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Historic Cultural Heritage Amendment Bill 2019

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Tags: Heritage

Tasmanian Built Heritage: O'Connor, 3 September, 2019.


Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Speaker, I am sure we can all agree that one of the most significant values we have in the fabric of our society is our built heritage - our Aboriginal heritage, our wilderness heritage and a remarkable island community character that in significant part comes out of those attributes that make this place quite unique in the world. Members of this place who have travelled to other parts of Australia will recognise that there is nowhere in this country that has such a wealth of built European heritage as Tasmania. I would argue that Launceston, particularly, is one of the most remarkable heritage-rich places in the entire country and certainly something of which we should be very proud and collectively be committed to protecting and conserving for current and future generations, as well as for its own intrinsic value as part of that cultural identity fabric of who we are as Tasmanians.

It has been a patchy and variable record of this Government on the protection of European historic cultural heritage. The previous minister for heritage and state growth, Mr Groom, very shortly after coming into office, like a wrecking ball first of all took apart the Tasmanian Climate Action Council - the first piece of legislative perfidy he inflicted on the people of Tasmania - and then set about a process of gutting the Tasmanian Heritage Register. It was a process that had not been taken to the people at the election. Heritage was not mentioned by the Liberals in the lead-up to the 2014 state election, just as at the 2018 state election there was no mention of this Government's decision to privatise the Treasury Building, one of our absolute heritage icons.

There is a process here, I think, of eroding the heritage fabric of Tasmania by stealth. You had a process that was a ham-fisted removal of places of significance from the Tasmanian Heritage Register that was not consulted on. We lost places from the register and if you have a look at what was taken off the register, we have lost whole streetscapes. It is one of the problems with the Historic Cultural Heritage Act that these amendments do not address. There is no protection in the act for significant streetscapes. While one house, for example, in Balaclava Street, Invermay, may not have those attributes that make it a place of state significance for registration on the Heritage Register, as part of a streetscape that points to a time in our history, that house in Balaclava Street has significant value.

The initial target set by the minister and Heritage Tasmania was for there to be 1683 properties removed from the Heritage Register that had around 5500 properties on it. In the end I think the number was closer to 500, and I like to think that community opposition to the gutting of the Heritage Register had something to do with that. For example, in Launceston, in one fell swoop, 13 houses in Balaclava Street, Invermay were removed from the Heritage Register. One dozen houses in Bedford Street, Invermay were removed from the Heritage Register, and eight houses in Goodwin Street, Invermay off the register, and on it goes.

One of the saddest examples of this incapacity under the current legislative framework to protect streetscapes was what happened to Balfour Street in Launceston. There were close to 40 properties removed from the Heritage Register in Balfour Street, Launceston. Obviously, that street as a streetscape and a place that had an important story to tell about our European history, has value. If there are 40 houses on Balfour Street that make up a picture of a time in our history, they have a heritage value, and we would argue that is value of state significance.

In Hobart, the gutting continued. We had houses in Battery Point removed from the register, in Bath Street, Colville Street, Hampden Road, in Dynnyrne, in New Town Road, 10 houses removed from the register - Argyle Street, Stoke Street, Commercial Road and beautiful little George Street in North Hobart. Not unlike Balfour Street in Launceston where dozens of houses were taken off the Tasmanian Heritage register in a process that was political, ham-fisted and hamstrung by the fact that the Historic Cultural Heritage Act does not protect streetscapes. We have a diminished register after five years of the Liberal Government. We have arguably one of a handful of our most significant heritage icons now being hawked through the Government's expression of interests process for developing the Treasury building.

I have here the Treasurer's media release. This is a slightly inside beltway comment, but the statement announcing the registration of interest would be open for the publicly owned iconic heritage building came out about 2 p.m. or 2.30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon by way of media release. The Treasurer is part of a Government that will literally turn up to the opening of an envelope, yet did not have the courage to front the people, front the media and answer questions about a process for flogging the Treasury building, which belongs to the people of Tasmania.

The Treasurer, the chief architect of this perfidy, might get up shortly and say, 'We are not selling it. Divestment takes many forms. What we are talking about is up to a 99-year lease'. That is as good as sale. That is privatisation of a public asset without reference to the people of Tasmania. He went to the March state election with not a word about this Government's plans for the Treasury building. We came back and shortly after, in May of 2018, the Treasurer announced they are going to flog off the Treasury building.

The language has changed a little. I like to think that is because the Liberal establishment has beaten a path to the Treasurer's and the Premier's door about the plans for the Treasury building. It has not bought this process, or the plan, anything like a social licence. What we have is Orwellian language. Get this -

The Hodgman majority Liberal Government has taken the view that there is an opportunity to reimagine the purpose of the Treasury building complex for the benefit of all Tasmanians...


Whilst enabling improved public access and enhancing the heritage aspects of these magnificent buildings.

The Treasurer goes on to say - not in front of the cameras or the people of Tasmania -

As I've said, divestment takes many forms and the Government will consider proposals, including freehold interest with covenants to protect and conserve the buildings for future generations as well as long-term leasehold of up to 99 years.

There is another striking sentence -

Proposals must demonstrate tangible benefits to the community and maintain and conserve the site's rich heritage.

How do you define tangible benefits to the community when a heritage asset is being taken away from the community, taken out of public hands? It is likely to go to a multinational corporation or to a company wholly owned by a foreign government. Mr Gutwein knows exactly what I am talking about there. Where is there a tangible benefit to the community if profits are going overseas and if public access is not part of the registration of interest?

