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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
Administration of the National Memorials Ordinance 1928

FIRTH, Dr Dianne, Acting Chair, ACT Heritage Council


CHAIR: I welcome Dr Firth as the representative of the ACT Heritage Council. Do you have any comments on the capacity in which you appear?

Dr Firth : I am an associate professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Canberra. I have a PhD in the building of Lake Burley Griffin, from the idea of the lake through to 1964, so my research actually takes in the construction of Anzac Parade and all of the politics, economics and design ideas behind that time. I am here representing the Heritage Council; I am currently acting chair. As you will see, both Mike Pearson and I have put our names to the documents. He has just recently retired from the chair position.

CHAIR: Thank you. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that these hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Broadcasting and Hansard, and attracts parliamentary privilege. Dr Firth, I invite you to make an opening statement to the committee, should you so wish.

Dr Firth : I do not particularly want to make a statement, because I realise we have limited time and there were many things that came up from listening to the last presentation that I would really like to address, if I may.

CHAIR: I think everyone had further questions.

Dr Firth : Certainly, we have processes in train at the ACT Heritage Council that address some of the issues that have come up through this process, and they are to do with this: when a proponent comes through with a good idea, they go to the planning authority; so how do we at the Heritage Council get to know about it? It has taken us years and years to work out a process for when a development proposal or an idea for something comes up. For instance, a parallel example in the ACT would be a structure that was going to be built out at the cemetery at Woden, which is on our heritage list. As soon as the proponent with the idea came forward, it triggered immediately to the heritage unit and to council. We then met and discussed the idea with the proponent, who then went through the architectural advisory service. We have an architectural advisory service to assist in recognising how to give form to the values that are articulated in the registration. Then the development application goes into the planning authority. That triggers back to us, and we look at the fine grain of what is actually going to be on the ground before the ACT government sign off on it being adequate for construction. But, from the time I have been on the council, it took probably four years to get that process streamlined. There were things happening that were really counter to retaining the values of significant places.

So what I wanted to just mention with this is that the NCA commissioned the Parliament House vista—so it is not just the Parliamentary Triangle; it is the Parliament House vista—which then formed the text that is on the web for the Commonwealth listing. If as a member of the public you read through what is on the web about the EPBC Act, you find that it is all related to national land. Even though Mr Burnett said there is a trigger for Commonwealth land, it is hard as a proponent to actually see it. It is only things on the national list that seem to have the automatic link. So I was then thinking: is it far too embedded? I spent a couple of hours on the website and could not find how to go about a referral through them. I will come back to the commissioned work by reputable historians and people who deal with working out the values and their significance. What the NCA did then was commission a heritage management plan. When you think of the parliamentary vista—it is the designated land that goes in this funny shape on the map—it is a large space and so the large volume of what is important there does not pick up the fine grain. What we are dealing with is something that has not been clearly articulated through that plan. It talks about Commonwealth Park and Kings Park but nowhere does it talk about the articulation of those two parks. Certainly, when I go back to my PhD research and the NCDC intent and how they saw the lakeside parks et cetera, this was a place for the people. This parliament house vista conservation management plan picks up the real significance of the axis. It picks up the importance of Commonwealth Park and Kings Park but it does not in fine detail pick up Rond Terraces. When it goes through it, it gives lists of compatible uses for these areas. It is generally a good document to give direction. For instance, if a proponent came with an idea that they wanted to have a specific memorial for World War I and World War II and the National Capital Authority offered them some sites, what should then come is a finer grain understanding of the significance of that localised space and how you can then develop an architectural brief. This was a competition. How then do you form that into a competition brief that goes out? We have got that happening now.

There was a competition advertised in last week's Canberra Times for a memorial down on Lake Burley Griffin. I do not know how the brief was formed or what space, size et cetera requirements were given, but certainly any competition brief should spell out these. We want to encourage good architecture and we want to have these memorials in our city. We are the national capital, and it is important that we can do it in a way that protects the values. I am looking at perhaps some small flaws in the documentation process but certainly some major flaws in the idea through to the stage where it is currently going or potentially going to the EPBC. I am rushing, rushing, rushing because I want to make room for questions.

