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"A New Heritage Protection System for the 21st Century"

An address by the
Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Senator the Hon Robert Hill
to the
9th International National Trust Conference

Alice Springs
August 23, 2000

Back in the mid-1970s, the average Australian family was watching television shows like Countdown, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and the Six Million Dollar Man. Australian bands like Sherbet and Skyhooks shared the pop charts with the likes of Abba, Glen Campbell and the Captain and Tennille. Australian women were heading to the hairdressers to get the Farrah Fawcett look while a young John Travolta was about to star in Saturday Night Fever, sparking the birth of the disco craze. Fashion items from the time, and I use the term fashion loosely, included bell-bottom jeans, polyester suits and tube tops.

Most of us would recall that the mid-1970s was also an interesting, if not controversial time in Australian politics. The history books record the acrimony of the events which led up to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in November 1975. Surprisingly, only months earlier, in a show of bi-partisan spirit, the Government and Opposition had joined together to ensure the smooth passage of the Australian Heritage Commission Act.

In doing so, both sides of politics recognised the need for national leadership on heritage issues - whether they related to natural, cultural or built heritage. It is indicative of the success of this approach that all States and Territories have since established their own heritage protection schemes. By March of 1976, the newly elected Fraser Government had established the Australian Heritage Commission with a staff of 14 and an annual budget of just under $300,000.

Most of the fads and fashions of the 1970s have long since vanished - although I do note that repeats of Happy Days are inflicted upon us on a regular basis. But the concept of heritage and what it means to our nation should never fade from our national consciousness.

Our heritage helps define us as a people. It tells us where we have come from and what it means to be Australian. If I could borrow a line from an AFL club - our heritage gives us pride in our past and confidence in our future.

Our heritage is never static - it is continually evolving. The brand new Stadium Australia in Sydney, for example, will soon become part of our heritage. It would seem only logical then that the mechanisms we have put in place to identify, present and protect that heritage must also evolve to meet the demands of a changing world.

Some would argue that the development of State-based heritage regimes in response to the Commonwealth's leadership is an example of that evolutionary process. But it would still seem odd that some 25 years on from its original passage through Parliament, the Australian Heritage Commission Act remains largely unchanged.

As Australia enters the new millennium we have replaced a tax system which had clearly passed its use-by date with a new tax system relevant to the needs of an increasingly competitive global economy. Our government has made similar advances in the areas of industrial relations, private health insurance and higher education. We are now undertaking a similar process in the area of welfare reform. In my broader portfolio responsibilities as Environment Minister, we have successfully passed the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act - the first comprehensive overhaul of Australia's environment laws since the 1970s, making those laws relevant to the demands faced by today's environment.

As we approach the Centenary of Federation, it would appear an appropriate time to reassess whether our system of heritage protection - a child of the 1970s - is still relevant to 21st Century Australia.

This is, in fact, a process the Howard Government started more than two years ago when we began working toward a National Heritage Strategy. The Australian Heritage Commission has helped drive that process through a public discussion paper and bodies such as the National Trust have ensured that the broader public have become engaged in the process.

Our primary aim has been to establish a system which provides more effective protection of places of truly national heritage significance.

The Register of the National Estate, administered by the Heritage Commission, has certainly served its purpose over the past 25 years and provided national leadership on heritage issues. While many will feel an almost emotional attachment to the concept of the Register, we must consider whether it is time to move beyond its largely educative and awareness-raising role toward a system which provides real protection for places of national significance.

I make this point because many members of the general public would not be aware that listing on the Register of the National Estate does not provide any legislative powers of protection. Many of you here today would remember, I suspect with some regret, the demolition of the Bow Truss Wool Store in Geelong in 1990. This building, which many considered to be of international significance, was listed on the Register of the National Estate as part of the broader listing of the Corio-Brougham Conservation Area in 1980. The fact it had been on the Register for a decade counted little when the Victorian Government decided its fate.

Again, I would think that the general public would expect that something considered to be important enough to include on a national list of heritage items should be afforded some protection by the national government. Unfortunately that is not the case.

Part of the problem is the Register of the National Estate itself. Since its inception in the mid-1970s the Register has expanded to include some 13,000 items with a further 4,000 waiting to be assessed. I said earlier that heritage protection is an evolving process - but we should not confuse expansion with evolution.

Many of the entries currently listed on this national Register are items which are more logically of local or State significance.

This may have been appropriate in the mid-1970s before States and Territories established their own heritage protection processes but 25 years later it is no longer necessary or relevant.

Many of the entries on the national register are now duplicated on State and Territory registers. If we needed further proof that our national system hasn't kept pace with changing times we only need consider that an item listed on both the State and national lists is afforded greater protection by a State government than by a national government.

The most recent announcement of additions to the interim list of the Register of the National Estate provides a range of examples of heritage items which are all worthy of recognition and protection - but are of more significance to a local or State community.

For example, the 25 new South Australian interim listings included 6 Adelaide hotels - the Hampshire, the Prince Albert, the Wheelwright Arms, the Earl of Aberdeen, the Ambassadors, and the Beresford and Oddfellows Inn.

From my university days, when I'm sure I would have visited all of these establishments, I can assure you that they are particularly fine examples of the architecture that characterised Adelaide's network of inner-city pubs and they all played their role in developing the popular local pub culture.

