In December 2011 the fourth 5-yearly Australia State of the Environment Report (SOE) was launched by Minister Tony Burke.
This impressive publication reports against the Australian legislation known as the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) - Australia's answer to such UNESCO Conventions as Biodiversity 1993, Ramsar Wetlands 1971 [download], and World Cultural and Natural Heritage 1972.
Heritage is defined in the EPBC Act (S. 528) as comprising natural, indigenous and historic elements and includes ‘places, features, structures and objects that have aesthetic, archaeological, historic, scientific, or social significance or other special value for the present community, and for future generations’. ‘Environment’ includes ‘heritage values of places’, and ‘place’ includes ‘(b) a…group of buildings or other structures (which may include equipment, furniture, fittings and articles associated or connected with the building or structure…)’
From the first Australia: State of the Environment Report in 1996, movable cultural heritage or 'objects' / 'collections', were considered part of the heritage continuum (see 'Why are objects part of Australia's natural and cultural environments? p 9-7.) By 1998 a set of 43 natural and cultural heritage indicators [download] were developed for the Report, as part of the then 'Data Reporting System'; by the time of the third report in 2006, this number was reduced to 24 core indicators against which ongoing monitoring still was not being conducted.
Movable cultural heritage is entirely absent from SOE 2011. The snapshot report attempts to gather together the 'diverse and fragmented nature of available information' (also described as 'piecemeal' (p. 703)), and concludes that: 'The current condition and integrity of Australia's listed heritage generally appears to be good, with some deterioration evident over recent years.' (p 692) - these comments relate to places, and only those that are officially listed.
The commentary concludes that:
comprehensive assessments, more flexible approaches and better resourcing are needed to support conservation [of heritage places]. The future for Austraila's heritage will depend on government leadership in two key areas: undertaking thorough and comprehensive assessments that lead to adequate areas of protected land and comprehensive heritage inventories, and changing heritage management paradigms and resource allocation in response to emerging threats [that is] ...impacts of climate change, threats arising from development and pressures that flow from population growth.
SOE 2006 highlighted massive preferential funding for natural over cultural heritage, and for place-based over movable heritage. By SOE 2011 it appears that 'heritage' officially means 'place heritage' only. This is despite such advice about our ability to determine the true significance of places as: 'The contents of a place often reveal far more about the owners and their society than the place alone' (SOE 1996 [download] p 9-7).
With this repositioning of the SOE reporting process, the closure of most coordinating bodies for movable cultural heritage in Australia since mid 2010, and the effective exclusion of collections from the National Cultural Policy Consultation Discussion Paper (see News items 'Australia's collections at risk?' (Feb 2011), 'Efficiency Dividend put to the vote' (June 2011), 'Have your say in Australia's future' (September 2011)), it appears that Australia's collections have been intentionally orphaned by Australian Government policy in recent years.