CHAIR: As some senators do not need to leave until a quarter to two, we do have a little bit of time.

Dr Firth : There was something I wanted to say in terms of values and significance. Certainly through the ACT Heritage Act we have many measures. You only have to reach the level of one of those at high significance to consider it significant. We refer to the historic, the aesthetic and the social—and the social is incredibly important for ACT heritage. I would think for national heritage it is Australians. I think the National Memorials Committee is an agency that does focus on that national significance.

CHAIR: It would strike me that, given the earlier evidence, while it is possible to have social heritage within the remit of the EPBC Act, there is not necessarily any real obligation or onus that it would be considered. Would you agree with that?

Dr Firth : It comes at too late a stage. It is needs to be considered when an action is put before them. It is too far down the process. It seems to me that it needs to be right up there when the idea comes forward. If the National Memorials Committee thinks that an idea is valid there should be some way of assisting a proponent in developing that idea so that it enhances the values rather than detracts from the values of this parliamentary vista. That is where I think the flaw is: right at that early stage.

Senator ADAMS: This is becoming quite complex. If someone has an idea, is planning their first port of call? Where do they go?

Dr Firth : I think if someone has an idea their first port of call should be with their immediate stakeholders. So if it is an idea for, let us say, a war memorial then they need to have the support of the stakeholders involved with that.

I do not know in this case how the process went for the competition. NCA gave them the location. The form giving to those memorials came through a competition. My question is: who formed the brief for that competition? Was it the NCA? Was it the Memorials Committee? I do not know; I have not been able to find out.

CHAIR: It certainly wasn't the ACT Heritage Council then?

Dr Firth : No.

Ms BRODTMANN: The money came from DVA. It was $250,000 from DVA.

Dr Firth : Department of?

Ms BRODTMANN: The Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Dr Firth : Would they have had a committee?

Ms BRODTMANN: I do not know. I imagine it would have been in conjunction with the group that came up with the concept.

Senator ADAMS: They would have had to apply for it.


Dr Firth : Developing a design brief does need people with particular expertise. They may get that from a consultant; it need not necessarily be within the group. Maybe they did not; maybe they just said, 'We want it to be really important and to signify the significance of this,' and therefore an architect saw it—and I think the architect did—as needing to have some visual presence of some magnitude, and saw this through the visual form of the pillars.

CHAIR: You have outlined that the ACT Heritage Council takes care of a footprint that excludes the area of the National Capital Plan.

Dr Firth : Designated land.

CHAIR: Yes, so that would include the precincts that we are talking about. Notwithstanding that, it would seem like—

Dr Firth : We have adjacencies.

CHAIR: Yes. Had these memorials being proposed for within an area that was subject to the ACT Heritage Council, you would have had quite a different process in place?

Dr Firth : Yes, it would have come through as a development application which has not had all of that very expensive architectural detailing, form giving, will it stand up and how do you build it consideration. It is more the idea at that beginning, and then working through. When you read heritage citations it is sometimes hard to pick out the hierarchy of importance of things and when you come to a specific site there has to be judgment applied to that specific site, so the values and how they are expressed through that site might take a different hierarchy.

Senator HUMPHRIES: You say that consideration should be given to whether one member of the Canberra National Memorials Committee should have expertise or represent a heritage point of view. The committee membership in the ordinance is expressed to be reserved for residents of Canberra. Presumably it would not be hard to find residents of Canberra who have a heritage background. It has also been put to me, though, that because most of the memorials that have been erected in recent years are military in nature, there specifically needs to be if not a representative then at least a person with a suitable background in military history fulfilling one of those roles. What is your view about that?

