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Wednesday, 22 August 2001
Page: 26413

Senator HILL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) (6:24 PM) —In closing this second reading debate, I thank all senators who have participated. I have not personally heard all contributions but—

Senator HILL —No, I did not. I listened to Senator Cooney yesterday. I thought his was a most constructive historical recollection and very useful as background information to this debate. I heard Senator Ridgeway's brief contribution yesterday. I listened carefully to Senator Hutchins' contribution this afternoon. So I think I have at least been able to get the flavour of the debate.

There is clearly, on the part of the Labor Party, the opposition—to give them the benefit of any doubt—a misunderstanding as to what is being sought through this process. One might say that there is a deliberate avoidance of the fact, but I will not argue that. I am simply prepared to accept that it is a misunderstanding.

The problem with the existing Register of the National Estate is that there is no real protection power that comes with it. It has been a very important contribution to the development of heritage conservation in Australia and, at the time of the commencement of that legislation and the establishment of the Register of the National Estate, it really was leadership in this field. It required the development of lists of places that should become part of this Register of the National Estate, and those places could cover the field of natural heritage, built heritage and cultural heritage including indigenous heritage. That has been valuable in developing a list of some 13,000 items that most Australians would accept are of heritage importance. However, the degree of importance has been a subject that has come in for much more critical debate in recent years. There is certainly a point of view that basically applications for listing and pressure for listing have come about because of political issues of the day rather than any overall analysis as to what are the really important heritage items in this country that should therefore be on a national list.

Secondly, apart from that debate as to whether the list reflects items that most Australians would think are of national importance today, the protection of those items is not really significantly enhanced by the existing legislative scheme at all. Basically, the existing scheme only places an obligation on the Commonwealth government, and only when a proposed action of the Commonwealth government will have a detrimental effect upon those assets is the act triggered. Even if it is triggered, all that is required under section 30 of the legislation is a consideration as to whether all feasible alternatives have been taken into account. So most threats to items on the Register of the National Estate are not from the Commonwealth at all. It is a very rare occurrence where the Commonwealth intends to take some action that could detrimentally affect a listed item. As I have said, even on those rare occasions there is no protection per se given to that item: it is simply that the Commonwealth has clearly got to understand the consequences of what it is doing and that it has taken that into account.

What happened, of course, is that this early start in Australia on heritage conservation through the existing Australian Heritage Commission Act was quickly overtaken by better protection in each of the states. It was the states that set up independent heritage authorities that basically had a power and responsibility of protection. You, I think, Mr Acting Deputy President, would argue that this is in fact a primary responsibility of the states rather than the Commonwealth in any event.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Lightfoot)—That is probably right, Senator, yes.

Senator HILL —That is clearly a Western Australian perception of our federal structure, but I can quite understand it—that the primary responsibility for conservation of heritage lies with the states. When there were no state legislative regimes it was understandable for the Commonwealth to show leadership and to establish the Register of the National Estate. We now have this huge national register with no real powers attached to it. In addition, we have state heritage protection schemes that provide much greater real protection to items that have been listed. Not surprisingly, we find many items are now listed on the Register of the National Estate and listed on state heritage lists as well. Not surprisingly, because of the size of the national list and because of the processes of registration, a huge backlog has developed.

All of this caused the commission, some years ago—I acknowledge it commenced this process before we came to government in 1996—to question whether it was time to move on to a more contemporary scheme of conservation and protection. The commission itself commenced this debate, through preparing discussion papers. It led the debate from 1996 onwards around the country. People regard the issue of heritage dearly and so there are passionate views on this subject. The debate that took place within heritage communities around the country certainly was passionate. For some, it is true there is a deep sentimental attraction to the notion of the Register of the National Estate, even though those who are involved in this debate and are well-informed accept that it offers very little, if any, protection at all. The commission recognised that at this stage of Australia's cultural development there needed to be a better national scheme, one that could more effectively provide protection where it is appropriate to provide protection and one that would also give the primary responsibility to that level of government that should accept that responsibility—not only for protection but for the costs that are inevitably associated with it.

I have mentioned protection at a Commonwealth level and protection at a state level but of course many local governments around Australia have also taken on this responsibility and developed lists within their jurisdictions. They have also, to some extent, developed ways of protecting the assets on their localised lists. The fourth stream is the non-government lists, the National Trust lists and the like. It is therefore not surprising that those who regard this issue as a serious one have been wrestling for some years with the way in which all of these lists and all of these various regimes of differing levels of protection might be rationalised into something that is a more effective national scheme.

