The Guardian August 9, 2000

Our heritage under attack

by Peter Mac

The news that the Australian Heritage Commission is to be axed by the 
Howard Government has come as a shock to those concerned with conservation 
of Australian places which are significant in terms of their history, 
architecture, natural features or other aspects. The move is likely to 
result in the loss, in whole or in part, of many such sites.

The establishment of the Commission in 1975 by the Whitlam Federal 
Government followed the earlier struggles by the Builders Labourers' 
Federation and others to save areas such as the Sydney's Rocks and Kelly's 
Bush areas from clearance for redevelopment.

The Commission's establishment foreshadowed the introduction by various 
state governments of similar legislation aimed at identifying and 
protecting significant sites.

The Commission's job was to establish a comprehensive register of all such 
places (the Register of the National Estate) and to monitor works likely to 
affect Commonwealth-owned sites to a significant extent.

The Register of the National Estate now has counterpart lists at state and 
local government level all over Australia.

The legislation which established the Commission obliges all government 
Ministers and organisations to refrain from taking action likely to 
adversely affect listed places to a significant extent, and to seek the 
comments of the Commission in cases where such action is proposed.

Although there have been notable cases where this did not happen, and some 
deficiencies in the performance of the Commission itself, it has 
nevertheless in general performed a crucial role in the identification and 
protection of such places.

One of first of its many achievements was the formal listing of the golden 
sands of Queensland's Fraser Island, which saved it from a sand mining 
proposal with the potential to ruin its natural qualities.

For 25 years the Commission has guided  or restrained  the hand of 
government in the complex issues involved in reconciling the practical use 
and conservation of Commonwealth-owned significant sites.

Over the years it developed wide-ranging expertise in dealing with the 
greed and/or philistinism of governments and private firms alike, and was 
instrumental in saving thousands of sites across the nation from 
destruction, desecration or inappropriate development.

However, like other formally independent government organisations such as 
the National Parks and Wildlife Service, its future has been constantly 
under a cloud, since it is essentially concerned with preserving many 
places that offer the possibility of huge profits from development.

The Howard Government now proposes to replace the Commission with a smaller 
advisory body, the Australian Heritage Council.

Ignoring the fact that the Register of the National Estate was intended to 
provide a comprehensive listing of places of significance, the Government 
also intends to replace the Register of the National Estate with a small 
list of places of national significance only.

It is probable that entering a place on the list would only comprise a 
recognition of its significance, and that the current obligations on 
government Ministers or organisations to protect such places would be 

In any case the ultimate responsibility for placing such places on the list 
would devolve to the responsible federal Minister, who could remove a site 
from the list at whim.

And what of the places of state or local significance that are currently on 
the Register?

If they're already on a state government list, they'll be covered by the 
legislative provisions of that State  and some States offer better 
protection than others. If not, they'll be unprotected.

Many will almost certainly be the subject of rapid application for 
redevelopment, or worse, unauthorised demolition or clearance.

Moreover, many state governments are transferring their responsibilities 
for protecting places of significance to their respective local 
governments, many of whom are notorious for approving demolition or 
inappropriate development of such places.

Sydney's mayor of Botany Bay recently announced to a meeting of his local 
heritage trust that he had personally exercised his discretion and removed 
60 sites from a specialist consultant's draft list of significant places 
within his local government area.

A former chair of the Commission, Ms Wendy McCarthy, described the proposal 
as "... perfectly outrageous, and part of the philosophy of his government 
to do nothing and leave it to the States."

Conservation organisations such as the National Trusts and Australia ICOMOS 
are said to be gearing up for a long hard struggle on the issue.

Back to index page