Outlook and impacts

Outlook

Heritage is those aspects of the natural and cultural environment that we wish to look after and pass on to future generations. Australian heritage tells the story of the evolution and special nature of Australia’s environment and culture. It includes aspects of the natural and cultural environments, and these elements are often interlinked. Australia’s heritage includes:

  • Indigenous heritage, which is central to all aspects of living Indigenous cultures
  • geological and geomorphological features and landscapes that reflect the extremely ancient age of this continent, as well as its extremely long coastline and large arid interior
  • an endemic and rich flora and fauna, many of which are highly iconic
  • Indigenous and non-Indigenous archaeological heritage – from deep time to recent – that contributes uniquely to our understanding of Australia’s human history
  • items, structures and places that tell the story of our more recent history.

Much of Australia’s natural and cultural heritage is globally significant. Indigenous cultures are the world’s oldest living cultures. This is of the utmost significance and comes with a responsibility for the Traditional Custodians of this heritage and to all Australians. Although the conceptualisation and management of heritage in Australia are usually divided into discrete categories, there is no heritage in Australia that does not, in some way, connect to Indigenous heritage. Every place in Australia, whether urban or remote, has a Traditional Owner group or groups that have a deep historical, cultural and spiritual belonging to place. Our heritage will be a richer one when we learn new ways of telling all our stories, and the complexity they hold, together.

Today, Australia’s recognised and protected heritage includes approximately 148 million hectares (ha) of terrestrial protected area (19% of Australia’s land mass) and approximately 335 million ha of marine protected area (37% of Australian waters). It also includes around:

  • 232,000 known and listed Indigenous sites
  • 15,000 historic heritage places listed at the state level, and many more listed at the local level
  • 8,800 listed underwater cultural heritage sites or objects
  • 389 Commonwealth Heritage places
  • 119 National Heritage places
  • 20 World Heritage properties, regarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as being of Outstanding Universal Value.

The quantity of recognised and protected heritage is growing gradually, but there are still large gaps in our knowledge of Australia’s heritage. There is still much heritage that needs protection through recognition and listing.

Major achievements in heritage protection since June 2016 include:

  • the inscription of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape on the World Heritage List in 2019; this is the first Australian World Heritage property to be listed for its Indigenous values alone, and the first to be wholly nominated by an Indigenous community (Gunditjmara)
  • inclusion of the Murujuga Cultural Landscape (also Indigenous heritage) and the Flinders Ranges on Australia’s World Heritage Tentative List
  • the new Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 (Cth), which replaced the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and improves protections for underwater cultural heritage in Australian waters
  • the development of Dhawura Ngilan: a vision for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage in Australia, adopted by the Heritage Chairs of Australia and New Zealand in 2020. This represents an important step in developing best-practice standards for the protection of Indigenous cultural heritage.

However, these gains need to be balanced against the significant breakdowns of the past 5 years:

  • the destruction by mining of the irreplaceable 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rockshelters in the Pilbara, Western Australia, against the wishes of Traditional Custodians, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura. This act bought into to sharp focus the extensive damage that is occurring to Indigenous heritage across Australia
  • the performance of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, as indicated by the review of the Act (Samuel 2020), which was highly critical of numerous aspects of the Act and its operation, with fundamental reform of the Act being recommended
  • the increasing extent of damage to Australian heritage due to climate change, particularly
    • the large extent of bushfires in 2019–20
    • the outlook for 5 of Australia’s World Heritage properties being downgraded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2020
    • the World Heritage Committee’s draft decision in June 2021 to include the Great Barrier Reef on the List of World Heritage in Danger based on its now critical condition, due primarily to climate change (now deferred until 2022).
    • There are significant issues for heritage in Australia, including population- and industry-driven pressures such as invasive species, mining, pollution, forestry, agriculture, tourism, land clearance, fire, and urban and peri-urban development. Although Australians are increasingly appreciating the natural and cultural environment, increased tourism and recreation are putting additional pressure on heritage without adequate management protection.

The outlook for Indigenous heritage is poor, given the ongoing and unmanaged pressures that affect Indigenous heritage and cultural landscapes. These mainly come from extractive industries, inappropriate land management, and other development such as infrastructure development. To maintain Indigenous heritage values, major changes to Indigenous heritage legislation and governance are required. The most important changes required are around free, prior and informed consent, self-determination and access to Country.

The outlook for Australia’s natural heritage is variable, but overall poor without significant measures being urgently put in place to address the key issues. In the past 30–40 years, there has been action to protect biodiversity and iconic species, including through increases in areas protected. However, unprotected natural heritage still remains, and the existing protected area estate is unlikely to be an adequate buffer against the widespread and potentially significantly impacts of climate change, introduced species and land modification. Establishing a knowledge-based strategic approach to natural heritage protection and management, similar to Australia’s strategy for the National Reserve System 2009–30 (designed primarily around biodiversity protection), would improve the management of Australia’s natural heritage.

The poor statutory recognition of Australia’s geoheritage prevents an adequate level of conservation for this heritage nationally. The outlook for geoheritage is poor, and this area of heritage requires specific focus and resourcing. Australia’s geoheritage is also subject to various pressures that are ongoing or escalating, and insufficient action occurs to address negative impacts.

