been a number of instances of adverse impact on condition or heritage value, including, for example, the poisoning of the Tree of Knowledge in the central western Queensland town of Barcaldine, and damage to Indigenous rock art on the Burrup Peninsula. Incremental damage is also wrought by the continuing presence of threats, including site-specific issues such as rabbits and rodents on Macquarie Island, and more general challenges posed by climate change, population growth and economic development. Although, in theory, the Australian Government should be alerted to the prospect of adverse impacts on the condition and integrity of nationally significant places, the reality is that available resources confine government activities to generally reactive processes and place limits on the national assessment and listing process.

For the Commonwealth Heritage List, the EPBC Act requires Australian Government agencies to prepare heritage strategies and management plans directed towards retaining Commonwealth heritage values. Although a number of such plans and strategies are in place, reliable data—based on monitoring of the condition of Commonwealth heritage places—are not available, so the outcome of this management cannot be meaningfully assessed.

State heritage

At the state level, efforts and resources continue to focus on listing and impact assessment processes, rather than on monitoring and evaluating condition and integrity. There is also considerable variation in scope and approach to state SoE reporting. However, it is possible to glean some general understanding from individual state and territory SoE reports::

  • The Australian Capital Territory regards its heritage as in good condition, but notes the need for adequate protection when changes are made to the responsibilities of the National Capital Authority, to ensure compliance with Australian Capital Territory heritage legislation.24
  • New South Wales notes that knowledge is increasing and information gathering is continuing, as are efforts to improve the protection of natural and cultural heritage assets and values through a range of related tools, including regulation, nonstatutory agreements and partnerships. There has been a significant increase in land protected for Aboriginal cultural values and continuing reliance on heritage listing as a major mechanism for managing heritage across the state.25
  • In Queensland, development pressures continue to degrade both natural and cultural heritage, in combination with more recent impacts of drought, fire, flood and major weather events. The majority of places identified as being endangered by the Australian Council of National Trusts in the early 2000s remain under threat, or are even damaged and destroyed. Initiatives such as Rediscovering Queensland (see Box 9.6) seek to address the challenges of managing and protecting heritage values posed by lack of knowledge and information about the condition of natural and cultural heritage places.26
  • In South Australia, measures of the state of heritage are strongly focused on the listing process, rather than monitoring condition and integrity. Available information shows a significant increase in the number of listed places and increased protection for Indigenous sites and objects, and shipwrecks, but decreasing documentation of geological heritage.27
  • Tasmania is in the process of major reviews for both Indigenous and historic heritage management, and state-level reporting acknowledges the need to develop clear indicators that can be used to measure condition, trends and changes. A range of environmental indicators have been suggested: knowledge of heritage places and objects, visual condition and integrity of heritage areas and objects, availability and distribution of skills, and community awareness and involvement.28 (See Box 9.7.)
  • In Victoria, heritage is covered through a separate 'state of heritage' report, which generally concludes that the state of heritage is good, with some significant deterioration in condition and integrity at particular places.29
    • The correlation between good condition and high integrity is obvious, with public heritage places having noticeably the highest integrity. The places with poorest condition also have the lowest integrity, with privately owned places faring worse. Just over a third of rural places have good condition and condition deteriorates significantly as distance from Melbourne increases. Marshall et al29.
  • In Western Australia, reporting on the state of heritage acknowledges that government arrangements are fragmented, impeding adequate protection and management. There is no single list of heritage places, nor an adequate program for monitoring and reporting, which affects heritage management decisions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the condition of a number of heritage places is declining, but there is no empirical data to support this observation.30

Box 9.7 A government-funded conservation program improves the condition of a state-listed heritage place

