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Wednesday, 12 May 1993
Page: 433

Senator CARR —My question is directed to the Minister for the Arts and Administrative Services. I refer the Minister to the sale by tender of the opalised skeleton of an ancient reptile, a plysoran, known colloquially as Eric, and presently located at the Australian Museum in Sydney. Mr Alex Ritchie of the Australian Museum is quoted in an advertisement in the Australian Financial Review as saying that the skeleton is one of the most important scientific specimens of its kind ever discovered in Australia. He describes it as a national treasure. In view of the cultural importance of the fossil, I ask the Minister: has the museum notified his department of the intended sale? Will the Minister notify the museum that the Government considers that the permanent export of the fossil would significantly diminish the nation's cultural heritage and, as such, would be refused a permanent export permit?

Senator McMULLAN —This issue arises because the company that owns this particular exhibit is in provisional liquidation. Therefore, the receiver has called for sale by tender, which in the normal course he would, of this fossil as an asset of the company in provisional liquidation. But the concern is that a number of prominent experts are very concerned that this opalised skeleton is of such unique value that it should not be allowed to be exported. It comes before the Commonwealth Government, although it is in the custody of a New South Wales Government establishment, the Australian Museum, because of the Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage Act. Anybody who purchases the fossil, if wishing to remove it from Australia, will have to apply to my department in accordance with that Act for a permit to export it.

  The Labor Government introduced that legislation to prevent the removal of significant cultural items from Australia, and I think it is important. There seems to be little doubt about this fossil's significance to Australia's cultural heritage. As far as I can tell, that is a matter not in dispute. It is clearly something of significant commercial value also.

  No application for export has been received by the department until now. If an application is received, the advice of expert examiners would be sought and that advice would be referred to the National Cultural Heritage Committee. Although no application has been received, because of the obvious and well-known significance of this particular fossil and the publicity surrounding it, which has drawn it to public attention, the department is already seeking advice from expert examiners appointed under the Act to ascertain whether they would be likely to recommend or refuse a permit, so that if any decision is made—because tenders for this sale close on Friday—we will be in a position to make a prompt decision in response to any application that might be made about the export of Eric.