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Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for the Environment and Heritage 1996-2001

Senator the Hon Robert Hill

"Heritage: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow"

Address to the Natural Trust Conference


Senator the Hon. Robert Hill,
Federal Minister for the Environment

31 May 1997


It's a pleasure to join you for this national conference. I am particularly pleased to have been asked to address the issue of the Howard government's perspective on heritage policy and protection as the government, in co-operation with the States, is currently entering into the final stages of considering the future management of a range of issues including heritage policy.

Before I get started, I did want to acknowledge the courage of your conference organisers in selecting this venue - the Parliamentary Annexe - as the location for your deliberations. I gather from my Queensland colleagues that the construction of this building was not, at the time, universally welcomed within heritage circles.

I am not sure whether I am reading too much into the choice, but I did think that perhaps the venue was chosen to reinforce some of the important heritage dilemmas you have chosen to discuss here. For example, I see you had one section on your program entitled, "Sea World -- Tomorrow's Heritage."

Sea World, the Parliamentary Annexe, maybe even Lang Park -- perhaps they will all be perceived very differently by future generations, and perhaps they are tomorrow's heritage?

Perhaps future generations of Australians will lack the virtue of our good taste? I am mindful of the warning Thomas Paine gave us when he said that, "When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary." (1776)

Striking that balance between what we and those who follow us think worth preserving is one of the many difficult tasks facing governments, organisations like the National Trust, and anyone else concerned about enhancing Australia's cultural heirloom.

The Importance of Heritage Preservation:

During the past year, the Commonwealth government has done much to ensure that we will be able to improve the state of our natural heritage for future generations of Australians.

Establishing our Natural Heritage Trust has been a major undertaking. We now have our funding base secure, our Trust legislation in place and many of the programs already under way. It is an enormously exciting time to be Commonwealth environment minister - with the integrated approach we are pursuing I am confident that we can make some tangible and positive steps in protecting Australia's biodiversity.

Whilst in our first year in office we have primarily invested in that natural heritage, we are mindful of our responsibility as a nation to preserve our cultural heritage and we accept a primary role for the Commonwealth government to show national leadership in that task.

We recognise further that, to be effective, this means physical preservation of places and objects. It means more than just identifying and recording places of significance.

New technologies and methods of communication are providing us with exciting opportunities to record and make far more accessible visual and written representations of our heritage.

Just a month or so ago I had the pleasure of launching the Register of the National Estate on the Internet. It means that, with relative ease, anyone around the World with access to the World Wide Web can examine, often with photographs, many of the Nations more important heritage places.

But while these tools are important, "virtual preservation" of heritage is no substitute for the real thing. Wherever practicable, we must also ensure physical preservation. In the same way that photos and film footage of the last Tasmanian Tiger are no substitute for a living animal, we need to physically protect and preserve rare and significant places.

The Key Role of the National Trust:

In addition to affirming the Commonwealth's role in heritage protection I also wanted to publicly recognise the role that the National Trust plays within the cultural heritage sector.

Over the past fifty years, the National Trust has played had a crucial role in ensuring that places of heritage significance are protected and preserved for the long term in Australia.

I genuinely believe that it is largely as a result of your efforts and your ability to represent thousands of individual Australians that we now have State heritage legislation to help prevent the erosion of our built heritage. Without the National Trust's intervention at the local level, heritage considerations would not now feature so highly in the town planning decisions made by local government authorities.

But in addition to the Trust's vital "watchdog" role and in addition to your role in identification, listing, and lobbying on behalf of cultural heritage preservation -- your volunteers play a vital role in show-casing heritage listed properties to domestic and overseas visitors.

According to the ACNT, over 12 months, some 7,000 National Trust volunteers help to around guide 3/4 of a million (750,000) visitors through 182 Trust owned heritage places.

This invaluable contribution is crucial to ensuring that an appreciation for our historic heritage and that such appreciation is passed on to the next generation.

