Until 2004 the listing and protection of places of national heritage was the responsibility of the Australian Heritage Commission under the Commonwealth Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 (Cth). In 2004, this Act was repealed by the Australian Heritage Council (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Act 2003 (Cth) as part of a new legislative system for national heritage. The current regime incorporates national heritage protection into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth). The Australian Heritage Council Act 2003 (Cth) establishes the Australian Heritage Council, an expert body to advise the minister on issues regarding the listing of heritage areas. The Heritage Council also continues the management of the Register of National Estate under the previous regime. A Heritage List contains places and areas of national heritage value.

Section 528 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) defines heritage value of a place as including the place’s natural and cultural environment, having aesthetic, historic, scientific or social significance, or other significance for current and future generations of Australians.

Section 22 of the Australian Heritage Council Act 2003 (Cth) has guidelines for including places on the National Register. Places listed must meet one or more of the following features:

  • be important to the natural or cultural history of Australia
  • contain rare endangered parts of Australia’s natural or cultural history
  • have the potential to give information on Australia’s natural or cultural history
  • have unique characteristics of a class of Australia’s natural or cultural places or environment
  • exhibit characteristics valued by a community or cultural group
  • be important in demonstrating a high degree of technological achievement of a particular period
  • have special association with the life or works of a person or a group of people, for spiritual or cultural reasons
  • be important to indigenous tradition.