Longitudinal (linear) sand dunes of the Simpson and Strzelecki dunefields in eastern central Australia present a paradox. Low levels of activity today stand in contrast to luminescence dating which has repeatedly shown deep deposits of sand on dune crests dating to within the late Holocene. In order to investigate the nature of dune activity in the Simpson–Strzelecki dunefield, vegetation and sand mobility were investigated by detailed vegetation survey and measurement of rippled area and loose sand depth of dunes at three sites along a climatic gradient. The response of both vegetation and sand movement to inter-annual climate variability was examined by repeat surveys of two sites in drought and non-drought conditions. Projected plant cover and plant + crust cover were found to have inverse linear relationships with rippled area and the area of deep loose sand. No relationship was found between these measures of sand movement and the plant frontal area index. A negative exponential relationship between equivalent mobile sand depth on dune surfaces and both vascular plant cover and vascular + crust cover was also found. There is no simple threshold of vegetation cover below which sand transport begins. Dunes with low perennial plant cover may form small dunes with slip faces leading to a positive feedback inhibiting ephemeral plant growth in wet years and accelerating sand transport rates. The linear dunefields are largely within the zone in which plant cover is sufficient to enforce low sand transport rates, and in which there is a strong response of vegetation and sand transport to inter-annual variation in rainfall. Both ephemeral plants (mostly forbs) and crust were found to respond rapidly to large (> 20 mm/month) rainfall events. On millennial time-scales, the level of dune activity is controlled by vegetation cover and probably not by fluctuations of wind strength. Land use or extreme, decadal time-scale, drought may destabilise dunes by removing perennial plant cover, accelerating wind erosion.