But if the development of pub culture is a qualification for listing on the Register of the National Estate, every hotel in every town in Australia would be listed. I'm sure I'd have no problem finding willing assessors for this task but the question must be asked, where is the line to be drawn? Surely this is an obvious example of where an effective State-based regime should be sufficient to protect the heritage values identified. The Commonwealth has sought to work cooperatively with the States and Territories to achieve a more logical, consistent approach to heritage issues. The proposal for a National Heritage Strategy to set out the respective responsibilities of the Commonwealth and the States was confirmed by the COAG process on environmental law reform in 1998.

But after more than two years of talking and little progress, the Commonwealth has decided that it is time to move forward on this issue in relation to the areas of its responsibilities. In June of this year I announced that the Commonwealth would introduce legislation to establish a new regime for the identification, conservation and protection of a list of places of truly national significance.

This will build on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation or EPBC Act which I referred to earlier. This Act has already significantly upgraded the level of protection for natural and cultural heritage places on Commonwealth land.

Our new legislation will take this protection a further step forward by establishing what will be known as the National Heritage List.

The List will consist of the key heritage places that are of outstanding national heritage significance to Australia. The jewels in the Crown. A National Heritage List will help promote and encourage national identity through a better understanding of our heritage. The list will not be restricted to domestic places, but may also include international sites such as Anzac Cove or the Kokoda Trail.

The legislation will provide a public process for entry of places on the National List. The assessment and public consultation process will be managed by an independent statutory authority - the Australian Heritage Council.

There will be opportunities for the public to be involved in the development of listing themes, nominations of potential places, the preparation of statements of significance of heritage values for potential places and providing comments on listing proposals.

I would hope that the National Trust will be a key player in the listing process, building on their long history of leadership and innovation in the heritage protection arena.

I expect National Listing will be a readily recognised indicator of a place well worth visiting. As such, listing will not only be an important recognition of heritage, but will be a stimulus for heritage related tourism. This will be of particular significance to the economic development of regional Australia.

While the Australian Heritage Commission Act represented best practice when it was enacted, it simply does not provide substantive protection for our most precious heritage. The AHC Act is triggered only by Commonwealth actions, and even then it only imposes procedural requirements.

Places on the new National Heritage List will be identified as a matter of national environment significance under the EPBC Act. Therefore actions that are likely to have a significant impact on these places will trigger the requirement for assessment and approval by the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Heritage. The Commonwealth Minister will have the capacity to accredit state assessment processes and management plans - provided they meet 'best practice' criteria.

What this means is that a place on the new National List will receive greater Commonwealth protection than a national estate place currently receives under the Australian Heritage Commission Act.

As part of the new regime the Commonwealth will also be lifting its game in relation to heritage places in its ownership or control. All Commonwealth heritage places will be identified, properly managed and fully protected in a consistent way for the first time. The legislation will require Commonwealth-owned heritage properties to have management plans which balance the need for useable modern facilities and the need to conserve heritage values.

As part of this process, we will compile a Commonwealth Heritage List - a list of places of Commonwealth responsibility and interest. The listing process will be similar to that of the National List. Places on the Commonwealth Heritage List will receive protection under the EPBC Act.

The legislation will also improve Commonwealth compliance with State heritage laws.

To further support this new national heritage scheme, the Commonwealth will, as I mentioned earlier, establish an Australian Heritage Council as an independent, statutory body with its own Act.

The Council, which will be the successor to the current Australian Heritage Commission, will be required to provide advice on the identification of places on the National List and on 'best practice' standards for the management of these places. It will also provide national leadership in policy and practice in relation to heritage conservation and promotion.

Finally, the existing Register of the National Estate will remain publicly accessible as part of a database of national, state and local heritage places. The Commonwealth believes the Register of the National Estate should also be used by State and Territory Governments to update their own heritage lists. Already some governments have indicated a willingness to proceed down this path. And the initial Commonwealth Heritage List is likely to be drawn from the Register.

I expect to introduce the new legislation into the Parliament within the next few months.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Commonwealth will continue to show national leadership in the development and implementation of heritage policy. The new heritage legislation will allow for a true national scheme of heritage protection in cooperation with the States/Territories. Places of national significance will be properly protected for the first time in the Commonwealth's history. For industry, there will be certainty in that Commonwealth involvement in the assessment and approval process will be triggered only when a place of national significance is involved. Specific statutory timeframes for approvals will ensure a timely and efficient process.

The steps the Commonwealth is taking represent an opportunity to move away from an ad hoc heritage system to one characterised by a systematic identification and protection of places of national heritage significance.

I drew a parallel earlier to the changes our government has implemented to areas such as taxation, our economy, our workplaces, our health care and so on, to ensure that the systems we have in place are relevant and responsive to the demands of a changing world in a new millennium.

These areas represent the financial or physical health of our nation. But the cultural and spiritual strength of our nation is just as important. Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail to move forward to a system which adequately protects our nation's heritage.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge the National Trust for its ongoing commitment to heritage issues through its various roles as lobbyist, agitator, educator, and conservator.

I look forward to your continued involvement and input in the shaping of our new national heritage scheme.

I would also like to acknowledge and thank the Arrente traditional owners on whose land this conference is taking place.

Commonwealth of Australia