The approach to preparing the state of the environment (SoE) 2021 heritage chapter has been similar to that of previous reports, but some adjustments have been made to reflect perspective and format changes since 2016. As with previous national SoE reports, the 2021 reporting uses the DPSIR (drivers–pressures–state–impacts–response) framework.

The general approach has been to:

  • review available publications and reports relevant to the state of Australia’s heritage in the SoE period (2016–20), along with relevant earlier literature (including previous SoE heritage reports)
  • collect data on the state of Australia’s heritage for the SoE period from heritage management agencies across Australia and different levels of government. Data are correct to 30 June 2020, unless otherwise specified
  • seek expert opinion on the current state of heritage in Australia using surveys and meetings with peak organisations and selected recognised heritage experts (this includes Indigenous consultation)
  • consult current and previous SoE heritage chapter authors.

The main differences between this approach and previous SoEs are:

  • the inclusion of Indigenous co-authors for the chapter
  • a modified focus and scope, including greater emphasis on evaluating management effectiveness
  • a greater emphasis on collecting quantitative data, seeking more specialised information from experts, and gathering more data at the state, territory and local government levels in relation to data.

Higher-level evaluation has been established for use across all SoE 2021 reporting to improve the quality of evaluation. It also allows Australia’s environmental management to be measured against the UNESCO Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is another new focus of the SoE 2021.

The modifications to the approach are responses to changes to the scope of the SoE 2021 and heritage context. They also show an improved understanding of user needs and interests, particularly for:

  • greater consistency between state/territory and Commonwealth reporting
  • greater consistency and alignment in data collection (collaboration) and reporting between jurisdictions
  • additional information on cross-jurisdictional issues
  • more information about how the environment affects human wellbeing
  • more future-focused information on what must be done (Oakton Digital 2016).

Scope of heritage

This chapter considers heritage to be the aspects of the environment that have natural and/or cultural significance at a level that makes them worthy of long-term protection through formal protective status (although this may yet not have occurred). The significance may be due to historical, social (including Indigenous), scientific, aesthetic, spiritual, and/or life-support or existence value. Or it may be due to the heritage being a rare or representative element of the environment or past practices, or traditional practices, skills or knowledge.

This reflects the approach of the National Heritage guidelines, the Burra Charter (Australia ICOMOS 2013), the Australian Natural Heritage Charter (AHC 2002a) and the approach to assessing significance for National Heritage (AHC 2009) and state heritage register listing.

All levels of heritage (world, national, state and local) are considered, although local heritage is reviewed in less detail because it needs a level of research and consultation that is beyond the scope of the report. The chapter does not consider biodiversity, which is covered elsewhere (see the Biodiversity chapter), and it does not cover the broad scope of Indigenous connection to, and interaction with the environment (Country) (see the Indigenous chapter).

This general approach is consistent with previous SoE heritage reports.

By including intangible heritage, the scope for this chapter is broader than that generally used in Australian heritage legislation, in which the scope, with few exceptions, is restricted to tangible heritage (i.e. natural and cultural objects, sites, structures, areas, landscapes and regions). This broader scope is supported by earlier SoE heritage reports and reflects emerging global cultural heritage practice. It is also essential if Indigenous heritage is to be fully recognised.

Although the 2021 heritage chapter generally considers objects related to place or intangible heritage practice, it does not consider objects in museums or other collecting institutions because these are regarded as cultural, rather than environmental, property.

Heritage focus

This chapter uses the standard categories of heritage – as recognised in Australian heritage legislation – that were also used in previous SoE heritage reports: natural heritage, Indigenous heritage and historic heritage. These terms, particularly ‘historic heritage’, are not considered ideal, but are used here as they are the standard terms currently used in Australia.

However, it also includes a fourth category: geoheritage. Geoheritage is a topic that has historically had a relatively low profile. At the national level, it is regarded as part of ‘natural heritage’; elsewhere, geoheritage is recognised as a distinct type of heritage. It is included as a standalone category in this chapter to reflect this recognition, and because there are jurisdictions in Australia that separate geoheritage from other natural heritage. This was specifically recommended by Worboys (2012), who stated that for the next SoE report (that for 2016) ‘assessment of geoheritage as a category of heritage in its own right (like biodiversity)’ should be considered.

Indigenous focus

Because of increased awareness of Indigenous heritage matters and greater Indigenous participation in SoE 2021, the 2021 heritage chapter has a strong emphasis on the state of Indigenous heritage. This has been possible due to the engagement of Indigenous co-authors and peer reviewers, and the inclusion of the voices of many Indigenous community members and relevant stakeholders in the heritage landscape, who gave their time to get involved in the National Indigenous Seminars on the SoE outcomes report surveys. Throughout the ‘Indigenous’ section of the heritage chapter and across the entire chapter we have attempted, wherever possible, to highlight Indigenous peoples, culture and knowledge systems, privileging Indigenous ways of knowing and of interacting with all aspects of Country.