Rotten Row, the married quarters of the Cascades Probation Station in south-east Tasmania, was a much-photographed ruin on the Tasman Peninsula. As an abandoned structure for more than 50 years, it was uneconomical to conserve or maintain as a ruin. However, the property owners decided to conserve and adapt the building for accommodation use. The underlying need was for access to appropriate expertise and funding. Expertise in conservation repairs was found locally, and funding from the National Heritage Investment Initiative was secured to allow the structure to be rebuilt. An enthusiastic owner, skilled tradespeople, professional advice and government funding combined to retain and recover the heritage values of this state-significant place from the convict period.

her-box-9-7-rottonrow-bef.jpg her-box-9-7-rottonrow-aft.jpg

Rotten Row before (left) and after (right) conservation work (photos by Peter Rigozzi)

Local heritage

At the local level, comprehensive national data about the condition and integrity of Australia's heritage are not available. However, it is evident that several key factors influence local heritage:

  • The identification process, which is inconsistent and incomplete on a national basis, leads to inadequate information for good decision-making.
  • Processes for impact assessment and considerations of development consent are almost invariably framed in terms of one-off adverse effects on local heritage, with a likely (but unproven) cumulative adverse effect, potentially leading to progressive, incremental destruction.
  • The establishment of clear up-front heritage policies and guidelines can foster outcomes for condition and integrity that are commensurate with the level of heritage significance, enabling better heritage outcomes.
  • Many local and state authorities have instigated incentive programs, including access to information, grants and award schemes, which improve the condition and values of some local heritage places (Box 9.8).
  • Community stewardship programs, such as Landcare, Hands on Heritage and Working on Country, also play a significant role in heritage conservation at the local level.

Box 9.8 Heritage incentives at the local government level

The Shire of Busselton is committed to helping owners conserve heritage places wherever possible. Its Environment and Heritage Conservation Policy includes a range of incentives that can be offered to owners in return for a commitment to conservation of the heritage place. Incentives can be offered to owners of places on the Heritage List, on the Municipal Heritage Inventory or located in a heritage area.

Incentives take the form of relaxation or modification of one or more of the planning requirements for that place that would normally apply under Town Planning Scheme 20 or the Residential Design Codes. This includes but is not limited to:

  • parking requirements
  • plot ratio
  • residential density
  • use categories
  • the requirement for only one dwelling on a rural lot (which can be relaxed where an owner wishes to construct a new dwelling and the existing dwelling is a listed heritage place).

The shire may, in certain circumstances, allow a reduction of rates in return for conservation works to a heritage place. This will apply in the year the work is carried out or a subsequent year and for the following four years (a total of five years), at the discretion of the shire.

In return for incentives, the shire may require the owner of a heritage place to enter into a heritage agreement under the Heritage of Western Australia Act 1990 or a heritage agreement under the Local Town Planning Scheme with the Shire of Busselton. This policy was adopted in 2010. Proposals are considered on a case-by-case basis, with the Regional Heritage Adviser advising on and negotiating appropriate heritage outcomes.

Natural heritage

Natural and cultural heritage indicator 5 considers the physical condition and integrity of a sample of natural heritage places

There is no 'central' picture of the condition and integrity of natural heritage places, although this is an issue that has been identified in Australia's Strategy for the National Reserve System 2009-30.17 An assessment of natural heritage places for this report focused on the current condition and integrity of 75 places located on public and private lands across Australia. Many of these places form part of the National Reserve System, which includes more than 9300 protected areas.10

The study analysed the condition and integrity of natural heritage places by reviewing specific factors, including their natural heritage values; effects such as erosion, climate change and weeds; presence of threatened species; place use (including recreational and other activities); documented management regimes; and wildfire and weather events. The limited sample size for the study means that, at best, it provides only an anecdotal indication of the natural heritage condition of the surveyed places. For many places, information was not readily available.

