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Monday, 3 April 2000
Page: 15000

Mr LEO McLEAY (1:37 PM) —I am pleased today to contribute to the debate on the Parthenon marbles. Like the other members who have already spoken on this motion, I believe strongly that the marbles should be returned to Greece. We are all familiar with the history of these treasures. They were taken from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin, then British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, with the agreement of the Turkish authorities, who were occupying Greece at the time.

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have visited the Acropolis and to have seen the Parthenon standing high above the sprawling city cannot fail to be impressed by the buildings. Memories of our early education flood back—Greece as the cradle of democracy, the philosophers, poets, artists, great architects and, of course, the Olympic Games. How appropriate it would be if in this Olympic year a firm decision were made to return the marbles in time for them to be appropriately on display in Athens for the 2004 Olympic Games.

There is no doubt also that the marbles are one of the main drawing cards of visitors to the British Museum in London. Just as those of us who have visited Greece remember our first glimpse of the Parthenon, visitors to the British Museum are also forever impressed by their first viewing of the marbles. But times have changed since the marbles were first removed from the Parthenon and taken to England. We are familiar with the arguments put forward about why they should stay where they currently are. One of those is that if they had remained on the building in the Parthenon they would have deteriorated irretrievably. But conservation techniques of doubtful worth have been inflicted upon the marbles by the British Museum itself. Indeed, those conservation techniques earlier in this century have caused irreparable damage to the marbles. Even at the time Lord Elgin acquired the marbles he was criticised by his contemporaries, including Lord Byron, and described as a plunderer and a marble-stealer.

The compelling argument for me, however, is that the marbles were taken from Greece by a person from another country who negotiated a deal with an occupying empire to whom the building and its architectural worth meant nothing. The original idea of the purchaser of the marbles was to have them adorn his home back in Scotland—no worthy altruistic aim of preserving these treasures for the sake of posterity; no generous offer of preserving for all to see historic works of art that might otherwise be lost. Lord Elgin's motives were not noble; he saw and took an opportunity to acquire some objets d'art for his own personal use. The fact that they ended up in the British Museum had more to do with his subsequent bad fortune and need to sell most of them.

But in many ways I think what happened in the past is now irrelevant. There is not much point in criticising Lord Elgin. He was a man of his time and certainly not the only person to take advantage of circumstances to obtain antiquities—witness the vast amount of Egyptian antiquities in the same British Museum. What is important now is that there is an opportunity to return the marbles to their country of origin, which wants them returned and has asked for their return. They are certainly among the most famous antique treasures in the world. They belong to Greece, which has promised to display them in a specially constructed place close to their original home. It seems to me inexcusable for the British government not to consider the request for their return and not to agree to it.

At present a House of Commons committee is conducting an inquiry on the restitution of cultural property held by British museums. I hope that when this committee considers this issue it does the right thing and recommends the return of the marbles to Greece. Many public figures in Australia on all sides of politics are passionate about the need to return the marbles to Greece. They are critical of the attitude of the current British government, which appears loath to take any action. Gough Whitlam has recently accused the British government of being ignorant and intransigent on the issue.

Anyone who has taken any interest in this issue knows that Lord Elgin's action was an act of vandalism. But times have changed since Lord Elgin first took the marbles, and it would be a magnanimous and correct position for the British government to agree to the return of the marbles to Greece. Britain would of course then receive a lot of acclaim from the world, rather than be in the present position where people are considering the things Gough Whitlam said about it to be absolutely correct. There is no doubt that the return of the marbles would enhance those great architectural treasures of the Acropolis. The return of the marbles would be a way for the world to see that the British government has accepted the role that it has in the world, and the Olympic Games would proceed with them. (Time expired)