We picked up this challenge when we came to government. We took the advice of the Australian Heritage Commission and took it to governments other than our own. In 1997, the governments of Australia—the Commonwealth and the state governments—agreed that there should be a new scheme. That agreement is the basis of what is before the chamber today. It is interesting that Senator Hutchins sees a great threat from Liberals in this scheme, when the New South Wales Labor government endorsed it back in 1997. They did so because they also recognised that it was time to move on and it was time to develop a new scheme.

The fundamentals of this scheme are that there would be a national list, probably a relatively limited national list, of items which most Australians would regard as so fundamentally important to our cultural heritage—whether they be built items or otherwise— that they should be recorded in that national sense and that, within its capacity, the Commonwealth should accept an ultimate responsibility for their protection. I will try to explain that to you a little further, Mr Acting Deputy President. I can imagine you would be the sort of honourable senator that might be a little nervous about that concept, so I will not use an example in Western Australia. But let us take, for example, the Victorian parliament, the first parliament of the Federation of Australia. It is clearly an asset of great historical and cultural importance to all Australians. I, as a South Australian, have as much interest in seeing that properly conserved as any Victorian. I would not be surprised therefore if independent experts say that that is the sort of place that should be regarded as being of genuinely national heritage significance, for which the Commonwealth, representing all Australians, would have ultimate responsibility for protecting.

On that idea, the Commonwealth government and the state governments agreed. They also agreed that there are many items that could be best described as being of state heritage significance and that they should be protected by effective state heritage regimes. You would then have a better scheme in that you would have a national list and Commonwealth protection for items of genuinely national heritage significance, whilst the mass of items that are of state significance would be protected under the existing state regimes. Those regimes could be accredited by the Commonwealth, provided that they meet a set of best contemporary practices. The state and Commonwealth governments also believed that it was legitimate for local governments, and it was the responsibility of local governments, to protect items that could be described as being of local heritage importance.

That is the framework of what is before the chamber today. It is designed to achieve a better protection, a more effective protection, of our heritage in a national sense and certainly a level of protection that is far superior to that which exists today. In addition to that, in this legislation we recognise that the Commonwealth is the owner of many properties. They may not reach a level of national significance, but the Commonwealth nevertheless has to accept responsibility for the heritage values of its properties.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Bolkus! Sorry to interrupt you, Minister. Senator Bolkus, you are interrupting proceedings with your conversation; the speaker on his feet has the call and I find it difficult to concentrate on what he has to say. If you want to talk to Senator Forshaw, I invite you to meet outside somewhere.

Senator HILL —For that purpose, the Commonwealth should list such items. In practice, of course, what would happen is that you would avoid this duplication and that items that are not of national importance but are of state importance and are on the state lists would stay there. That is obviously a sensible reform in itself. The Commonwealth and the states having agreed to that framework, we then went through the process of drafting this legislation. The parliamentary committee considered the legislation, and there has been a long and important community—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Hill, could I interrupt you again. I understand that there may have been an arrangement to stop the debate at 6.40 p.m.

Senator HILL —Why don't I stop in about two minutes?

Senator Bolkus —Twenty seconds.

Senator Forshaw —You've stopped now.

Senator HILL —At this stage it would be sensible, it seems to me, to complete the second reading debate. I have set out the framework for it and I have given the rationale. I have said that there has been a long and important public debate that has led to this parliamentary debate.

The last issue I want to touch upon is that raised by the Australian Democrats—that is, the indigenous heritage issue. I was invited to comment on the sites bill. It is still the government's desire to have that piece of legislation passed this session. I believe that we are close to achieving that goal and we will continue to work to achieve that outcome. In relation to indigenous heritage, yes, it is included within this legislation. So, if the indigenous heritage achieved the national significance standard, it would be treated as such.

In relation to the broader area of indigenous heritage, we accept—as the governments accepted in 1997—that there is still more work that needs to be done to develop an effective way to properly respect and conserve the broader range of indigenous heritage values across Australia. That debate must continue, and the rationalisation that has been argued for by Senator Ridgeway of the various pieces of legislation should ultimately occur as well. In our view, that should be the next phase of heritage protection within Australia and the next major project for this parliament. On that basis, I would accept the amendment to the second reading suggested by Senator Ridgeway, because I think it is pointing to an important direction for the future that this government would accept. I commend the bill to the Senate.