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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 9071


Ms LIVERMORE (1:35 PM) —I am very pleased to have this opportunity to speak today on the Environment and Heritage Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002 and the associated bills that form part of this package. This package represents the latest in the government's long-running efforts to update the heritage protection regime in Australia. Our current system of identifying and protecting Australia's natural, Indigenous and historical heritage dates back to the Whitlam government's passage of the Australian Heritage Commission Act in 1975. That was a landmark step for a national government at the time, one that we in the Labor Party are very proud to be associated with, and was regarded as leading the world in terms of the recognition and protection of heritage sites.

It is interesting to note as a Queenslander that the attitude of the Whitlam government and its commitment to preserving and celebrating our country's precious heritage was in stark contrast to what was going on in Joh Bjelke-Petersen's Queensland at the time when I was growing up. Part of that premier's infamous legacy was the destruction of many magnificent historic buildings and natural sites in our state.

In recent years, however, it has been recognised that the system could be improved and was in need of an overhaul, particularly since the states have developed their own heritage regimes in the years since 1975. There has been a process of consultation and negotiation since 1996, including the 1997 COAG agreement on Commonwealth-state roles and responsibilities for the environment and the 1998 National Heritage Convention to establish a new system.

Despite this, and despite the strong recommendations that came out of the Senate inquiry into the bills last year, there are still problems with the heritage regime outlined in these bills. For example, the Labor Party believes that the change in the status and role of the Australian Heritage Commission, the narrowing of the definition of actions that trigger heritage provisions and the failure to put in place proper interim arrangements to protect Commonwealth heritage sites already on the Register of the National Estate represent a reduction in heritage protection compared to the current regime. Labor has foreshadowed a number of substantial amendments to address those and other deficiencies. Unless the government takes up those amendments, we have foreshadowed that we will oppose the passage of these bills.

The effect of these bills is to establish a Commonwealth heritage regime that will focus on matters of national heritage significance and Commonwealth responsibility. It introduces a new mechanism to provide for the listing of places of national heritage significance. These sites will be identified through a process of public nomination, with nominations being assessed by the newly formed Australian Heritage Council to determine whether the site possesses the degree of national heritage significance necessary for listing, which might be on the basis that it represents Indigenous, historic or natural heritage. The final decision for listing lies with the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, and this is of great concern to a number of organisations within the heritage protection community, as well as to the Labor Party.

Once a place is included on the National Heritage List there is then a requirement for a management plan to be developed to ensure its protection. It also becomes a matter of national environmental significance under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which means that the environment minister must give approval for any activities that might impact on the heritage values of that place. Similar processes and protections will be put in place with respect to those properties owned by the Commonwealth that have heritage significance. There is no doubt that there are aspects of these proposals that we support, but the overall package includes measures that actually reduce the protection of sites that exist under the present system. We want those protections retained in the new regime. That is the flavour of the amendments that have been put forward.

The first issue we have involves the method of listing places on the National Heritage List. The original 1975 legislation established the Australian Heritage Commission as an independent statutory authority. It had a broad range of functions, including the power to identify, assess and ultimately list places of appropriate heritage value on the Register of the National Estate. The Register of the National Estate has been built up over the years to include around 13,000 places of natural, Indigenous and historic heritage significance. Under that system, the process of listing has been a purely technical matter, with a decision to list being made by the independent commission. The government's bills propose to threaten that independence.

The commission is to be replaced with the Australian Heritage Council, which will have only an advisory function. The council will conduct assessments as requested by the minister and advise him or her as to whether the place meets the criteria for listing. The decision of whether or not to include a place on the National Heritage List or the Commonwealth Heritage List is then entirely for the environment minister. This is not on. The assessment of the heritage values and recognition of a place as one of national heritage significance should not become a political football in this way. The process should remain one of a technical assessment of the heritage values of the place by a group of independent experts, and certainly should be independent of any particular agenda or political pressure being brought to bear on the minister at the time. Labor's amendments seek to reinstate the functions and powers of the Australian Heritage Commission so that it will retain its important role as the independent decision maker on the matter of what sites warrant protection under the heritage regime.

Another problem that has been identified by heritage bodies is the narrowing of the definition of those actions which will trigger the operation of the EPBC legislation to protect heritage sites. Under the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975, the acts triggering the legislation include the provision of funding via grants and the granting of authorisations, including permits and licences. This has been watered down in the government's bill, which exempts these acts and decision-making processes by the Commonwealth government. Labor wants to restore the definition of action to that contained in the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975, which will include the full range of Commonwealth actions that exist now, such as government decisions on funding grants.

Finally, there are big holes in the transitional arrangements for these bills. Right now there are 13,000 places on the Register of the National Estate administered by the Australian Heritage Commission. If the legislation is passed in its current form, there will be no places on either the Commonwealth Heritage List or the National Heritage List. We will be effectively starting from scratch, waiting to have places listed, and they will be unprotected until that happens. Meanwhile, representatives from the environment department stated in estimates that they expect no more than six places per year to be assessed and listed. This is not good enough. There are 450 places of heritage significance owned by the Commonwealth currently on the Register of the National Estate and they should not be left unprotected in this way. Labor believes that all Commonwealth places currently on the Register of the National Estate should be automatically transferred to the Commonwealth Heritage List.