Dr Firth : Heritage, as I said, requires an understanding of the history as well as aesthetics and the social. History is important. In fact, all of us on the ACT Heritage Council come with that as an added understanding. We have architecture, planning, landscape, environmental—a range of people. I understand the difficulty, so what I would see as perhaps a more realistic option is that the local person actually takes, canvasses or brings in that heritage advice. We have people here who could fill that purpose on a temporary basis. So it is whether you have within the memorials committee that ability to co-opt people when you need that knowledge.

Senator HUMPHRIES: That presupposes though that the process of bringing forward proposals to the committee is one that is publicly consulted about, which of course is not the process at the moment. Essentially the CNMC assesses an idea which often comes through the bureaucracy or even the offices of the Prime Minister. It decides it does or does not want the idea, as the case may be, and the process may not become public until it is actually announced.

Dr Firth : I suppose I am trying to figure out this process too. If it comes at the ideas level to the memorials committee and they want further advice they could still co-opt at that stage, couldn't they?

Senator HUMPHRIES: They could except that the person on the committee who had that heritage background or that ability to go and access it may not have the liberty to go and discuss the idea with others in the community.

Dr Firth : But they certainly could give an idea in terms of values and significance—

Senator HUMPHRIES: That they knew about personally, yes. But they would need to have a military background, wouldn't they, to be able to do that?

Dr Firth : You might co-opt someone from the military. It need not necessarily be a lengthy process. It is more about being able to bring together the necessary inputs so that the memorials committee can make a decision. I realise it is a really complex thing and we are all after a good outcome to this, but an historian would probably be able to give you some information even on some planning or spatial things to do with the location of memorials that are supporting each other and how they might be then used for ceremonies or celebrations and why a certain place may not work as well as another place but still bearing in mind the history and the importance of this celebration of a memorial.

When it comes to the heritage person, it is the levels of significance. The issue is that, unless it is a really high level of significance, at that later stage it will not be triggered to go to the EPBC consideration. What is 'high significance'? This is usually where you have to bring the social aspect in, because it is we who value things. The history might be there but unless we are prepared to value those things and put out dollars behind them it is not heritage. Heritage is our ownership. That is where the social bit is really valuable. It is probably more so at the later stage. But on the aesthetic component, just coming to the World War I and World War II memorials, another thing that is not picked up is related to the Griffin issue of the bit of the easement that goes right from the property line of the Reid housing and the property line of the Canberra House. That is the vista axis. The configuration of the planting and the way the current memorials sit along Anzac Parade is all part of that width of the consideration. It is not just that central bit of the road. You see this when you go to Washington and Chicago. These were designed as what was then called a plaisance. It was this very wide 200-yard space. In terms of the placement of these new memorials, they were intruding into this width, whereas all of the others are encompassed within a particular landscape's setting that focuses the eye. These are aesthetic considerations that are perhaps not clearly articulated through the documentation through the word snipping of the citation.

But when we come back to the Rond Terraces—what is this place? It is a place for the people. Would an alternative function there detract from that very important social function that has a multitude of uses? Once you bring war memorials in, there is a sense of gravitas and a need for respect. So it changes the nature not only as a visual thing but as a social place. In terms of my personal position, it is the wrong place for those memorials in terms of the visual aspect and it is the wrong place in terms of enabling that social engagement with Lake Burley Griffin and the view over to the Parliamentary Triangle and Parliament House that is embedded in Griffin's language. And it is the wrong place in terms of getting people there. It is really difficult. How would you bring bus loads of people in there for the ceremonies? How you would move through the place and get people there to have an event has just not been thought about. In historic terms, it detracts from the role of the existing War Memorial, which is such a wonderful place.

Senator HUMPHRIES: I am stepping outside our terms of reference, but we do not often have experts on the heritage value of the lake in front of us and I have to ask this question. Given that Lake Burley Griffin has been named on the misconception that the surname of the architect of the city was Burley Griffin do you believe that the lake should be renamed?

