The adequacy of planning for heritage management can be assessed by considering the policies and plans in place that result in management actions to address major pressures and risks to heritage values. These plans and policies should also include allocation of roles and responsibilities for managing heritage issues.

Management plans

Nearly all National Heritage places that responded to the National Heritage monitoring survey have a management plan in place or are preparing draft plans, which identify the values for which the place was listed, and address the condition, conservation, management and presentation of National Heritage values. The majority also aim to have a new or updated management plan within the next 5 years. However, there are opportunities to improve policies and guidance on monitoring and reporting on the condition of listed values (WHAM 2017).

Resource limitations affect other national contributions to heritage planning. For example, in a 5-year review period leading up to 30 June 2013 (DoE 2013), only 1 management plan for a Commonwealth Heritage place was finalised as a legislative instrument (Mawson’s Huts Historic Site), having been through the full EPBC Act process. The department has received 45 draft management plans, which await review. Summary figures are not available on the number of Australian Government agencies that do not have the required written heritage strategies for managing places with listed or potential Commonwealth Heritage values.


The preparation and launch of the Australian Heritage Strategy represent the most significant improvement in leadership of Australian heritage since SoE 2011. The strategy sets out a clear and strong vision, and an ambitious set of objectives. However, it will require resourcing and further leadership from the Australian Government (see Box HER27), and state and territory governments, and support from nongovernment organisations and private owners, if it is to deliver its ambitious aspirations. Meanwhile, there continue to be constraints on other areas of effective national leadership, including the statutory limitations on the role of the Australian Heritage Council, the absence of any nationally coordinated leadership in Indigenous heritage, and the continuing diminution in resources allocated to heritage management by the Australian, and state and territory governments.

The Australian Heritage Strategy recognises the importance of developing standards and coordinating matters of common interest across the Australian heritage sector. Unfortunately, although there is recognition of the need for national leadership, there is a lack of corresponding resources. The diminishing heritage budget available to the department and the limits on the statutory coverage provided by the EPBC Act mean that national efforts focus on managing Commonwealth lands and agencies, places on the National Heritage List and Commonwealth Heritage List, associated processes for listing, and EPBC Act referrals and approvals. The framework of the Australian Heritage Strategy offers opportunities for state and local government agencies, as well as professional and community groups, to assume greater strategic roles in heritage conservation. Some Australian states have initiated their own heritage strategies (see Box HER28).

Jurisdictional arrangements

Heritage management in Australia is undertaken by all 3 levels of government, with considerable overlap and inconsistency. The Australian Government is responsible for World Heritage, National Heritage and Commonwealth Heritage places under the provisions of the EPBC Act, but may also manage other heritage places directly through ownership, or indirectly through other statutory instruments or control mechanisms (e.g. the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 or Foreign Investment Review Board approvals). State and territory governments typically regulate places of state or territory significance, but also places of local significance that are owned and managed by state or territory agencies, and some classes of places, such as Aboriginal sites or habitat for threatened species. Local government often (but not always) protects and regulates local heritage, but may also own or manage places of state or national heritage value.

The complexity of these jurisdictional arrangements results in 2 general problems. Firstly, the management of heritage according to ‘natural’, ‘Indigenous’ and ‘historic’ categories at the national level by a single government agency contrasts with many state and territory arrangements, where these responsibilities are split between different agencies. It would be helpful if the Australian Government could lead a move towards a consistent approach across the jurisdictions. Secondly, there is a continuing lack of clarity between the roles of the Australian, state and territory, and local governments. The Australian Heritage Strategy notes that the shared nature of heritage management in Australia can lead to 2 unintended consequences (Australian Government 2015a:11):

  • situations where there is duplication of effort and overlap of regulatory coverage, which can increase the burden on business and communities, and lead to inefficient allocation of scarce resources
  • situations where some heritage matters do not receive the attention or protection they deserve because there is an expectation that other parties, including private owners, are responsible.

The Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment and Australian World Heritage Intergovernmental Agreement are clear about some roles and responsibilities. Coordination also occurs through the Heads of Parks, and the Heritage Chairs and Officials of Australia and New Zealand. However, there are no similar national group or coordination processes for Indigenous heritage.

There are a range of important statutes, national policy documents and strategies that provide an excellent foundation for holistic heritage management and leadership. Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2020, for example, indicates:

The important role of traditional Indigenous knowledge in contributing to the maintenance of Australia’s biodiversity must be actively promoted to the whole Australian community. We also need to ensure that curriculums at all levels in Australia promote an understanding of traditional Indigenous knowledge, how it has shaped Australia’s environment, and the social and economic benefits of applying it in conjunction with modern management techniques. (National Biodiversity Strategy Review Task Group 2009:38)

However, Australia has yet to ratify the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. This is a significant omission, because the convention aims to raise awareness of, and protect, the uses, expressions, knowledge and techniques that people recognise as an integral part of their cultural heritage. Intangible heritage such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, and traditional craftsmanship knowledge and techniques may constitute part of the value of both Indigenous and historic places, and may also contribute to traditional conservation and management of natural and cultural heritage.

Substantial gaps remain in the legislative protective regime for Australian heritage. In particular, protection of natural and Indigenous places and values in several jurisdictions remains inadequate (see Box HER29). Some jurisdictions offer little protection for natural places of significance outside reserved lands. Indigenous heritage protection continues to face significant issues relating to the recognition of ‘traditional’ or ‘associative’, as opposed to ‘scientific’, values. This situation arises from early Indigenous heritage legislation, which was designed to protect archaeological sites rather than wider Indigenous culture and, therefore, may not protect contemporary values held by the community. A welcome exception is provided by recent amendments to the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (Vic), which enable registration of Aboriginal intangible heritage on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register. The amendments also establish Aboriginal intangible heritage agreements, which allow traditional owners to decide whether and how their traditional knowledge is used, and for what purpose (Aboriginal Victoria 2016).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (ATSIHP Act) enables Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to apply to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Energy to protect areas and objects (including, in some cases, human remains) from injury or desecration. In response, the minister can make declarations to protect areas and objects from threats of injury or desecration when they are of particular significance in accordance with Aboriginal tradition, as defined in the ATSIHP Act.

The ATSIHP Act has done little to fulfil its intended purpose of protecting significant Aboriginal areas or objects. Between 2011 and 2016, 32 applications were received for emergency protection under s. 9 of the Act, 22 applications were received for long-term protection under s. 10 of the Act, and 7 applications were received for protection for objects under s. 12 of the Act. During the past 6 years, no declarations under ss. 9, 10 or 12 of the Act were made (Figure HER17).

In 2015, the Australian Government released Our north, our future: white paper on developing northern Australia (Australian Government 2015b), which includes a commitment to consult Indigenous Australians and industry on possible amendments to the ATSIHP Act. This includes the possibility of a system of accreditation of state and territory laws that meet certain standards. This would enable the Australian Government to take a more active leadership role in the protection of sacred sites and objects. In the first instance, consultation is being progressed through the Indigenous Advisory Committee to the Minister for the Environment and Energy. The Australian Heritage Strategy also commits to review the effectiveness of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984'.

UNESCO 2001 Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage

Australia has a rich underwater cultural heritage, including historic shipwrecks, aircraft, and underwater archaeological sites and artefacts. Although current state and Australian Government legislation protects historic shipwrecks and relics, other forms of underwater cultural heritage do not receive the same level of protection.

Since SoE 2011, little progress has been made towards ratification of the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, even though a meeting of the former Environment Protection Heritage Council in November 2009 endorsed Australia pursuing ratification. The convention aims to assist countries in managing and preserving their unique underwater cultural heritage. Australia’s ratification of the convention would help ensure the effective safeguarding of all forms of underwater cultural heritage. The Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 (Cwlth) is also under review, to include a broader definition of underwater cultural heritage, and to improve outdated compliance and enforcement mechanisms that are no longer consistent with best-practice heritage management (see Box HER30).

