Identifying and protecting heritage places is fundamental to ensuring that they are appropriately conserved, celebrated and passed on to future generations. The reasons to consider heritage as a discrete part of the environment and to list heritage places include:
- recognising, interpreting and celebrating their values
- providing legal protection
- informing management decisions and resource allocation.
Heritage is identified, assessed and listed through multilayered and overlapping statutory and bureaucratic processes that broadly parallel our multitiered systems of government:
- World Heritage List—World Heritage sites are places that have outstanding universal value that transcends the value they hold for a particular nation. These qualities are expressed in the . Australia’s obligations under this convention are met through provisions in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), which prescribe World Heritage as a matter of 'national environmental significance’.
- National Heritage List—The National Heritage List is established under the EPBC Act and includes natural, historic and Indigenous places that are of outstanding national heritage value to Australia. The EPBC Act prescribes national heritage as a matter of national environmental significance.
- Commonwealth Heritage List—The Commonwealth Heritage List is also established under the EPBC Act, and comprises natural, Indigenous and historic heritage places that are either entirely within a Commonwealth area, or are owned or leased by the Australian Government or an Australian Government authority.
- Australian National Shipwrecks Database—The Australian National Shipwrecks Database was launched in December 2009 and includes known shipwrecks in Australian waters. Australia protects shipwrecks and their associated relics that are more than 75 years old through the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. This Act applies to Australian waters that extend from the low-tide mark to the end of the continental shelf, and is administered in a collaboration between the Australian Government, and state and territory governments (DoEE n.d.[b]).
- State and territory heritage registers—At the state and territory level, the process for listing heritage places varies. All jurisdictions have dedicated national parks and reserves. Some jurisdictions have established registers of Indigenous sites; all jurisdictions protect Indigenous heritage through blanket statutory controls. Each state and territory also has a statutory list of historic places, but the criteria and thresholds for listing vary, and these registers are generally acknowledged as incomplete and inconsistent in some areas. For example, there are separate historic shipwreck registers in some jurisdictions.
- Local heritage—Heritage identification at the local level varies from many thousands of heritage or contributory items in dense urban areas, to a complete absence of any statutory listing or controls for some local government areas. Most Australian local government agencies list, protect and provide advice about individually listed properties and larger heritage precincts, conservation areas and overlays. There are many locally managed reserves, generally dedicated for reasons of natural heritage or amenity, but some of these also contain significant Indigenous places. However, most Indigenous heritage is neither identified nor protected at a local level. Comprehensive national data for local heritage listings are not available.
- Antarctic heritage—Heritage in the Australian Antarctic Territory can be protected through the Antarctic Treaty System through the designation of Historic Sites and Monuments, and Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (see ‘Protected areas’ in the Antarctic environment report).
- Register of the National Estate—The Register of the National Estate was a list of natural, Indigenous and historic heritage places throughout Australia, originally established under the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975. The former Australian Heritage Commission entered more than 13,000 places in the register. In February 2012, the register ceased to have statutory status and is now an information source within the .
- International treaties, charters and guidelines—Some aspects of Australia’s heritage are covered by other international agreements or guidelines, such as the , the , and conventions relating to cultural property (e.g. ).
- Other nonstatutory lists—Heritage lists are also maintained by nongovernment organisations such as the National Trust of Australia, the Institution of Engineers, and the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. Although these lists have no direct statutory force, they are sometimes used to inform decision-making processes such as new or potential heritage listings, and development and works approvals.
Heritage can also be unlisted. Vast areas and many places have not been formally identified or listed, but nevertheless contribute to the nation’s heritage, especially at the local level. This will always be the case, since resources dedicated to survey and assessment projects are never sufficient to allow comprehensive coverage, and notions of what constitutes intergenerational value or heritage are constantly changing. Unlisted heritage can be well managed, particularly through the stewardship of private owners, communities and users, or where developers engage proactively with government agencies.