Jane L. Lennon
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
Heritage places and objects continue to play a role in the lives of most Australians as these places have natural, historic and Indigenous values in them and their surrounding landscapes. In contrast, the culture–nature split remains entrenched in community understanding and most heritage legislation. The breadth of heritage activity has broadened beyond places to incorporate intangible heritage—language, oral tradition, crafts skills and performing arts.
Over the reporting period, the following trends have emerged:
- Despite the enactment of the long awaited reformed national heritage system, stakeholders believe that heritage is ‘off the political agenda' and replaced by broader environmental issues like water supply, salinity and revegetation in these times of continuing variable climate, which, in turn, are highlighted in the national research priorities.
- The Natural Heritage Trust dominates the government funding agenda and reinforces the ‘green' or natural heritage as the naming of the trust has created a discourse in which the word ‘heritage' is a continually repeated component linked to nature. This privileges a particular perception of heritage in which the namers created a value and a management objective that has meant exclusion of human processes that result in cultural landscape values.
- Tertiary education continues in academic ‘silos' and this is reinforced by conservation training programmes that are based on separate heritage disciplines.
- Historic houses that are listed on heritage registers have generally been maintained because of private-owner preference, their niche real estate value, and the period restoration business serving their renovation and maintenance.
- Former government-owned heritage properties have lost heritage values and integrity where they have been redeveloped for new uses, particularly in urban redevelopment such as inner-city post offices.
- Public funding for historic built heritage conservation has declined.
- There has been an increase in non-Anglo histories of places as Australia's multicultural, post-war generation retires and records their memoirs of arrival and living in Australia, and as Australians recognise the wartime issues of alien internment and sixtieth anniversaries associated with the end of World War II.
- Developers and governments are increasingly recognising that Indigenous people must be consulted about issues affecting their lands, heritage and connection to country.
- There is continuing interest by Australians in Aboriginal art forms, music and oral narratives as intangible heritage and promotion of that as part of national identity.
New issues are as follows:
- While there has been increasing recognition of the cultural landscape concept as a tool for integrating and managing all heritage interests in a place, there are a variety of definitions in use across Australia in some local government planning scheme overlays and in public land plans of management, but there has been very little actual on-ground management.
- For the new National Heritage List introduced in January 2004, there is popular misunderstanding of thresholds given the range of current nominations and the fact that many are of local value and overwhelmingly historic places; the diminished role of the Australian Heritage Council as an advisory ministerial committee does not assist public education about heritage.
- The delineation of values at different thresholds in a place leads to different management responses but, it is hoped, an integrated management of the heritage place, for example, the Royal Exhibition Buildings, Melbourne.
- Intangible heritage—associations with and meanings about heritage, as defined in the amended Burra Charter 1999—has been given more legitimacy with the UNESCO Convention on Intangible Heritage 2003; however, who is to judge whether beliefs are valid?
- Lack of history teaching and therefore of heritage awareness, its physical remains and intangible associations, in school environmental studies and social studies curricula remains an issue.
- Australia has an urban and suburban dominant culture, yet the myth of the outback as ‘our heart' persists, while ignorance prevails of selection-era land use patterns being obliterated by closer subdivision, the development ironically of ‘country houses' on urban edges and coastal sprawl.
- Museum object ‘deification' per se continues compared with using objects as props for storytelling about layers of meaning and history in the place where the object was initially located.
- Integrity of heritage landscapes is threatened in the face of transforming developments like wind farms.
The very high risks being experienced by these non-renewable heritage resources must be given an adequate voice through specialist advisory bodies to the various ministers overseeing heritage legislatures. There has been a demonstrable decline in the independence, leverage and professional composition of these committees over the last ten years. This is partly a result of a nationally conservative approach, where the chauvinism of European encounter is paramount, despite acknowledging Indigenous connection to country; this is then coupled with the deregulatory thrust of state and territory governments who are keen to ensure that their economic credentials remain untrammelled by industry lobbyists. Neither parallel trajectory serves to provide a balanced approach to optimal heritage management. A shared heritage requires public and private partnerships at all levels, public engagement and continuing education.
Heritage conservation in Australia is at a turning point. Heritage values have changed over the last 30 years since the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 was passed, in response to changed attitudes, educational standards, technology, economy and demography. As is consistent with the COAG Agreement in 1997, the Australian Government has focused on places of national significance and places owned by the Commonwealth as reflected in the 2003 amendments to the EPBC Act. The relationship between the Australian Government's heritage administration and state and territory jurisdictions has been formally established through the National Heritage Protocol (September 2003). Better integration of the new arrangements with state and territory processes across all areas of heritage conservation still remains the most active requirement. A national policy framework is needed to attain the economic and social benefits of Australia's heritage assets. Heritage is still regarded as being ‘special places' rather than as a range of values that are found throughout the environment and encompassing stories, traditions and community associations.