Australia/ 4.2 Specific policy issues and recent debates  

4.2.2 Heritage issues and policies

Heritage in Australia is managed at various levels of government, with an overarching responsibility sitting with the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities or the Office for the Arts.  The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is the Australian Government's key piece of environmental legislation which commenced 16 July 2000.  (For further details of the Act see section 5.3.3.)

Heritage is categorised by the department as follows:

World Heritage

Australia has 41 places included on the World Heritage List.  The places are nominated by the Commonwealth government, for assessment by the World Heritage Committee.  Given Australia’s particular historic circumstances, it is not surprising that the majority of these places are part of the natural environment, with only three – the Sydney Opera House, the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens in Melbourne, and a group of convict sites from three states – being part of the built environment from the post-European settler era.  The complete list of places may be found at

National Heritage 

These places include natural, historic and Indigenous places that are of major significance for Australia.  In this category, places can be nominated by any Australian citizen, after which they go through an assessment process undertaken by the Australian Heritage Council, and are then recommended to the minister responsible for heritage who is responsible for making the final decision on each site.  A number of built environment sites of historic cultural importance are included on the National Heritage list, which may be found at

Indigenous Heritage     

Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their ancestors have inhabited the continent for an estimated 60,000 years according to the most recent archaeological evidence.  For these communities, places of importance are interlinked with long associations with the land.  Thus there are sites associated with the Dreaming and Dreamtime stories that describe how the land and its animals and people came about; sites that are known as ‘sacred sites’ that embody some aspects of spirituality for particular communities; and other sites that have special meaning for Aboriginal peoples from both past and present.  The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 established the National Heritage List, which includes natural, Indigenous and historic places that are of outstanding heritage value to the nation. The Act also establishes the Commonwealth Heritage List, which includes Indigenous sites on Commonwealth lands and waters or under Australian Government control. The Australian Heritage Council includes in its membership Indigenous experts who can advise the council on the appropriate Indigenous peoples who have rights and interests in a certain place and who can express a view as to the inclusion of a place on the Indigenous Heritage list.

Commonwealth Heritage 

Places that are entirely within a Commonwealth area or outside Australia but within Australian’s jurisdiction fall into this category.  For the full list see 

Historic Shipwrecks

Australia being an island continent, over 6000 shipwrecks lie around the country’s shores, many of which have a significant place in Australia’s heritage from both pre- and post-European settlement.  This category of heritage sites is managed in collaboration between the Commonwealth and the states and territories.  For the full list see

Within the states and territories places of heritage significance are managed by various government departments, and non-government organisations such as the state heritage councils or the National Trust of Australia. The National Trust is a not-for-profit organisation that undertakes both custodianship of heritage places and objects, and advocacy work on behalf of Australia’s heritage.  There are divisions of the National Trust in all states and territories, and all rely heavily on both membership and subscriptions and also the work of legions of volunteers.  Importantly, the National Trust has developed ‘practical guidelines regarding heritage identification, protection and conservation practice for the Trust and for the wider community’, which have helped to raise community awareness and involvement in the custodianship of heritage places and collections.  For full details of the National Trust of Australia see

Australia’s national collecting institutions—the Australian National Maritime Museum, National Gallery of Australia, National Museum of Australia, National Library of Australia, National Archives of Australia, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, Bundanon Trust, National Portrait Gallery of Australia and the Museum of Australian Democracy at the Old Parliament House comprise heritage collections that range from biological specimens in glass jars to the battleships that form part of the National Maritime Museum, and from significant national archival records, including migrant records,  to the major artworks of the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. In addition, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies holds significant collections relating to the cultures and lifestyles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

There has been significant work in recent years to digitize the national collections. The National Gallery of Australia’s Google Art Project provides remote access to high-quality images of selected artworks from the national art collection, for the benefit not only of Australians living in rural and remote areas, but also for international audiences.  The National Archives of Australia is progressively making migrant records available online, meaning people in Australia and overseas can investigate their own ancestry online. The National Library of Australia provides a free search engine across a wide range of digital print resources as part of its Trove service.

The Commonwealth government anticipates that the National Broadband Network will also assist the national collecting institutions in making their collections available digitally to people who are unable to visit the national capital to see them physically.

The Government has also established the National Cultural Heritage Account, currently set at $500,000 per year, to assist national collecting institutions to purchase nationally significant objects they could otherwise not afford, with the intention that they be preserved and made available to the public.

To date there have been various attempts to establish some form of network to integrate collecting policies and processes in Australia, but none has been sustained.  Creative Australia proposes that a national network will be established through a partnership between the National Museum of Australia and Museums Australia, aiming to share resources and improve access to collections across Australia.  This will be the only co-ordinating mechanism for cultural heritage in Australia, and whether the partnership will have any role the beyond cultural heritage sphere is unclear at the time of writing.

Chapter published: 26-12-2013