The Australian Heritage Strategy includes a statement of intent to ‘progress ratification of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage’, and commits to ‘review and modernise the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 to better align with international best practice’ (Australian Government 2015a:31). In November 2016, the Australian Government announced that new legislation would be introduced in 2017 to extend protection to plane wrecks, Indigenous heritage sites and other underwater cultural sites in addition to shipwrecks, noting that this will enable Australia to pursue ratification of the convention (Frydenberg 2016).

Statutory protection

Heritage statutes and regulations are effectively planning controls with additional management provisions. Many heritage decisions are made in the context of applications for development consent. Officers at the national, state and territory, and local level play an important role in managing heritage through the consent process, by evaluating applications, and providing guidance to both public-sector and private-sector applicants through prelodgement engagement processes. Most statutes, planning instruments and guidelines are well resolved and contribute to good outcomes. However, the planning system does not always serve cultural heritage well in 4 areas, thereby increasing pressure on the resource:

  • The notions of ‘inheritance’ and ‘public good’ could be better integrated within strategic planning frameworks and processes. Heritage places are typically managed as a constraint to be overcome or a restriction on orderly land use, rather than as a community asset to be understood, valued and celebrated.
  • The planning systems in all jurisdictions are perceived as reactive and incorporating a principle that heritage can be negotiable or expendable if a sufficient case can be made.
  • It is difficult to consider the cumulative impact of many individual decisions, in the absence of readily available, comprehensive data across multiple jurisdictions and levels of government.
  • The systems do not offer adequate incentives to the thousands of private owners who are responsible for the care, control and conservation of the overwhelming majority of historic buildings in Australia.

The development assessment and consent process relies on reserved lands and statutory heritage lists. In Australia, most cultural heritage places are only protected if they are formally identified and listed, whether at local, state and territory, or national level. (Exceptions include Aboriginal objects, and rare and endangered species habitat in most jurisdictions.) However, many heritage lists have grown through inconsistent and sporadic processes, leading to significant gaps and implicit threats to unlisted places or unreserved significant lands. Predevelopment assessment processes and discussions (which may identify actual or potential unlisted heritage places) are therefore important, especially where major development is proposed, and can contribute to sound project and risk management.

By volume, the greatest number of individual properties are identified, protected and regulated at a local level within heritage precincts, conservation areas or overlays. These larger areas of the local government agencies can manage collective values proactively in a manner that is less resource intensive than individual property listings (see Box HER31). The assessments of significance, and related policies, guidelines and controls are usually more thorough, and therefore of greater assistance to both owner and regulatory authority than the provisions for individually listed places.

More flexible approaches

A perverse pressure on historic heritage arises from the interest of many Australians in conserving these places. Although the overwhelming majority of listed historic heritage places are intact buildings that remain in use, there are also vacant buildings in remote areas, remnants of former mining and other defunct industrial activity scattered across the landscape, and large industrial structures that are beyond practical physical conservation. However, there is a widely held perception that the only way to conserve historic heritage is restoration or reconstruction to an intact former state. This attitude militates against more innovative (and often more realistic) outcomes, such as allowing places to become ruins within the landscape, adaptation involving significant intervention, or archival recording before demolition. The appropriateness of a particular approach will depend on the values for which a heritage place is listed and the effect of a particular management action (or lack of action) on those values. A good example of a values-based flexible approach is the recently-published Western Australian Abandoned Mines Policy (WA DMP 2015), which recognises the value of historic mining features and aims to rehabilitate these areas according to the desired outcomes of local people. This may mean that a site is restored to a former state, or modified to provide habitat, tourism or other desirable and agreed outcomes.

Mackay R (2016). Heritage: Planning. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b658bbe13a0