Throughout this chapter, co-authors have, where possible, worked to include a multitude of Indigenous perspectives as well as recent examples from across Australia that work to illuminate both advancements and setbacks that have occurred in the past 5 years. It is hoped that modes of Indigenous involvement in SoE will be refined and improved on, based on the experience of the Indigenous authors who have worked across SoE 2021. Colonisation is an ongoing process, and we must continuously work to amplify Indigenous voices and aspirations, often within systems and structures that are averse to Indigenous ways of doing and seeing.

Information sources

The SoE 2021 heritage chapter is informed by existing reports and publications, data from questionnaire responses from heritage and protected area agencies, data from a local government survey, and from heritage expert (including Indigenous) consultation undertaken via workshops and surveys. This is similar to the SoE 2016 approach (Mackay 2016a), although a broader range of expertise has been targeted and a broader range of data sought.

A major challenge in compiling the heritage chapter is the lack of empirical or other easily accessible heritage data. For this reason, heavy reliance has been placed on expert opinion and data collected specifically from the agencies for the 2021 heritage chapter. The lack of published material on current heritage management matters, particularly management reviews, has meant that some use has needed to be made of publicly accessible unpublished reports and media articles to provide otherwise inaccessible information.

The physical state (or condition) of heritage is one area where there is minimal routine monitoring and reporting. There are therefore no data to inform this chapter. This is in contrast to the SoE heritage reports in 2001, 2006 and 2011, for which an intensive program of inspections and condition assessments of select sites across Australia was carried out. For example, the 2011 report used data from the inspection and assessment of 1,092 historic heritage places (Pearson & Marshall 2011) and 75 natural heritage places (public and private formal reserves) across Australia (ERMA 2011).

The lack of actual information on the physical condition and integrity of heritage in Australia is seen as a major deficiency in the SoE 2021 heritage theme reporting. After 2011, funding constraints for the SoE reporting have meant that there are insufficient resources for such first-hand heritage evaluation. The 2016 and 2021 reports have attempted to compensate for this by using surrogate measures – such as the number of development approvals for heritage, expansion or loss of protected areas and funding for heritage conservation – and by asking for expert opinion on these. However, these are very general, hence poor, measures of condition and integrity.

Data collection and analysis

Because of the lack of systematic reporting and empirical data to support the SoE 2021 heritage chapter, the chapter has relied largely on surrogate and semiquantitative data. Where possible, these data have been derived from existing sources, such as the Collaborative Australian Protected Area Database and specialist reports. However, as relevant data of this kind are extremely limited, this chapter has largely used purpose-specific data acquired from heritage agencies and through expert elicitation.

This closely parallels the approach taken for the SoE 2016 and is regarded as important for generating data suitable for longitudinal analysis.

The key data for the SoE 2021 heritage reporting have been:

  • Heritage management agency data. Questionnaires developed for the SoE 2021 heritage chapter were used to collect quantitative information on the state of heritage from all national, state and territory heritage management agencies. These included Indigenous and historic heritage agencies, and protected area management agencies. Completed questionnaires were provided by all agencies. This is a new approach compared with the SoE 2016 and provides a wide range of data (although the SoE 2016 heritage reporting was able to use a Commonwealth ‘national heritage places audit’). These data are current to 30 June 2020 unless otherwise specified, and are reported in detail in (McConnell 2021d) (see Supplementary material). The data variability has, however, limited the direct use of this data set in the Heritage chapter.
  • Local government data. An online survey of local government authorities, developed in conjunction with the Coasts and Urban chapters, was distributed to all 537 councils across Australia in March 2021. This sought information on the identification and management of heritage at the local government level, as protection at this level complements that at the national, state and territory levels. The number of heritage questions was kept small. Only 45 (i.e. 8.4%) of local government authorities responded to the heritage component of the on-line survey. The response rate was affected by survey technical problems. This was also new compared to the SoE 2016 heritage approach. These data are current to 30 June 2020 unless otherwise specified, and are reported in detail in McConnell (2021c) (see Supplementary material). As with the agency data, data variability has limited the use of this dataset in the Heritage chapter.
  • Heritage Expert Survey data. An online survey of heritage practitioners with high-level expertise in heritage conservation and management was developed and run in early-mid 2021. Participation was invited from national peak heritage organisations and national, state and territory heritage advisory bodies, and a small number of independent experts (resulting in 82 responses spread relatively evenly across the 4 areas of heritage assessed). The survey asked for an evaluation on the current state of heritage, pressures and impacts on heritage, and effectiveness of heritage management, to contribute to information about the state of heritage, and the issues and trends. The approach paralleled that used for the SoE 2016 heritage report; however, a small number of questions were added and a wider range of higher-level experts was targeted for the 2021 report. These data are reported in detail in McConnell (2021a) (see Supplementary material).
  • Heritage Expert Workshop data. Virtual workshop-style meetings were held in early 2021 with a small number of national heritage bodies – the Australian Heritage Council, the Australian World Heritage Advisory Committee and Australia ICOMOS. The Australian Committee for International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was approached, but a meeting could not be organised. These workshops were aimed at getting more detailed data, including on trends and issues, for specific areas of heritage, and to identify case studies. The workshop questions paralleled those in the online survey but were more extensive. These data are reported in detail in McConnell (2021b) (see Supplementary material).
  • Indigenous consultation. Indigenous consulting group Murawin was engaged to work with Indigenous peoples across Australia to gather and present data directly sourced from individuals and communities. Seminars were held in Melbourne, Geelong, Canberra, Dubbo, Darwin and Alice Springs as well as a climate change workshop held in Cairns as part of the First Peoples Climate Change Gathering in March with Damian Morgan-Bulled and Sonia Cooper. Participants included Indigenous organisations, native title prescribed bodies and Traditional Owner corporations, land councils, Indigenous organisations and individuals involved in environmental programs, Elders, individual community members and non-Indigenous organisations working to support Indigenous aspirations and programs.
  • As the type of data collected using each approach was different, they have been analysed and reported separately. Analyses have used simple comparative statistical treatments. The data collection and analysis methods and results are described in more detail in the SoE 2021 heritage supplementary reports (see Supplementary material).


The data derived from the expert surveys and workshops have been used to generate topic assessments, which in turn have been used to generate SoE outcomes (see the Overview chapter). The SoE outcomes are designed to indicate how well Australia has met the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (United Nations 2015) in relation to environmental management.

In relation to heritage, SDG 11 and target 11.4 – ‘Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage’ are key. In relation to SoE 2021, although SDG 11 focuses on making ‘cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ (United Nations 2017), target 11.4 is taken to apply to heritage in all environments, not just cites and human settlements.

The assessments used in this chapter are broader than the economic United Nations indicator for target 11.4, which relates to the ‘Total per capita expenditure on the preservation, protection and conservation of all cultural and natural heritage, by source of funding (public, private), type of heritage (cultural, natural) and level of government (national, regional, and local/municipal)’ (United Nations 2017), in part because the data are not available to assess performance against indicator 11.4.1.

In relation to Indigenous heritage, several other SDGs that relate to wellbeing and cultural and economic health are also applicable. The assessments of these are provided in the Indigenous chapter (see the Indigenous chapter).

Notes on the assessment method:

  • This assessment is based on expert elicitation because of the lack of adequate quantitative data to inform the assessments. The grades and trends for heritage have been based on expert opinion, including an expert survey and workshops, and in the absence of this information (generally for trends) author opinion.
  • For Indigenous, historic and natural heritage, and geoheritage, the grade figures are achieved by averaging the grades from the expert survey results (no weighting was used). Trends are allocated by the authors based on general review. For World Heritage and National Heritage the grades and trends were collectively ascribed by workshop participants (i.e. Australian World Heritage Advisory Committee and Australian Heritage Council workshops, respectively).
  • All grades have been converted from a 5-value scale to a 4-value scale (by multiplying each figure by 0.8). To reduce the bias in translating from a numeric grade to a value statement, the following scaling has been used – value 1 (e.g. very high) = 0.5–1.5; value 2 (e.g. high) = 1.5–2.5; value 3 (e.g. low) = 2.5–3.5; value 4 (e.g. very low) = 3.5–4.0.
  • Grade and trend confidence is given as ‘limited’, given the source is opinion, except where there is good consensus (i.e. between workshops and the expert survey; or, in the case of the grades only, where the expert survey grading range (1–5) is 2 grades or less. Confidence is given as ‘very limited’ when ascribed by authors only. Grade and trend confidence perhaps could be ranked higher, as the opinion correlates strongly with what data are available.
  • Comparability – given as ‘comparable’ when the same method and questions were used in 2016, and as ‘somewhat comparable’ where the assessed subject is similar, but not identical, to that in the 2016 report.
  • Weighting was used only to combine meeting international obligations into the management ‘protections’ category for World Heritage and National Heritage, because international obligations are a small part of protection (weighting of international obligations was 0.5–1.0 for protection).