The study suggests that places on the World Heritage List and National Heritage List have great threats to their condition, mainly due to their higher use and associated impacts. Similarly, higher use meant that places in New South Wales and Victoria recorded a larger number of threats, reflecting population pressures and visitation. The places assessed also faced a range of threats from both natural and anthropogenic factors, including weather events, wildfires, invasive species, soil erosion, and deficiencies in general management frameworks or particular plans and resources for issues such as threatened species.10

2.2.6 Indigenous heritage

Traditional owners should have an unqualified right to refuse a cultural heritage management plan, permit or any other form of authorisation that relates to the protection or destruction of cultural heritage. Schnierer31

Natural and cultural heritage indicator 7 considers the physical condition and integrity of a sample of Indigenous heritage places

Indigenous heritage is managed through multiple jurisdictions and a cohesive picture is difficult to achieve. This fragmented view has been exacerbated by the progressive demise of the Register of the National Estate.

The State of Indigenous cultural heritage 2011 report considered two important indicators of the state of Indigenous heritage: the physical condition and integrity of Indigenous heritage places, and the use of Indigenous languages.12 This report found that the trend towards an increasing interest in Indigenous heritage in Australia has continued, and listing of Indigenous heritage places on the national and state heritage lists has continued to grow—in some jurisdictions, more strongly than other forms of heritage listing.

Overall, there have been a large number of positive developments, but also some trends that significantly undermine the protection of Indigenous heritage. Conflicts about destruction of Indigenous heritage by industry activities remain common, as do debates about whether the support available for Indigenous culture and heritage programs is adequate. One of the main threats to Indigenous heritage places is conscious destruction through government-approved development—that is, development for which decision-makers are aware of (or obliged to be informed about) Indigenous heritage impacts, yet choose to authorise the destruction of Indigenous heritage.12 This widespread process, combined with a general lack of understanding of physical Indigenous heritage, means that individual decisions on assessment and development result in progressive, cumulative destruction of the Indigenous cultural resource.

The State of Indigenous cultural heritage 2011 report particularly noted that increased regulation and reporting of Indigenous heritage required as part of environmental assessment for development approvals had not reduced the rate of approved destruction of significant Indigenous heritage sites, which is generally opposed by Indigenous communities.12

Indigenous people play an important role in managing Indigenous heritage and sustainably managing Australia's natural resources, including an increasing percentage of Australia's reserves. Indigenous traditional knowledge for environmental management is a growing area of research,32 with a number of partnership programs between Indigenous groups and governments. Policies are beginning to recognise the relationship between natural, cultural and historic heritage, and how these are integrated under Indigenous definitions of heritage. Some jurisdictions also recognise Indigenous people's rights to use, access and manage lands, waters and natural resources for cultural purposes.g

However, the involvement of Indigenous people in heritage management remains primarily in the form of consultants and advisers, rather than formal decision-makers. The capacity of Indigenous people to care for their own heritage, exercise responsibility for country and transmit cultural practice to new generations also continues to be hindered by local government arrangements (Box 9.9), as well as social and economic disadvantage, as acknowledged in the Australian Government's Closing the Gap initiative.33

Box 9.9 Tjilbruke dreaming trails, South Australia

The Tjilbruke dreaming trails are in the traditional lands of the Kaurna nation in South Australia. Tjilbruke dreaming relates to the journey taken by Tjilbruke, ancestral creator being of the Kaurna people, who shaped the land into the formation that people know today. Tjilbruke dreaming is the predominant dreaming of southern Kaurna country. Among other things, the dreaming explains the creation of seven freshwater springs along the coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula between Crystal Brook in the north, through the Adelaide plains to Parewarangga (Cape Jervis) in the south (Figure A). The dreaming is a complex story that speaks of creation, the law and human relationships for Kaurna people.

The trails are spread over large tracts of public and privately owned lands—extending through four local government areas and some national parks.12The trails are managed by the four local councils along the trails, in some cases in partnership with the Kaurna nation. The trails are widely regarded by non-Aboriginal South Australians as an important feature of the region.

