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Thursday, 18 April 1985
Page: 1406

Mr CONNOLLY —by leave-The Opposition welcomes the decision of the Government to review the Australian Heritage Commission Act. Having read the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation relevant to these matters, which was tabled in October 1979, I draw the attention of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment (Mr Cohen) to page 71 of that report. It quoted from Hansard on 22 February 1979. It stated:

The Prime Minister, when announcing the review of the Act, stated that 'there were some elements of the Heritage Commission Act as originally passed which do come into conflict with other Acts and which could stand in the way of matters which have been under full environmental review'.

I am somewhat nonplussed as to what became of that inquiry, and the need now in 1985 to conduct apparently a second inquiry into a very similar area. Am I to assume that the first inquiry, despite the promise, was never concluded?

Nevertheless, the subject of this inquiry is important, but it must not be allowed to pass without comment. The Australian Conservation Foundation has advised the Environment and Conservation Committee of this House that it has some doubts about the manner in which the Minister proposes to conduct this inquiry. As the Minister said, the inquiry will be essentially an in-house inquiry conducted within the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment, although efforts will be made, as I noted from the final page of his statement, to conduct a public forum for the exchange of information and views on the operation of the Australian Heritage Commission.

I wonder, in view of the background which the Environment and Conservation Committee of this House already has on this subject, whether it would be more efficacious for this House to conduct an inquiry of this type. I note, for example, that we have already had the Hodges report, to which the Minister referred. I think there is a need for a more wide-ranging review to be conducted by an institution such as a committee of this Parliament to enable all sections of the Australian community-in particular, the business community, the States, individual heritage organisations and conservation groups-to feel that they have access to the Parliament on this subject. After all, it is a review of legislation of this Parliament, rather than access only to a department which may or may not conduct the examination to the satisfaction of all concerned.

One of the key elements of the Australian Heritage Commission Act was the establishment of the National Estate grants program. In the 1982-83 annual report on this matter there were some very serious criticisms raised which I hope will be subject to examination in the context of this review. For example, the Commission stated that the program provides financial assistance for government and non-government projects aimed at identifying, protecting and preserving the National Estate. The money is provided by the Commonwealth for projects recommended by the State governments. The Commission's criticisms on this included, among other things, the lack of Commonwealth-State consultation, which was often non-existent or token; the Commission was not involved in formulating study briefs; and the grant of the funds was susceptible to unacceptable delays. For example, the 1982-83 programs for Victoria and New South Wales were signed on 21 February 1983 and 26 May 1983 respectively, but recipients did not receive advice or funds until about a month later.

The Commission went on to say that States were able to veto projects; that some projects were funded with inadequate briefs or supervision; that some funded projects were outside the guidelines of the program; that it was difficult to ensure a balance between natural, Aboriginal and building environment components of the program in some States; and that there was considerable disenchantment about current program delivery amongst recipient organisations, both government and non-government. The question is whether an inquiry at this time will be able to conduct investigations and cover this very wide range of difficulties which have been identified in the application of this legislation.

It is important to note the Commission's opinion that the program did not effectively protect the National Estate. It went on to state the usual problems of staffing, which I understand is certainly the situation at the present time. One of the more immediate problems the Commission appears to face is that, while it has conducted a significant number of reviews into various elements of the National Estate in recent years, they are literally gathering dust and it has not been able to achieve the ultimate objectives of the legislation.

One of the weaknesses of the legislation appears to be that there is not a significant degree of distinction between what I would call items of primary National Estate importance and other items or areas in relation to the degree of protection provided to them, nor is the Commonwealth able at this stage to negotiate successfully with all the State governments.

Mr Cohen —Do you mean a graduated system?

Mr CONNOLLY —Yes, graduated. There are some States which have tended to resent the imposition, as they see it, of Commonwealth legislation in this area. It has been pointed out that the essential ingredients of the Act are related principally to the Commonwealth Government, not to the States, except to the degree that those States are prepared to accept it. It is worth noting that, even then, items on the National Estate are not necessarily always protected from the Commonwealth.

For example, some years ago the Commonwealth Bank, in a most extraordinary action, which I can regard only as reprehensible, decided to buy and demolish what, I understand, was the first gaol in Parramatta. Very peculiar activities were conducted, including the demolition of the gaol at about 3 a.m., with the expectation that nobody would be around to see what was going on, which of course was the case. This demonstrates that the Act does not necessarily protect all items on the National Estate, it does require that Commonwealth departments under the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act take these factors into account. It appears to be a possible weakness that statutory authorities-in this case, the Commonwealth Bank-are not necessarily covered to the degree that they should be.

In my final observations I make the point that we are now heading towards the bicentenary. In that context, I have no doubt that the Australian heritage should be given considerable importance. It is worth pointing out that heritage is not just bricks and mortar; it is also the expression of the traditional values of our past. I was disturbed to read a letter in the Sydney Morning Herald of 30 March headed 'Past has no part in 1988 arts'. The letter referred to the bicentennial commissioning program which advertised in newspapers for artists to create on that date multi-art works of a grand scope to mark our 200 years. Of course, we do not object to that. The advertisement stated:

. . . 'Preference will be given to commissionings which reflect present day Australia, or deal with the future, rather than projects which re-enact the past'.

If we go down that road we tread the path to absolute absurdities. For example, Tchaikovsky would never have written the 1812 Overture because that reflected the feelings of the Russian people on the appearance of the Napoleonic armies at the gates of Moscow but it was in the past! The same principle applies to Australia's relatively short modern history of some 200 years. Our present development was sown during that short period. There is nothing to be ashamed of. There were pluses as well as minuses in terms of current community values. One thing is certain: If we are to proceed on the basis of heritage protection, let us not delude ourselves that we need to talk only about bricks and mortar; we have to protect the legacy of those past Australians who made our country what it is today.