The outlook for historic heritage is poor and is likely to continue to deteriorate unless action is taken to address the impacts of land development and climate change, and to improve the identification of historic heritage and its statutory protection. The outlook for underwater cultural heritage is slightly better, but is unlikely to improve without increased resourcing, including to improve identification of underwater cultural heritage, condition monitoring and compliance monitoring.

Despite the increased resources that have been put into World Heritage and some National Heritage, the outlook for both of these is also poor. The key reason for this is the evident and increasing impacts of climate change, and to a lesser extent invasive species and tourism. As yet unlisted places of National Heritage significance are at risk due to the limited identification of these places and a very slow listing process.

Governments are proving slow to respond to heritage challenges – in particular, in addressing Indigenous rights issues in relation to heritage and Country, and the need for improved risk avoidance and mitigation in relation to key pressures. Improvement is also needed to fill gaps in heritage lists and registers, and in relation to condition and impact monitoring, strategic planning, statutory planning and the regulatory framework more generally for heritage. Although many of the tools to undertake the necessary management exist, inadequate resourcing and a lack of leadership are preventing an adequate management response.

Improved heritage protections are unlikely without funding, legislative and structural reform. A review of the Australian Heritage Strategy 2015 is currently underway. This provides an opportunity for the Australian Government to use the findings of this report to help develop new objectives and actions in a strategy to ensure that Australia’s heritage is well protected and managed for current and future generations.

Impacts

  • We will experience a significant loss of heritage and heritage values unless the issues underlying the poor outlook for heritage are addressed. Without improved management of heritage to provide for a diverse, shared, respected and protected heritage, community and individual wellbeing will continue to be diminished.

Key expected impacts will be:

  • ongoing destruction and loss of Indigenous heritage from a range of pressures, including lack of self-determination, poor governance and inadequate protections for all aspects of Indigenous heritage and cultural landscapes, which are highly significant but currently unprotected
  • continued grief, anger, trauma, harm, mistrust and frustration within the Indigenous community because of the ongoing lack of recognition and protection for Indigenous heritage, combined with continued difficulties in accessing Country and denial of a rights-based approach to Indigenous heritage
  • an increasing, significant and irreversible loss of natural heritage, mainly through climate change and inadequate resourcing for management
  • ongoing degradation of natural heritage values through other pressures, including land clearance, invasive species and industry (especially extractive industries)
  • ongoing irreversible loss of geoheritage and geoheritage values, due to a combination of lack of recognition and protection at most levels of government, and ongoing industry and climate change pressures
  • continued degradation of historic heritage values and irreversible loss of historic heritage because of inadequate recognition and protections, in combination with ongoing economic, industry and climate change pressures.

Assessment Heritage community outcomes and wellbeing
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, but the situation is deteriorating.
Somewhat adequate confidence

The ongoing loss of, and damage to, heritage in Australia due to current poor protections and poor heritage in the face of ongoing and increasing pressures are generally reducing heritage-related wellbeing in Australia. Where the community must actively work to protect heritage from damage or destruction, there is further loss of wellbeing, particularly where there is a failure to protect heritage.
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 11.4, 14.5, 15.1

Assessment Community outcomes and wellbeing related to Indigenous heritage
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in poor condition, resulting in diminished environmental values, and the situation is deteriorating.
Limited confidence

Indigenous people experience significant loss of wellbeing due to destruction and loss of heritage. Indigenous people also experience significant distress in not being able to manage heritage and perform custodial obligations.

Assessment Community outcomes and wellbeing related to natural heritage
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in very good condition, resulting in enhanced environmental values, but the situation is deteriorating.
Limited confidence

The relative abundance of protected natural heritage and its overall adequate management, as well as the health-giving activities that can be undertaken in natural heritage environments, contribute significantly to community wellbeing. Ongoing loss of, and damage to, natural heritage, however, are leading to a decrease in wellbeing.

Assessment Community outcomes and wellbeing related to geoheritage
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, and the situation is stable.
Limited confidence

A relatively low level of community wellbeing is being achieved in relation to geoheritage, because of the poor recognition, protection and overall management of geoheritage.

Assessment Community outcomes and wellbeing related to historic heritage
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in very good condition, resulting in enhanced environmental values, but the situation is deteriorating.
Somewhat adequate confidence

Historic heritage contributes strongly to community wellbeing, given its contribution to desired local character and overall management. However, increasing loss of, and damage to, historic heritage, particularly in urban and urban edge areas, are leading to diminished wellbeing.

Assessment Community outcomes and wellbeing related to World Heritage
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in very good condition, resulting in enhanced environmental values, but the situation is deteriorating.
Somewhat adequate confidence

The existence and relatively good management of, and access to, World Heritage contributes to community wellbeing. This is diminishing as pressures – in particular, climate change, tourism and biosecurity issues – increase, and there is a poor management response.

Assessment Community outcomes and wellbeing related to National Heritage
2021
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in very good condition, resulting in enhanced environmental values, and the situation is stable.
Somewhat adequate confidence

The existence and relatively good management of, and access to, National Heritage contributes to community wellbeing. This is diminishing as pressures – in particular, climate change, tourism and biosecurity issues – increase, and there is a poor management response.