The sites along the Tjilbruke dreaming trails are still used by local Kaurna people today as part of their living culture, and the Kaurna people have a customary responsibility to manage and maintain the trails. Although there is widespread recognition of the significance of the trails and the need for access for the Kaurna to continue cultural practices, their ability to fulfil their responsibility to manage the sites is severely limited because the trails are located on public and private lands, none of which are Aboriginal-owned or controlled. The traditional owners are therefore heavily reliant on landowners to manage and maintain the trails and sacred sites.

The trails are reportedly in fair physical condition overall, although some sections are in better condition than others. There is ongoing maintenance on some sections of the trails located on public land, but funding for site maintenance and upkeep is an ongoing issue. The integrity of the cultural practices associated with the trails is affected by the proximity of residential housing to some places used for secret men's and women's business.

Source: Schnierer et al.12

Natural and cultural heritage indicator 24 is a survey of use of Indigenous languages

Indigenous language is an extraordinarily important indicator of the health of Indigenous culture and thus the condition of the nation's Indigenous heritage.h

Reporting on Indigenous language has focused on numbers and proportions of speakers, using data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) and, more recently, from the National Indigenous Languages Survey, a comparative assessment of the endangerment status of individual Indigenous languages across the country (National Indigenous Languages Survey, as cited in Schnierer et al.12). Work for this report focuses on indicators of the vitality of Indigenous language, including:

  • intergenerational language transmissions
  • absolute number of speakers
  • official attitudes and policies towards languages
  • language programs
  • proportion of Indigenous people whose main language spoken at home is an Indigenous language
  • proportion of Indigenous people who speak an Indigenous language.

Indigenous Australian languages have rapidly declined since European settlement and have been replaced by English or creoles. Today, Australian society is effectively monolingual. Although English is not officially recognised as the national language, it is the language of every societal institution including government, legal and education systems.

At the time of European settlement, there were more than 250 Aboriginal languages. Today there are just 145 languages, most of which are no longer fully or fluently spoken. Only three to six languages are still spoken by all members of all generations in all domains (Table 9.1), although some Indigenous communities still use fragments of their language even when it is not fully spoken. The endangered status of Indigenous Australian languages is also illustrated by the slow but steady decline in the number of Indigenous people who speak an Indigenous language at home. In the 2008 NATSISS, 11.5% of Indigenous people aged 15 years and over spoke an Indigenous language at home, compared with 12% in 2002 (National Indigenous Languages Survey, as cited in Schnierer et al.12).

The majority of the widely spoken Indigenous languages are spoken in remote areas of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland, where it was difficult for the non-Indigenous colonists to establish settlements. In these areas, the focus of language policy and programs is on maintenance and preservation. In other parts of the country, particularly in the south-east and along the south-east coast, Indigenous languages are no longer fully or fluently spoken. The focus in these regions is on language revitalisation—a process that has been the subject of increasing interest and support from the Indigenous community over the past five years.

In 2009, the Australian Government launched a new national Indigenous languages policy. This aims to maintain critically endangered languages and reclaim unspoken Indigenous languages by providing a framework for coordinated action among the bodies involved, including government, Indigenous language organisations, cultural institutions, and educational and research institutions.12 However, the new national policy was not accompanied by a boost to the funding program that underpins it.

Ironically, at the same time as the Australian Government was launching its new Indigenous languages policy, the Northern Territory Government withdrew funding for bilingual education from the remaining bilingual schools, effectively ending bilingual education. The division between the national and territory policy is a major obstacle to implementing a coherent direction for Indigenous languages, especially in areas such as education. 12

Table 9.1 Endangerment status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages
Rating Endangerment description
Number of languages Languages include
5 Safe 3-6 Alyawarr, Girramay,a Nyangumarta, Walmajarri,a Walpiri, Yanyuwaa
4 Unsafe 0  
3 Definitely endangered 2 Garrwa, Kuku Yalajib
2 Severely endangered 9 Adnyamathanha, Kayardild, Kaytetye, Koko Bera, Mudburra, Rembarrnga, Tainikuit, Waanyi,c Warlmanpa
1 Critically endangered 14 Alawa, Bardi, Kalaw Lagaw Ya, Kalaw Kawaw Ya, Lardil, Meriam Mir, Ngarlawangka, Tjungundji, Umbindhamu, Wajarri, Wambaya, Wangkatha, Wargamay, Yidiny
0 No longer fully spoken 155  

