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Australia’s Heritage Opinion

10 July 2008 938 views No Comment

Tomorrow at Sydney’s historic Mint Building in Macquarie Street, the Heritage Council of NSW and the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (NSW Chapter) launches a major publication, ‘New Uses for Heritage Places’, which showcases seriously sustainable uses for Australia’s heritage buildings.

But you won’t find the federal government taking a similarly forward-looking approach to heritage matters. The Australian government continues to significantly under-fund heritage protection, especially our Aboriginal and historic sites.

There is no excuse for this inattention, particularly as Australia is now at the cutting edge of heritage conservation. The ideas behind the Burra Charter (http://www.nsw.nationaltrust.org.au/burracharter.html) — a set of conservation guidelines developed by Australian experts — are now highly regarded internationally, enabling experts to pinpoint the reasons why a place is of importance while allowing appropriate ongoing use and often modification.

Using these principles, Sydney’s old Mint Building was transformed into a beautifully designed and well adapted headquarters for the Historic Houses Trust. Its new use successfully combines the historic elements of the site while allowing its continuation as “a living building.

Burra Charter principles also ensure that important Aboriginal places are conserved in tune with Indigenous values rather than in accordance with Western ideas and preconceptions. These days, China, with a vast array of heritage sites, is using conservation principles based on Australia’s Burra Charter methodology.

Sadly, international recognition does not guarantee support at home. Here heritage funding is grossly insufficient. In five of the past six Commonwealth Budgets, public funding for historic heritage conservation has declined substantially.

When the Howard Government abolished the Australia Heritage Commission and replaced it with the Australian Heritage Council, a primary aim was the long-term conservation and public recognition of Australia’s national heritage icons. Yet, until now, only 77 such places have been listed on the new national heritage list. Equally as important, an independent 2006 report on the state of the Australian environment highlighted the Commonwealth’s declining financial commitment to cultural heritage as a problem that should urgently be addressed.

We now have a situation where the only substantial Commonwealth historic heritage-funding program, the National Heritage Investment Initiative, is about to run out of money. For the first time since before Whitlam, there will be no substantial historic heritage-funding program. The federal government continues to list National Heritage icons such as Bondi Beach, the Bonegilla Migrant Camp, and Australian convict sites. However, without urgent financial input, there will be no capacity to conserve them.

While private philanthropy might provide part of the solution, at the very least it should be supported by government assistance in the form of expert advice which requires dedicated funding. Such has been the decline in heritage funding by the Commonwealth, that currently, Mawson’s Hut — with its uniquely important national and international place in the history of polar exploration — is only being preserved with the support of a private charity.

The recent Federal Budget continues the substantial decline in heritage funding. Despite a massive surplus, and Commonwealth expenditure growing overall by 4%, core Commonwealth Heritage Department funding has declined by over 9%.  Since 2001, heritage funding has declined by a massive 22%. How can we care so little about Australia’s treasures?

Peter Garrett, as Heritage Minister, should remedy the very significant disparities and insufficiencies in the funding of our national cultural heritage. Like all nations, we need symbols of our nationhood, but it is crucial that Australia’s cultural and natural treasures  be preserved for future generations, who will indeed judge us harshly if we don’t.

ROSS FITZGERALD is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at GriffithUniversity. Professor  Fitzgerald is the author of 29 books, most recently ‘The Pope’s Battalions: B.A.Santamaria and the Labor Split’. He is contributing co-editor of ‘Growing Old (Dis)Gracefully: 35 Australians reflect on life over 50’, recently published by ABC Books.