Natural and cultural heritage: Knowledge of heritage

Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Beeton RJS (Bob), Buckley Kristal I, Jones Gary J, Morgan Denise, Reichelt Russell E, Trewin Dennis
(2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee), 2006

9.2 Knowledge of heritage

Governments throughout Australia tend to use statutory registers to identify and manage heritage places and values. These registers are a useful way of monitoring Australia’s knowledge of its own heritage, and because they appear to offer a definitive list of heritage places, they are easy to incorporate in environmental management planning. A disadvantage is that heritage registers will never be able to capture all heritage values and places. Problems include limitations in their scope and coverage.

At the national level:

  • a total of 16 Australian properties are on the World Heritage List, 2 of which have been added since 2001. These are Purnululu National Park (Western Australia) and the first Australian property inscribed for its non-Indigenous cultural heritage values—the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens (Victoria)
  • a National Heritage List came into effect on 1 January 2004 as a result of amendments to the EPBC Act. As at 31 December 2005, 23 places were entered on the National Heritage List. Recent additions include the Melbourne Cricket Ground, South Australia’s Parliament House and the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine, Queensland
  • a Commonwealth Heritage List of places owned, managed or leased by the Australian Government is a new statutory list established by the amendments to the EPBC Act since SoE2001. Launched in July 2004, this list had 339 places entered as of 31 December 2005, 87 per cent of which are listed for their historic values . The remainder are places of natural  or Indigenous  significance
  • there were few additions to the Register of the National Estate between 2001 and 2006; only 342 places were added because of the commencement of the new national heritage system
  • since 2001, approximately 130 ships have been added to the Historic Shipwrecks Register, which is maintained cooperatively by the Australian, state and territory governments
  • a new Australian Government programme, Distinctively Australian, which was launched in December 2003, aims to identify, manage and promote Australia’s national heritage places.

At the state and territory level, the number of historic places listed increased from 13 160 in 2000 to 14 148 in 2005. The state and territory listings of historic heritage places continue to grow at a slow but steady pace as thematic and regional surveys are completed. For example, South Australia has almost finished the comprehensive surveying that has been going on since 1981, and so is identifying fewer places to add each year. Cultural landscapes are beginning to be added to heritage registers, particularly in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales. The number of listings in this category has increased slowly because the pressures from competing land uses require specialised management tools, which currently do not exist. Urban expansion, wind farm construction, marina development, rural subdivision and new rural land uses all compete with heritage values as new landscapes develop.

In some states and territories, significant objects associated with registered historic buildings can be included in statutory registers. Amendments made in 2004 to the Victorian Heritage Act allow heritage objects to be included in the Victorian Heritage Register in their own right. As of April 2006, three objects of cultural significance to Victoria have been included in the Victorian Heritage Register, including the Ballarat Reform League Charter (held by the Public Records Office), the 8-Hour Day Trade Union Banners (held by the Museum of Victoria), and the Eureka Flag (held by the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery).

At the local government level, a survey of local councils in 2005 found that their statutory lists collectively cover more than 76 000 individual historic places and 1770 historic heritage areas. Not all local councils have a statutory list of historic heritage places. The survey found, for example, that more than 90 per cent of responding councils in New South Wales and Victoria had a statutory heritage list, but in Queensland fewer than half of the responding councils had a list of this kind (Productivity Commission 2006). Local government listing of heritage places is a good indicator of Australia’s recognition of heritage because it reflects community appreciation of and activity in identifying and protecting heritage places. The provisions for statutory identification and protection of natural heritage, Indigenous heritage and heritage objects  at the local level are less consistent than at other levels of government. Examples of local government heritage initiatives are given elsewhere (Sullivan 2006).

The community is interested in connecting with and experiencing Australia’s heritage, especially through people’s stories that can bring places and the past to life. A recent survey revealed that 93 per cent of the community see heritage as forming part of Australia’s identity (Allen Consulting Group 2005a). In 2004 alone, some 5.2 million Australians did at least one activity that was related to Australia’s heritage. About 27 per cent of international tourists visited heritage places, with the Sydney Opera House, The Rocks, the Blue Mountains and the Great Barrier Reef being among the top ten destinations (Allen Consulting Group 2005a).

Knowledge of Indigenous heritage is particularly limited outside Indigenous communities, especially in relation to the recognition of the full range of cultural values (including intangible and contemporary aspects). A growing body of work now documents Indigenous intangible heritage, and current guidelines (Commonwealth of Australia 2004) encourage its recognition in natural resource planning. Additional Indigenous heritage places are being recorded through new reporting arrangements in Queensland, through surveys in all states associated with environmental impact assessments, and through surveys in south-eastern Australia after the 2003 bushfires (Gill et al 2004). The Department of Defence has recently begun systematic surveys of Indigenous places in association with local Indigenous people on the large areas of land it controls.

Indigenous languages  are an intrinsic part of Indigenous cultural heritage. Fewer people are speaking Indigenous languages than at the time of SoE2001. Of an original number of over 250 known Indigenous languages, about 145 are still spoken in Australia, but about 110 are in the severely and critically endangered categories, which means that they are spoken only by small groups of people who are mostly older than 40 years of age (AIATSIS and FATSIL 2005).

Only a limited amount of work has been done in Australia on traditions and practices of non-Indigenous peoples in relation to heritage values and places, although there is increasing public debate about the heritage significance of cultural traditions. For example, after the 2003 bushfires in south-eastern Australia, there were surveys of historic high-country huts to assess their social significance and to improve future management (Godden Mackay Logan 2005, Graeme Butler and Associates 2005).