I am therefore pleased that the government, through Senator Alston's portfolio, has been able to maintain Grants in Aid to the National Trusts funding at around $800,000 in our last two budgets.

Other Commonwealth Financial Assistance for Cultural Heritage:

In addition to direct assistance to the National Trust, I am also pleased about our budget decision to retain the 20% tax rebate for expenditure on approved heritage conservation work done to privately owned heritage listed properties. In 1997-98, this measure will amount to an additional federal government contribution of $1.9 million towards cultural heritage preservation.

Much of Australia's important heritage is, and will remain, in non-government hands. By such means we are prepared to help fund its preservation.

I referred earlier to the Natural Heritage Trust and, in passing, it is worth stating that community grant funds may be sought by the National Trust for those properties that you maintain principally for their natural values.

Similarly, many of you may not be aware that the Green Corps - one of our initiatives that I am most excited about - is able to and, indeed will be, undertaking projects relating to the protection and restoration of our cultural heritage. It is therefore open to organisations such as the National Trust to develop proposals that could be considered as part of the Green Corps activities.

The final financial measure I'd mention is one which a number of you have already raised with me -- the $1 billion Federation Fund recently announced by the Treasurer.

The aim of the Fund is to help facilitate major projects of national significance in the lead-up to the nation's commemorative activities on the 100th anniversary of federation. A particular emphasis will be projects that involve some form of job creation.

While the details have yet to be finalised, I would encourage the National Trust to consider submitting proposals that may be relevant to the goals of the Fund.

I've mentioned some of the financial measures that the government is committed to which are relevant to many of you here today.

I also know that the protection of our built heritage does not come cheaply and that, despite highly professional fund raising efforts, voluntary organisations such as the National Trust struggle to meet the demands and requests made of them.

The call on government for greater financial support is therefore a call that I understand and respect.

While our current budgetary situation does not allow me to raise your expectations about our ability to increase support for the funding needs of built heritage, it is a need that I do hope that we will eventually be able to more significantly address.

In the short term the most important moves by the Howard Government in this area do not involve money -- they are about finally getting an appropriate national framework for cultural heritage.

A Consistent National Framework by 2001:

Even though we have long accepted that heritage is a shared responsibility of different levels of government and the community in general, Australia still lacks a national policy that unites Commonwealth, State and Territory, and Local governments in an agreed heritage places protection regime.

I don't need to recount to this audience the problems which result from inconsistent cultural heritage legislation from state to state. You know full well that there are gaps in the existing protection framework, and that many National Trust listed places are inadequately protected.

I need not explain to you the difficulties and inefficiencies that result from both intergovernmental uncertainty over cultural heritage jurisdiction, and the unnecessary duplication this causes.

To rectify these and other problems, we are committed the establishment of a consistent national policy framework for cultural heritage by the year 2001.

Central to that effort is the current review of environmental roles and responsibilities by the Council of Australian Governments -- a process which, importantly, will include a Cultural Heritage Places review.

Through this process, we want to enhance the Commonwealth's role and ensure consistent and improved identification and protection processes nationwide.

We want to see nothing less than an improvement in the way in which Australia's cultural heritage places are managed and protected by all levels of government and the community at large.

We also want to see the Commonwealth give more emphasis to places of national and international heritage significance. Taking a step in this direction already is the Strategic Plan for National Heritage Co-ordination developed by State and federal heritage agencies a year ago. This is helping to bring about more cross-accreditation of heritage assessments, and more delegation of some Commonwealth advisory functions where appropriate.

The Commonwealth is committed to encouraging the taking of responsibility at the right level for cultural heritage -- but also, as with its Natural Heritage Trust initiatives, it is committed in partnership with other levels of government to the development of policies and programs which protect all heritage places.

We are, therefore, strongly in support of establishing an overarching National Heritage Places Policy -- a policy which would be developed jointly with other levels of government and the community, and would be consistent with the outcomes of the COAG review. The principal objective of such a policy would be to provide an enhanced conservation regime for all places of heritage significance in Australia.