There are other amendments that Labor has introduced to the House that go into further details of these bills, but I am not going to spend any more time on those right now. I would like to use my remaining time to explain why it is so important to my electorate that we get this new heritage protection regime right. In my first speech to this House, I spoke of my pride in representing an electorate with such a rich history—a history that lives on in the communities of Central Queensland and continues to form part of our physical environment and our cultural identity. It lives on in places such as Quay Street in Rockhampton, the only place in Australia where an entire streetscape has been listed as a heritage site—or so I have been informed. That street is home to buildings that formed the commercial heart of Rockhampton in the days when it was a major centre of trade in gold, wool and beef. There are places like Customs House, the Mount Morgan Mines' headquarters, which is now home to the ABC studios in Rockhampton, and Cattle House, amongst others. Other sites in my electorate include the magnificent Shoalwater Bay, just north of Rockhampton, and, in the far west, Lark Quarry near Winton, where the remains of a dinosaur stampede are preserved—truly a unique piece of our heritage.

The people of my electorate feel a very strong connection to the many places of natural, cultural and Indigenous heritage that surround us. We want to know that these places will be protected and managed in a way that enriches life in our communities and also provides opportunities to build on the interests that exist amongst Australians and international visitors in these unique and beautiful places. There are a few examples in Rockhampton of where groups are attempting to do just that. They have identified ways in which the heritage values of some of our most prominent old buildings can be preserved in order to enhance their value to our city in terms of attracting visitors and also providing services to local residents.

I would like to use this opportunity to add support to some of those local projects. It is great that the Minister for Environment and Heritage is here, because I think he will be seeing applications under the Cultural Heritage Projects Program for these projects next year. The first one is the Rockhampton post office. This building dates back to 1892 and is a fantastic example—one of only four examples, I believe—of this particular type of building in Queensland. Sadly, it has been vacant since 1997, although it is now owned by the Central Queensland University. The Rockhampton post office occupies a very prominent place in Rockhampton. It is right in the centre of our city and now forms part of the Central Queensland University precinct with the renovated Supreme Court and District Court buildings, which have been taken over by the university. It is a landmark in Rockhampton. It is a place where people have conducted business, met and stood in the shade of the verandahs on a hot day for generations. It has become a symbol of our city.

The post office has been vacant since 1997. The university, as part of a consortium in the city including the Mater Health group, have plans to turn the building into a community place and an integrated health service. In particular, they want to use the building as a venue for training allied health professionals in Central Queensland. They also want to open it up as a public space for things like a coffee shop. Importantly, it will be available to house the Capricornia collection of historical artefacts and documents. Many of those date back to the boom days of Mount Morgan, which has an important part not just in Central Queensland's but in Australia's history as a major gold mining site in the pioneering days of Australia.

This is a great project. This building is right in the middle of Rockhampton. If money is made available to this consortium of community organisations, they will be able to do the necessary work on the building to get it back into public use—things like replacing the asbestos roofing, cleaning up the sandstone exterior of the building and restoring it to its proud place in the centre of Rockhampton, making it a place where once again the community will meet and come to do business.


The SPEAKER —I do not wish to interrupt the member for Capricornia but the chair would be greatly facilitated if she could draw the link between her remarks and the bill. I have no doubt there is a link but she will appreciate that I was just struggling a little.


Ms LIVERMORE —I understand, Mr Speaker. I have gone through the technical aspects of the bill. I am now pointing out a couple of examples in my electorate of heritage buildings that will be subject to this legislation.


The SPEAKER —I do not wish to detract from your contribution. I really sought for the link to be made.


Ms LIVERMORE —I am also taking the opportunity while the minister is here to let him know about some of the things going on in Rockhampton which no doubt he will be called on to make decisions about next year. The other one is the Criterion Hotel, built in 1899. This is another landmark building in Rockhampton and is famous for being the home to General MacArthur when he was in Rockhampton directing the Australian and American troops during World War II. The Turnbull family have turned it into a very popular venue for both locals and visitors. It is now home to many backpackers and the site of many good nights in Rockhampton.

There is work to be done on the Criterion Hotel to restore the ceilings. Over the years, the ceilings have been covered over but I am told there are classic original pressed metal ceilings underneath. For both of those projects, the Rockhampton post office and the Criterion Hotel, funding will be sought next year under the Cultural Heritage Projects Program to do that work. I commend those projects to the minister and the government. They are projects that will not only preserve these important historical buildings and restore them so they can occupy a central place in community life but also play a role in attracting people to Rockhampton.

During this debate members have spoken passionately and often affectionately about the heritage places in their electorates which are special to them. That is a good indication of the feeling out in the community that we need to get this protection regime right. These places reflect important aspects of our culture and history. People are rightly proud of them and often have their own special memories and experiences that revolve around these places. We need to get this protection regime right. I call on the government to consider the amendments that have been put forward by the opposition and also by the member for Calare. They are put forward in that spirit of wanting to get this right for all the people of Australia.