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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 2849


Senator NEWMAN(11.13) — I would like to thank the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes) for his courteous response to my previous questions. I rise now on the last issue that I wish to raise in respect of the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment. I do not intend to ask a question so much as to try to fire a warning shot across the bows of the Australian Heritage Commission. I think the Minister would be aware of the fact that I have had a long and very active involvement in the National Trust and, consequently, over the years I have had a number of dealings with the Heritage Commission, one of which was indirectly with Senator Grimes himself.

I am a bit worried, for a number of reasons, about the Heritage Commission and where it is going. I would just like to outline briefly my concerns. First of all, as the Committee would know, during the Estimates committee hearings in the earlier part of this year, I was very concerned that we did not look as though we were going to get any more funding for the Port Arthur project. This turned out to be the case in this year's Budget and funding for what was regarded by the Heritage Commission as a vital national project has been stopped. Of course, that is not the fault of the Heritage Commission; it is the fault of the Government.

I draw the Committee's attention to the Heritage Commission's annual report for 1984-85, which I have not had for very long and which describes the project in the following terms:

. . . an outstanding example of successful Federal-State co-operation, enhancing one of Australia's principal tourist destinations. In 1985, the project won the Pacific Area Travel Association heritage award in recognition of the delicate balance maintained between the conflicting demands of a modern tourist destination of national importance and a site of prime historical and archaeological significance.

The report went on to draw attention to the education program at the site and said that it was in the forefront of new techniques for teaching history. It also drew attention to the fact that the continuation of the project had been proposed as a 4-year program and that it supported the proposal. That is fine, and, of course, I agree with all that the Commission said.

The Commission accepted the Government's decision and quietly went along with it. Perhaps that should not worry me. However, I am worried about the Commission's behaviour when it comes to the natural environment. The Heritage Commission seems to have a different standard in that area. I believe that the Commission has a very real and important role to play in advising government on heritage issues. However, it is an adviser; it is not a participant in the game or a player on the stage. Whichever description one might like to use, the Commission is an adviser and, as such, it should remain in the background and not have two standards of behaviour, depending on whether it is concerned with the man-made heritage or the natural heritage. I challenge the Commission to show that it is not doing just that.

For example, at the last Estimates committee hearings I asked for a list of the publications that were planned by the Commission for the coming year. That list included all the sorts of things that one would expect to see-publications on National Estate themes, technical publications, and reprints of previous publications. Everything in the list sounds very technical and proper in terms of the Commission's role until one suddenly sees a publication which virtually jumps out of the page, such as a publication entitled `Focusing on Woodchipping'. The Department of Primary Industry might put out a publication on woodchipping but I question the motives of the Australian Heritage Commission in spending $5,000 on putting out a forests leaflet entitled `Focusing on Woodchipping'. The list also contains publications on things such as Aboriginal heritage and wet tropics and conservation posters. The publication of this material is all reasonably understandable. But why has money been spent on the publication `Focusing on Woodchipping'?

Botanists were recently sent by the Heritage Commission to the Jackeys Marsh area in Tasmania. Instead of reporting to the Australian Heritage Commission, the botanists made public comments to the media which have been featured in a number of Australian papers. I think that is improper; it is not their role. It is certainly not their role when one sees a double standard applying in respect of something as important to Australia as Port Arthur. The Commission did not go public in that area. It fulfilled its role by properly advising the Government. However, I think it is exceeding its role in the woodchipping area.

I also draw the Committee's attention to the 1986 summary of resolutions and recommendations of the Australian Forestry Council, which I also have not had for long. On 12 June the Commonwealth and State forestry Ministers passed the following resolution:

Council noted the concern expressed by its Standing Committee at the potential impact of National Estate listings on production forestry in Australia.

Council agreed that the Chairman should inform the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment of its concern over the apparent use of National Estate listings under the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 by some parties seeking to prevent logging in production forest areas. Council noted that in so doing, reliance was being placed on public misconception that National Estate listing was equivalent to national park status.

I believe it is very serious that there should be a misuse of the National Estate listing process coupled with a misconception that is widespread in Australia that National Estate listing is equivalent to national park status. I believe the Heritage Commission must be much more careful about how it vets items which are placed on the national register.

I recognise that the Commission has very few resources with which to do an enormous job that covers the whole of the country. Nevertheless, in my experience of the Commission over the years, when it comes to the man-made heritage it relies very heavily on the expertise which is provided to it by the national trusts of the various States as to whether a building, for example, is worthy of being placed on the national register. As I have seen the system operate, the Commission has had very little input in the vetting of those lists. So I can only suspect that the same procedure operates when it comes to putting the natural environment on the National Estate listing. If this is so, knowing the politics of the conservation movement these days, I have to query whether sufficient expertise is being provided when it comes to making recommendations to the Heritage Commission for the listing of some National Estate areas on our lists.

I urge the Government to look at this area and see whether perhaps more resources can be given to the Heritage Commission to check out these nominations because I feel that many of them are very suspect. We cannot always expect the Heritage Commission to apply the same care and loving attention of the National Trust members when it comes to the careful vetting that goes on of the man-made heritage. In these days of high politics we cannot expect that that same care and attention to strict accuracy will be given when it comes to the vetting of natural environment items that are put forward to the Heritage Commission for listing.

I draw the attention of both the Heritage Commission and the chamber to the danger that lies before us in relation to the Australian Heritage Commission. I think that items are not being carefully enough checked before they go on to the list. I believe the Heritage Commission has to be very careful that it does not get drawn into the political vortex; it must stay as an adviser to government. I do not believe that it should be putting an economic argument to government. There are other proper avenues from which government can receive economic advice, but that is currently a matter in dispute. I believe that the Heritage Commission should stick to its trade and advise purely on conservation values. It is important that that voice be heard in Canberra. Nevertheless, I feel it could do with more resources and perhaps some more professionalism in checking listings.

Finally, I draw attention to the fact that there is a concern in National Trust circles-I know that the Heritage Commission also shares this concern-that we are not doing enough as a nation to support the owners of historic buildings. A proposal has been before the Government-I acknowledge that it has been there for many years, but it is long overdue-that tax incentives be given to the owners of historic buildings; not just any old historic buildings but items on the National Estate Register. The 1984 Australian Labor Party platform stated that the Party would review a package of measures, including tax incentives for owners of a heritage area or item who undertook to preserve it in perpetuity. These owners also have to undertake to make it accessible to the public who have contributed by way of tax forgone to the tax incentives. But the Australian Heritage Commission believes that the Government should now act in accordance with its declared platform to provide tax relief for restoration and preservation, and I draw the Government's attention to this. It is time it acted on this. I believe it would not be a huge cost. The Australian Heritage Commission has advised the Government that Treasury would forgo approximately $3m, based on the Register of approximately 6,000 buildings. Of course that makes no allowance for the spin-off benefit to the economy through increased building and tourism.

I urge the Government to give speedy attention to the recommendations of the National Trust over many years, to the Heritage Commission and to its own platform to introduce tax deductions to help owners of historic buildings that are on the National Register.