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Australia's heritage protection process is in crisis

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The ACT's Law Court building highlights the problem, writes John Mulvaney

The ACT Supreme Court building.

The ACT Supreme Court building. Photo: Graham Tidy

Minister Simon Corbell's claim (''Heritage protection is just a facade'', November 17, p3) that the Law Court building has no heritage listing, even though it was included in the former Register of the National Estate, highlights a national crisis concerning Australian heritage protection. This has resulted from a serious dumbing down in the conservation process due to discreditable Commonwealth decisions. Whether properties concern indigenous, natural or built-environment values, the unsuspecting public is faced with the defacement or destruction of places which, by due process, have been declared significant.

This minimisation of heritage warrants exposure. Between 1976 and 2000, the Australian Heritage Commission included some 14,000 places around the continent in the RNE. About half of this total was published in 1981. Then prime minister Malcolm Fraser introduced The Heritage of Australia with these positive words - ''to make sure that the National Estate is looked after in the way it deserves … although the Register of the National Estate still continues as a vast and ongoing undertaking''.

Until the Howard government abolished the AHC, it was responsible for compiling the RNE. Its Act required Commonwealth agencies to take no actions that might unduly affect listed places ''unless there are no prudent or feasible alternatives''. For the community, such places retained moral claims for their integrity, if not a legal requirement.

The RNE was retained in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (and its 2003 amendment), which terminated the AHC. This concession was made despite Senator Hill, then minister for environment and heritage, issuing a press release (June 30, 2000), claiming that the RNE was no longer necessary, because ''state heritage protection systems now offer more effective protection''. Public opinion disputed Senator Hill's assurance, so the RNE had a brief reprieve.

My own opinion on the minister's claim, given to a Senate inquiry on February 28, 2001, probably summarised the concerns of many critics: ''So much of Australia's indigenous and environmental heritage exists across artificial state boundaries, that to entrust them back to those entities makes a mockery of the national interest.'' Also, 'Not all states … are equal in their attitude to heritage. Not all their legislation is equal, and I would be gravely concerned about Aboriginal places in some states.'' Although the RNE was retained in the Australian Heritage Council Act 2001 (section 21.1), its message was significantly watered down. Any ministerial decision merely had to ''have regard'' to relevant information, whatever that implied.

Even this softer option did not long survive. In 2007, without any public discussion, the RNE was transferred to relevant states and territories, with the proviso that the transfer become final in January 2012. The recipients were ''encouraged'' to add the RNE places to their relevant heritage registers, but no funding was provided to facilitate the registration process. If a place merited national registration, it surely should appear on the state/territory listing.

But most places have not received the time-and-money-consuming legal treatment required to adapt to such registers. This procedure was both cynical and damaging.Consequently, although Mr Corbell correctly stated that the Law Court, a former RNE property, is not on the ACT register, that seems a phoney justification for ignoring its former status. It is simply one of typically hundreds of RNE places. Our disappearing heritage is matched in federal Cabinet by subtle shifts in nomenclature.

Back in 2007, when the RNE was dropped, prime minister Howard reshuffled ministries. The Department of Environment and Heritage emerged as Environment and Water Resources. The elimination of heritage from the title and the separation of administrative functions between ministries dealt a serious blow. Sadly, subsequent Labor administrations have continued with this anonymous heritage culture and have made no attempt to restore the Australian Heritage Commission or the RNE.

Is our heritage entity destined for complete strangulation because no major political party cares? With its anonymity, it must be easier for the government to starve heritage needs for funding.

In the ACT, this lack of registration may be used to excuse the destruction or defacement of many of the hard-won AHC registrations. If the Law Court has no defence, what of the other prime ACT places that have fallen through this engineered crack?

Today's state of weak heritage protection contrasts with the situation in advanced overseas nations.

For example, Scandinavian states have secure legislation. In Britain, more than 440,000 places exist on national heritage building lists alone; the USA National Register of Historic Sites numbers more than 60,000. The total of historic places on the RNE dwindles to minuscule compared with such impressive figures.

Surely Australia's heritage properties deserve better than the neglect that provides developers with opportunities equivalent to vandalism. Ironically, before the Howard years, Australia was a leader and trendsetter in heritage protection. Subsequent Labor governments have failed to restore that situation.

Emeritus Professor John Mulvaney was a member of the Australian Heritage Commission 1976-82, and chairman of the ACT Heritage Committee, 1986-88.

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