Protections for places on the heritage register should be as regimented and as important as workplace health and safety measures, an expert says, after it was revealed two protected Aboriginal scarred trees were removed in 2017.
Andrew Macintosh, an associate dean at the Australian National University's law college, said harsh penalties for organisations which did not ensure its staff had safe working environments had made people take safety rules seriously, and similar actions were required for heritage protections.
The removal of the trees should be prompt for enforcement proceedings, Professor Macintosh said.
"Unfortunately, what has tended to happen at all levels in relation to environment and heritage matters is that where a heritage incident occurs, people tend not to be prosecuted and if they are, they tend to be hit with the weakest piece of lettuce people could find," he said.
Heritage and environment check-off procedures should be mandatory alongside a culture of consistent enforcement when breaches do occur, Professor Macintosh said.
The Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development directorate said in a statement that it was working to strengthen enforcement options for offences under the Heritage Act.
"[The directorate] is working towards a Spring 2019 legislation bid," a spokesman said.
But he said there was a range of ways to enforce offences against the Heritage Act, including education, encouragement to comply, cautions, warnings, heritage directions, heritage orders and prosecution.
The directorate did not say how many prosecutions for heritage damage had been launched nor whether any had been successful.
The chair of the ACT Heritage Council, David Flannery, on Friday said the removal of the trees was investigated and no action was taken because it was a "genuine human error", despite the trees being clearly marked on plans for the work.
"There are provisions in the Heritage Act to prevent this sort of activity and I must say at the outset that the council believes this is a very tragic event and it's very disappointing that it's happened," Dr Flannery told ABC Radio Canberra.
Ben Boer, emeritus professor at the University of Sydney law school, said the enforcement powers and penalties in the ACT were likely strong enough and had tougher penalties compared to other state legislation.
"It is a question more of local authorities being on to these kind of events, and acting very swiftly, if reported in time," he said.
Professor Boer, who is the author of Heritage Law in Australia, said a possible way to prevent trees being removed was to install signs and fencing.
"But, of course, this kind of notification can be counter-productive or, in any case, not desired by the local Aboriginal group," he said.
Heritage legislation to protect cultural and natural heritage, along with Indigenous sites, varied widely between jurisdictions, and there was a case for greater consistency, Professor Boer said.
A spokesman for the directorate said major damage to heritage places and objects was rare. Unexpected events - including fires at Hotel Actor and the Canberra Services Club in 2011 - were the usual cause of damage.
The directorate recorded and responded to all known instances of damage but was not obliged to report on this statistically, he said.