Wednesday, 12 September 2007
Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Amendment Bill 2007
Labor supports the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Amendment Bill 2007, noting that this is essentially an administrative bill which amends the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Act 2001 and extends the date by which the act is to be repealed, from September 2011 to 19 September 2033. I note that this extension supports an agreement reached between the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments for a transfer of crown land at North Head to the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust until 2032. This bill will ensure that the trust is still in place when the North Head site is transferred back to the New South Wales government 25 years from now.
The former School of Artillery at North Head is one of eight sites around Sydney Harbour managed under the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Act. The others are Cockatoo Island; the Macquarie Light Station; the former Marine Biological Station at Watsons Bay; Georges Heights, Chowder Bay and Middle Head; Woolwich Dock and parklands; Snapper Island; and HMAS Platypus. These are all significant public places. They are certainly all prime real estate, and some of them are jewels in Sydney Harbour’s crown. Labor supports this bill because the Sydney Harbour trust does important work and is generally well regarded. The trust mandate to maximise public access, clean up contamination and preserve the heritage and environmental values of its historic sites is a worthy one and a mandate that should be fully realised. Labor has expressed concerns in the past and we are aware of concerns that still exist about maintaining community access to trust sites over the long term.
In supporting this bill we reaffirm our intention to monitor the trust’s activities closely and ensure the good work that has been done to date continues. In supporting this bill I note that the trust is one of the few examples we can point to over the last decade of successful Commonwealth heritage management. The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust stands out against this government’s predominantly poor record of protecting and conserving Australia’s national estate. This bill provides an opportunity to focus attention on that record.
This government’s approach to heritage has been characterised in equal parts by neglect and overt politicisation. It is an approach which is signposted at the very top, because this is a government that no longer has a minister for heritage. In terms of signals they do not come much starker than that. It is a sad indictment of the government’s thinking, or perhaps lack of thinking, about heritage matters.
A cliched refrain from the Howard government is that practical actions matter more than symbolism. Heritage protection and conservation is one area in which symbolism and actions are inseparable and where having a minister for heritage provides a fundamental recognition of what this country values. When we recognise our heritage we affirm that nothing is more central to Australia’s national identity than our history, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and our respect for those who made history. Also central to Australia’s identity is our great natural environment. I know that we are well aware that we are blessed with natural places of breathtaking beauty and real ecological importance. Australia’s heritage, shaped by nature and history, is an inheritance passed from one generation to the next. It is the responsibility of us, the present generation, to nourish and nurture the inheritance for future generations. It is like a bargain that is struck, in effect, between those who currently exercise responsibility and sometimes authority and those by whom the decisions that we make will have to be borne.
Respecting our heritage means actively engaging with our past and our sense of place. It is not something that we can afford to take for granted. As I have noted for 11 long years, the Howard government’s approach to heritage has been characterised by, we say, political interference and neglect. It seems that if it cannot be used for political advantage it does not get a mention. We have seen this approach played out in the abolition of the independent Australian Heritage Commission in 2003, the expiry of the Register of the National Estate, the slashing of Commonwealth funding for World Heritage places and the destructive Anzac Cove roadworks. Heritage listings have become too slow and the listing processes opaque. Heritage promotion activities have withered and, as a result, we have seen a diminishing of those national conversations about heritage, the genuine engagement with communities around Australia, that are crucial to understanding and recognising heritage values.
In the past Labor has been a world leader in the protection, conservation and promotion of heritage. I know that is an expression that the minister likes to use, and I think it is fair for us to use it here in relation to our past record on World Heritage and more generally our protection and conservation of heritage. This is a proud record that was begun under a Labor government in the 1970s. It was the Whitlam government and the Hon. Tom Uren who created the Australian Heritage Commission and the Register of the National Estate. I want to pay special tribute in the House today to the work of Gough Whitlam and Tom Uren.
In 1973, the Whitlam government set up a committee of inquiry tasked with evaluating our natural and built environment, Aboriginal sites and places of historical and archaeological significance. This committee found that ‘the Australian government has inherited a national estate which has been downgraded, disregarded and neglected’. Two recommendations were made: firstly, the establishment of a permanent statutory authority to work with state and local government voluntary groups and the public for the protection, conservation and presentation of the national estate; secondly, that a fundamental task of this body would be a survey of the national estate and an inventory of its components.
Whilst the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 had clear limitations, it nevertheless embodied specific, clear principles and enduring protections for Australia’s heritage places. An independent statutory authority, the Australian Heritage Commission, was established in July 1976 and it was provided with a mandate on its own motion or at the request of the minister to give advice on matters relating to the national estate, including advice relating to action to identify, conserve, improve and present the national estate, to identify places included in the national estate and to prepare a register of those places. The Australian Heritage Commission and the Register of the National Estate are significant achievements. It is a great shame, and it says much about the present government’s record, that some three decades later we have witnessed their demise.
In 2003, the stand-alone Australian Heritage Commission was abolished under the Howard government and substituted with the Australian Heritage Council—an advisory body specifically and effectively controlled by the Department of the Environment and Water Resources. The absence of an independent body offering arms-length advice on Australian heritage risks the politicisation of listing processes. Additionally, a closed-door approach to Australia’s heritage diminishes the scope for genuine community engagement and the national conversations that I referred to earlier, which are central to understanding and recognising heritage values.
Since its inception, the Register of the National Estate has provided a growing catalogue of significant heritage places throughout Australia. The register currently lists more than 13,000 places and has functioned as both a mechanism for heritage protection and a centralised information repository for Australian heritage. In 2007, the Howard government effectively abolished the Register of the National Estate. The register is now closed to new listings and, in five years, it will fully expire, with listings reverting to various state and territory mechanisms.
While there have been many other heritage registers developed following the Register of the National Estate, the expiry of the Register of the National Estate will diminish the level of protection for many significant Australian places. The expiry of the register also signals a loss of the Australian public’s foremost heritage information resource. In short, there is no substitute for the register as a catalogue of the places which we, as a nation, regard as significant.
The Howard government has much to take us backward and very little to take us forward in terms of heritage protection, conservation and promotion. After four years of operation, the National Heritage List is far short—