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Tuesday, 7 December 1976


Mr ELLICOTT (WentworthAttorney.General) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill will provide machinery to protect the large number of historic shipwrecks and relics on the continental shelf of Australia. It also provides controls for the recovery of such wrecks and relics and for their disposition. In particular, the Bill makes provision for the protection of the old Dutch shipwrecks and relics covered by the 1972 agreement between the Australian and Netherlands Governments. Under this agreement the Commonwealth has accepted responsibilities in relation to the Dutch East India Company vessels that were wrecked on or off the coast of Western Australia. There is at present no specific Commonwealth legislation on historic shipwrecks, although some control is possible under the Navigation Act. Western Australia does have legislation, but the validity of this legislation has been contested before the High Court. The decision which may resolve the matter is awaited. The Government believes that the Commonwealth has the necessary constitutional powers to legislate in this area and considers that it should introduce appropriate Commonwealth legislation into the Parliament during the current sittings. Should the relevant High Court judgment be handed down in the meantime, the Bill will be reviewed in the light of that judgment.

I am sure that all Australians will agree that there is an urgent need for effective legislation in this field. The Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections has pointed out that a wealth of historical material lies beneath the waters off the Australian coast. More than 500 shipwrecks have already been located and identified, and about 1500 more ships are known to have been wrecked around the coastline. These ships are an important part of Australia 's heritage and a vital part of its history. Many were involved in the early exploration of this region. They reflect European man's early contact with Australia. Many were involved in the carriage of migrants to this land. Many were involved in the vital cargo trade that was first Australia's lifeline and later essential to its growth and ultimate prosperity. For the historian their contents provide valuable guidance to the habits and customs of the period. For every Australian they are a reminder of the courage, initiative and skill of our pioneer sailors.

The Government shares the Pigott Committee's view that these shipwrecks must be protectedfrom acts of outright vandalism, from indiscriminate looting, from impetuous souveniring and accidental damage or destruction. Already future research in marine archaeology has been severely impaired because of the many shipwrecks which have been damaged, by accident or design, in the last 2 decades. I am sure most of those who take part in the increasingly popular sport of diving in search of shipwrecks are aware of the need to respect and preserve these memories of our past. But there have been cases when shipwrecks of immense historical interest have been wantonly destroyed. In other cases well meaning souvenir hunters have been unaware that, following exposure to seawater, metals become unstable and require expensive and lengthy conservation treatment. As a result, !>eople acting in the best of faith have deprived future generations of relics of great historical value. I stress that the Government is particularly appreciative of the major role being played by Western Australia in preserving that part of Australia's history represented by shipwrecks lying off the Western Australian coast. The Western Australian Museum, through its Fremantle Branch and associated conservation laboratory, leads Australia in marine archaeology and the preservation of historic shipwrecks.

A principal purpose of the Bill is to provide for the continuance on a sound legal basis of the existing high level of co-operation between Commonwealth agencies and such State institutions as the Western Australian Museum. The Bill therefore contains provisions that will allow agreements to be entered into between the Commonwealth and the States relating to implementation and enforcement of the legislation. These include provisions enabling the Minister to delegate his powers for these and other purposes. Such agreements would enable States to continue and expand their efforts to preserve Australia's maritime heritage under secure national legislation. At the same time, the Commonwealth will be able to act in the national interest when this becomes necessary.

I turn now to the main provisions of the Bill. Under the Bill, the Minister for Administrative Services is authorised to declare as historic shipwrecks or historic articles the remains of ships or items from them that are of historic significance. These then become subject to the protective provisions of the Bill. Under these provisions persons finding or having possession of such items are required to notify the Minister. The Minister is then empowered to give directions as to how the items are to be dealt with, and he may also issue permits for the exploration or recovery of shipwrecks and relics subject to such conditions as are considered appropriate. The area surrounding a declared wreck or article may be declared a protected zone and this will permit controls to be applied to any activity that may occur in the area.

In its report, the Pigott Committee pointed out that any legislative action should be accompanied by compilation of detailed wreck records. The Government endorses this suggestion. As a result, the Bill provides that a register, to be known as the Register of Historic Shipwrecks, will be maintained. This register will be open to public inspection. I believe all Australians will welcome this move to protect, preserve and record important aspects of Australia's early days. Maintenance of the register will not only assist in preserving these shipwrecks, it should also provide a valuable guide to those who wish to see, but not interfere with, the relics of our past for themselves.

I would point out that one of the major aims of this legislation is the preservation of our links with our past history. As I mentioned previously, perhaps fewer than one-quarter of the known wrecks have been located. While protecting these wrecks, the Government is also anxious to ensure that exploration and discovery is not inhibited or prevented. Even on a recreational basis, the process of exploration is a costly one. As well, many of these vessels contain valuable cargo. To reduce temptation while at the same time encouraging exploration, the Bill provides for the payment of a reward for the discovery of hitherto unlocated historic shipwrecks. The amount of the reward will not be contained in the legislation, but will be determined from time to time, according to the relative money values of the day and the importance of the discovery. The aim of this reward provision is to encourage exploration and discovery without offering incentives to pillaging. By way of illustration, the money value of the coins found on the Dutch shipwrecks off the Western Australian coast amount to many hundreds of thousands of dollars. It would be unfair and unreal to deny totally any prospective discoverer some reward for his effort.

Dutch shipwrecks, which are mentioned in the 1972 agreement between the Netherlands and Australia concerning old Dutch shipwrecks, are automatically brought within the protective provisions of the Bill without the need for prior declaration by the Minister. The agreement and a list of known such vessels and their locations are presented in schedules to the Bill. Further shipwrecks will be placed on the register as appropriate. I wish to express my thanks to the Western Australian authorities for the advice that has been given to the Commonwealth while this legislation has been under preparation. This has ensured that difficulties that might otherwise have arisen have been avoided and that legislation able to meet the needs of the States has been produced.

Before concluding I wish to foreshadow 3 amendments I propose to move to the Bill that arise from points made during the debate on the Bill in another place and from further consideration of the Bill by the Government. The first relates to clause 9 of the Bill. It has been suggested that, as the clause stands, a person who, quite innocently and legally, has in his possession an article that comes within the protection of the legislation may be prosecuted for failing to notify the Minister that he has that article, despite the fact that he did not know that the article is, in fact, a protected one. My colleague, the Minister for Administrative Services (Senator Withers), has considered this matter and has agreed that it would be reasonable to provide a defence to a charge brought in such circumstances, and an amendment to achieve this will be moved at the appropriate time.

The second matter relates to clause 17 of the Bill. Sub-clause (2) of that clause sets up a defence for a person who fails to give the required notice with regard to the discovery of a wreck. It makes it a defence against a prosecution if the person charged can prove that someone else has given the necessary notice. It has been suggested that it should also be a defence if a person has reasonable grounds for believing that the necessary notice has already been given. The Minister for Administrative Services has also accepted this point and an amendment to cover it will be moved at a later stage.

Finally, the Government has given further consideration to the terms of clause 23 of the Bill. It is now proposed to spell out expressly that self- incrimination constitutes a reasonable excuse for the purposes of sub-clause (5), thus confirming that this is a defence to a prosecution for failing to comply with a requirement to answer a question under sub-clause (1). This reflects the Government's concern to ensure that civil liberties are clearly accorded proper recognition by Commonwealth legislation.

I believe that this proposed legislation will adequately serve the purpose of protecting an important part of Australia's national heritage and I commend it to the House.

Debate (on motion by Dr Cass) adjourned.







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