National Indigenous Languages Survey, as cited in Schnierer et al.12
a These languages should have an 'at least' descriptor preceding their classification because the National Indigenous Languages Survey (NILS) places them in the 'strong' category, but this rating appears inaccurate according to other information provided during the NILS that suggests they are in fact more endangered.
b This language could also be given a 2 rating as severely endangered.
c This language could also be given a 1 rating as critically endangered.

Note: The NILS in 2005 was the first comprehensive national survey of Indigenous Australian languages, and assigned the following endangerment ratings:

'Safe' means the language is regularly used by all age groups, including children.

'Unsafe' means the language is used by 30-70% of the under-20 age group part of the time or in a partial fashion, and is used by the parental generation and upwards.

'Definitely endangered' means the language is most used by the parental generation (20+ years) and upwards.

'Severely endangered' means the language is mostly used by the grandparental generation (40+ years) and upwards.

'Critically endangered' means the language is known to very few speakers, in the great-grandparental (60+ years) generation.

'No longer fully spoken' means there are no speakers left.

2.2.7 Historic heritage

Natural and cultural heritage indicator 6 considers the process of listing, area and distribution of identified historic heritage places

The study of condition and integrity of historic heritage places for this report took the form of a physical survey of a proportion of the places entered in the Register of the National Estate and, in some cases, the various state and territory heritage registers.11 The survey covered every state and territory, and included as wide a regional coverage as the existing heritage registers allow, with a particular emphasis on an equal spread of places in rural and urban environments. The study recognised the importance of including local places, as these are often where the majority of Australians interact with heritage. The places included in the survey were predominantly buildings, with some other types of places, such as industrial sites. Owing to resource limitations, the survey considered physical condition and integrity rather than intangible values.

The survey provides a simple overview of the continued existence, condition, integrity and use of a sample of the nation's historic heritage, and allows trends in the health of that heritage to be identified (Figure 9.12). The study repeated a survey first undertaken for the 2001 SoE report and repeated in 2004, and was therefore able to identify trends apparent over the intervening period. The study found that the majority of historic heritage places are in fair to good condition and retain integrity of their identified values, with relatively little change in the condition or integrity of the survey sample.

The report notes that there is a substantial gap in the process of monitoring the state of the historic environment, as the health of heritage in a huge area of the continent has not been included in samples used for SoE reporting. The authors note that this gap in the data might be addressed, or at least tested, by studying or surveying specific, selected nonurban and remote areas in each jurisdiction.11

The authors also observe that natural cycles in heritage place maintenance might skew the observation of their condition. Historic places particularly may be conserved as funds become available to the owner or manager. For example, grant funds may instigate a one-off major conservation exercise. Alternatively, after a long period with no maintenance, an owner may decide that works cannot be deferred any longer, or a place may change ownership and deferred maintenance then takes place, with or without additional conservation works. The effect on the results of condition monitoring is that if maintenance is deferred the condition of the place is reported as deteriorating, when in fact it is part of a relatively normal cycle of maintenance. The authors suggest that more refined observation of this cycle and the drivers that lengthen or shorten the interval between maintenance events might help distinguish between monitoring of the normal cycle and identification of deterioration in the nation's historic environment. This in turn could lead to better targeted or better designed government conservation funding programs.11

g Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Indigenous Advisory Committee SoE 2011 workshop, 10 November 2010. Workshop notes are available on the SoE website,

h Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Indigenous Advisory Committee SoE 2011 workshop, 10 November 2010. Workshop notes are available on the SoE website,

Mackay R (2011). Heritage: Condition and integrity. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b658bbe13a0