Jane L. Lennon
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
Thirty years ago, the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1974 ushered in the first nation-wide heritage identification and assessment programme. Now there has been a quantum leap with the 2003 amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act),which broadens the definition of ‘environment' to embrace the heritage values of places. These values include ‘the places's natural and cultural environment having aesthetic, historic, scientific or social significance, or other significance, for current and future generations of Australians' [section 528, (47)]. The Act also defines Indigenous heritage value as ‘a heritage value of the place that is of significance to indigenous persons in accordance with their practices, observances, customs, traditions, beliefs or history' [section 528 (48)].
Indigenous people have always maintained the totality of environment—the indivisibility of earth–land–sea–sky, and that the whole landscape is sentient, a living being nourishing their lives. This nation-wide belief is now enshrined in the Australian legal definition of environment. The legislative amendments have created new formal consultation mechanisms through the Environment Protection and Heritage Council (EPHC), comprised of Commonwealth, state and territory ministers, who agreed to a heritage protocol for developing policies and programmes on nation-wide issues.
Despite this far-reaching legal and philosophical advance, the relationship between community awareness and heritage conservation, as reported regularly in the media, remains locked in clichéd time warps and simplistic single-issue causes. Such a cause might be the campaign to save an historic building in the face of demolition or urban redevelopment; yet its heritage values should have been identified long before, and options canvassed for its conservation—a proactive approach rather than the inevitable, and usually lost, last-minute campaign when development application consents have been granted legally and the results highlight the failure of process.
Heritage places enhance the social capital of local communities by providing a tangible link to the past and reinforcing the sense of community identity, which in turn contributes to social cohesion within the community. The ABS Social Capital Framework lists significant features of culture (language, history, shared beliefs) and a range of legal, political and institutional conditions that are relevant to the Australian context (ABS 2004b, p. 14). The vast majority of heritage places are owned privately and social capital is built up by conservation performing the essential social function of sustaining heritage, while the consumption or use of heritage is usually a shared social experience.
In the five years since the last State of Environment report, which came at the time of the nation's one-hundredth birthday, there has been a disengagement from social issues like heritage conservation, with attention turning to individual concerns. In March 2005, social commentator Hugh Mackay (2005) said that ‘the nation felt that it was coping with too much change too quickly at the end of the twentieth century with big agenda items like the Republic, Reconciliation, foreign investment in Australian property, then came terrorism. People want to control what is on their horizon so there has been a concentration on the back yard, renovation, share portfolios and retirement planning and a return to fundamentals'. He argued there is no escaping the ‘real cultural revolution' that has occurred in Australia over the past 30 years. It is manifested in changed gender roles with women's participation in all walks of life: in a radically transformed economic structure where there is the largest gap ever in household incomes and underemployment is the dark shadow; in an information technology revolution that is equivalent in impact to the industrial revolution; and in national identity, where, after 30 years, Australia is regarded as a successful multicultural society. In 2004, 20 per cent of Australian households had an average income of $12 000 and 20 per cent had an average of $180 000 (Mackay 2005). The current birth rate is the lowest ever, at 1.7 babies per woman, resulting in the smallest generation. Some 25 per cent of households are now single person households (Mackay 2005).
It is against this social backdrop that we have to consider trends in heritage conservation about knowledge of the resource, its physical condition and integrity, responses to conserve it, skills available for this task and community attitudes.