Dr Firth : No. I am part of a group of Griffin scholars and I have read all of the papers in the archives et cetera. Discussing it with one of my American Griffin scholars, he says that he sees it as a nice aspect of Australia's need for snobbery; to sound important. When the name of the lake was first proposed—and I am trying to think of the name of the minister—a minister came to Menzies with the name. He said, 'We'd like to name it Lake Menzies.'

Senator HUMPHRIES: Was it Sir Gordon Freeth?

Dr Firth : Yes. Menzies said: 'No, sorry, boys: I'm not dead yet. Come up with another name.' They brought up the name 'Lake Griffin' and it did not sound important enough. 'Burley Griffin' has a really lovely ring. It sounded important. He was never called Burley Griffin; he was WB Griffin and he signed 'Walter Burley Griffin'. He was Mr Griffin in the office and Walt to his friends. He was never in his life time called Burley Griffin, although later Marion in The Magic of America calls him Burley Griffin at one stage. But by that time it had started to enter the language. I find words interesting and certainly the way that Australians like to have double-barrelled names et cetera. We can understand it; it is part of our history. We wanted something that sounded important. And it is nice story, isn't it?

Senator HUMPHRIES: It is; absolutely. Thank you for that.

Dr Firth : And we have recognised Menzies with the HG Menzies Walk. He was absolutely essential in getting this city going. The two things right at the beginning that were put on the agenda of the NCDC for their first meeting in January 1958 were (1) housing to get the people here, and they started building affordable housing and allowing housing by private developers; and (2) something to celebrate our nation, and that was the building of the lake. Because it had to be done on a limited budget and on time, not all of it was finished. It was done enough so that you saw the lake and when it filled in 1964, which we should be celebrating in 2014 as it will be the 50th anniversary, it brought out everyone in Canberra. We have photos of the cars and people ringing where the lake was to be. The lake filled in two days. It was very slow to fill. They did not think that they would fill it. Everybody had cake on their face, but we had a storm burst in the catchment and it filled in two days. All of a sudden, we saw our lake. Then those parklands were developed over the next decade to be parklands for the people. Commonwealth Park was developed because the money was put there. Kings Park was left behind because there was not money for that. That was seen as the next stage. It is only now that we are starting to bring the two together through the HG Menzies Walk. So we have got something to be really proud of, but it is not a work that is finished. It still needs to be worked on.

I think the saddest thing for me is the issue of water quality. Back then there was a government department for New South Wales and the ACT. It was a way of improving water quality. It was always seen as an issue. A lot of that has fallen away. So, even though we have monitoring and all the rest of it, protection of the catchment has stopped being an issue and we are left with the problem of having a lake that we cannot swim in easily. We have to close it down more often than not.

Ms BRODTMANN: I want to comment on Robert Menzies, who did do a lot for this city. His wife also did a lot. I understand she was the one who got the ball rolling. I had dinner with her many years ago. Apparently she was walking around town with one of the babies on rickety, old stone roads and when she came home she said, 'Bob, you've got to do something about this city.' Lo and behold, there were pavements and all sorts of things in roads. That is what I heard straight from Dame Pattie. Maybe she should be remembered as well.

Dr Firth : Gai, we agree with you. It is the bit about scales. Bob got the big picture, the money and the people here. She was fantastic in actually engaging the people. We have historians who have been writing about what the community did and how she involved them. It is a wonderful story. In terms of naming something after Menzies, it became an issue because we did not want to name a suburb, a park or a street. It had to be something with gravitas. The family thought that the edge of Lake Burley Griffin fitted quite nicely, but we need to work on the other, yes.

CHAIR: Thank you for your evidence today. It was very enlightening. It gave us real insight into what should and could be holistic decision making.

Dr Firth : Thank you. I hope it is helpful.


That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

CHAIR: I thank everybody for participating.

Committee adjourned at 13:42