Many of you will have been involved in the review that, in tandem with the COAG process, the Australian Heritage Commission has been undertaking. You will be aware that one of its focuses has been the question of whether the Commonwealth should develop a list of places of genuinely national heritage significance and accept greater responsibility for their preservation.

It is a concept that, to my mind, has a number of attractions.

In the context of a National Heritage Places Policy and consistent national standards such a national list would help focus Commonwealth involvement in cultural heritage matters.

A national list would also help to bridge the enormous gap between the 11 World Heritage sites in Australia, and the more than 11,000 places on the Register of the National Estate.

At present, the Commonwealth is the custodian of that Register of 11,800 places. The Australian Heritage Commission devotes considerable energy, professional skill and tax payers funds in identifying places that meet the national estate criteria, consulting with landholders, listing sites, and maintaining the Register.

Yet if a person, company or government wants to destroy a place on that list neither I nor the Commission have any powers, beyond persuasion, to protect that site.

In many cases it would be inappropriate for the Commonwealth to do so even if it possessed a legislative mandate. Many more appropriately should be protected by state or local governments.

But in the case of places of significance to the entire nation there is an argument for the Commonwealth government, on behalf of all Australians, to have a legislative ability to ensure the protection of such places.

Places on a national list could be subject to management agreements complying with nationally accepted standards. Listed places could also be eligible for additional Commonwealth financial support in some cases

Under such a model, the Register of the National Estate need not disappear -- it could be maintained in the form of a "one stop shop heritage inventory, which would incorporate the national list, the existing Register and places identified by State and possibly local authorities. It could also be interlinked with lists maintained by organisations such as the National Trust.

The debate still has a long way to go but I want to publicly acknowledge the helpful input provided by the Australian Council of National Trusts to our policy deliberations in this area. The ACNT recently prepared a report reviewing existing heritage policies and offering strategic suggestions for the future. I was happy to be in a position to provide the ACNT with funding to assist with that report.

I also want to emphasis our acceptance, within our responsibility of national leadership, to public education and training, best practice heritage identification, assessment and presentation.

Other Commonwealth Actions:

How the Commonwealth manages its own listed properties is of course also very important. They say people in "glass houses shouldn't throw stones," and when your glass house is heritage listed, I guess that's even more important!

This is why my colleague Senator Alston as Minister for the Arts, is taking very seriously the recommendations of the Committee of Review into Commonwealth Owned Properties.

The government realises that there is deep concerns about the current management of listed properties under Commonwealth ownership, and we accept that this very diverse group or properties needs to be managed more responsibly. The government is currently preparing its response to the Committee's report which we expect to be finalised shortly..

Senator Alston and I are also taking steps, at the direction of the Prime Minister, to improve the co-ordination of Heritage policy between our portfolios, which share Commonwealth responsibility for Cultural Heritage.

In addition to regular meetings between Senator Alston and I to discuss heritage policy directions, we have established a Joint Standing Committee between our two departments to improve the liaison and co-ordination on built heritage matters to ensure that our activities are complementary.

Finally, to ensure continued close consultation with the community as we go through a very important process of restructuring the heritage policy framework to ensure nation-wide consistency by the year 2001, we have established a new group known as the National Cultural Heritage Forum.

The first Forum meeting, which was held in Parliament House on the 16th of May was highly successful. I am pleased to say that the National Trust, through Diane Weidner , is playing a secretariat and coordinating role for the Forum.


In conclusion, the Howard government recognises the ongoing importance of preserving Australia's cultural heritage, particularly as we approach the centenary of our federation.

In achieving that objective we aim to put in place a nationally consistent policy framework for heritage protection before the year 2001, and we will work with the states, local government, and community groups like the National Trust to achieve this unprecedented goal.

I look forward to a continued constructive working relationship with the National Trust at its federal, state, and local level we jointly chart the right course for these important reforms.

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