The Greens argue that there is absolutely no mandate for disposing of the heritage buildings that are the Treasury building complex. The Treasurer and the Liberals should have had the courage to flag this to the Tasmanian people before the March 2018 state election. Instead they were too busy raking in the dark money from the gambling industry to illegitimately get them back into government.

According to the Treasurer proponents have until 2 October 2019 to respond and register their interest. My question to the Treasurer, as the alleged minister responsible for Heritage, what level of public scrutiny or transparency will there be about those registrations of interest? Will it be the same offensive dismissal that we get when we seek information on the privatisation of protected areas, for example, through the office of the CoordinatorGeneral and we are told it is all commercial in confidence? I will bet you London to a brick that is exactly what happens this time. Preferred developers will be red carpeted into the office of the CoordinatorGeneral. They will be massaged and poured cups of tea and they will be guided through the process of a registration of interest. That is what the office of the CoordinatorGeneral does. It is a behind-closed-doors exclusive space for monied interests, corporate interests, who are invariably not interested in the public interest.

The notion that a government would not be transparent, first about its plans for a building that is at the heart of democracy and governance in Tasmania, is highly offensive. On this Government's track record we are likely to see the secrecy and lack of transparency about the privatisation of a public asset continue and be embedded into the process. That has what has happened all the time in the past five years under the Liberal Government. Not consulted, no mandate, lack of transparency. It is quite alarming that a government could swan in and say, 'See that public asset, which is a heritage treasure, which is at the heart of our democracy, we have decided - we the Liberals - have decided to divest it. Do not worry, divestment takes many forms. We think it is really important that the owners of that building are given an opportunity to reimagine its future'.

They were not given an opportunity to have any say in the future public ownership and public use of the Treasury building. I am absolutely certain, given the correspondence we get, that this decision to flog the public Treasury building will come back to bite the Treasurer on the backside. Maybe he does not care so much because he is in the north of the state. This decision, as it gets closer to conclusion, will hurt Liberal members in the south of Tasmania. There are a couple of truths in politics, one of them is voters hate privatisation. They hate it because they know they are having something that has been vested in them, that belongs to them, taken away. That is what is happening here. A long-term lease for 99 years is privatisation of a public heritage treasure.

People hate privatisation. That is what this is. We will keep explaining to the Government, and to anyone else who will listen, that this is privatisation. We are dealing with the privatisation of the Treasury building. This Treasurer, particularly, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The purpose here is to fatten the coffers before the next state election off the back of a public asset. This is from a Government and a Premier who said, 'My Government will not be a privatising Government'. That was a lie that he told to the people of Tasmania.

As for the Historic Cultural Heritage Amendment Bill 2019, my first question to the minister is, why was there no consultation whatsoever with heritage groups, with individuals who are ICOMOS representatives in Tasmania and other interested parties who have dedicated themselves to protecting and speaking for Tasmania's remarkable historic cultural heritage? We have asked around and key players, key stakeholders in the heritage space did not know about this bill until it landed in the parliament. That is contemptuous of those people who have dedicated so much of their volunteer time to protecting and advocating for Tasmania's remarkable European cultural heritage. It is contemptuous, utterly contemptuous. There was no harm at all in consulting with heritage stakeholders, but clearly a decision has been made not to ask them what they thought.

Perhaps that is because there are other significant improvements to the Historic Cultural Heritage Act that need to be made off the back of reports that have recommended significant changes. There were some 27 recommendations in a report that came out in 2005 - the 2005 Mackay Hacking Review [?], a series of important amendments. The concern is that a failure to appropriately amend the legislation to implement some of these recommendations continues to see really significant heritage being destroyed or irreparably damaged, because Heritage Tasmania or the Tasmanian Heritage Council argue that it cannot prevent this because of the constraints of the act. We had an opportunity here to make the sorts of substantial changes to the legislation that are very clearly required.

The other matter is that the National Trust is an organisation that we collectively rely on to look after our most significant heritage buildings, and they are starved of funds. Wholly dependent on volunteers to do the works on those heritage buildings, and struggling for the resources they desperately need to keep some of our most beautiful buildings in good health. There has been no extension of the funding the National Trust needs in order to do its work, and it is an indictment on this Government.

In relation to this bill specifically, it makes a number of mechanical changes to the act. In the 2014 legislation my former colleague, Mr Wightman, brought through this place, the new legislation brought together the Historic Cultural Heritage Act and the Planning System. Obviously since it was enacted, there have been a number of bumps within the implementation of the act that need to be smoothed out. They are:

In the event that additional information or revised plans are forwarded to the Heritage Council following its notification of interest or notice of decision and that information reflects a substantial change in the proposed development, the Heritage Council may revise its notice of interest or notice of decision.

We have asked some of our local government representatives and they are supportive of that change. The amendments also provide that:

In the event that a planning authority fails to forward a development application to the Heritage Council, the Heritage Council is provided the opportunity and time to consider and, should it deem necessary, provide comment on the development application prior to a final decision of the planning authority.

The amendments also allow the Heritage Council to be party to the assessment of a combined planning and development application under the Land Use Planning and Approvals Act. The amendments introduce and define the role of authorised officers to investigate compliance.

This is an area of particular concern to stakeholders in the heritage space, and to the Greens, where there are situations where developers or property owners basically take the view that they can demolish first and answer questions about that demolition later. There is a historically significant wall in Launceston that went under the sledgehammer, apparently under just those circumstances. It is all very well to have legislation in place that is designed to some extent protect heritage, but if you do not have compliance and enforcement capacity, the effectiveness of the legislation is substantially undermined.

Of course, it is also a cultural issue. If some developers think it is more cost efficient and time efficient for them to bulldoze first and answer questions later, that is a cultural issue that is being created by inadequate compliance with the Historic Cultural Heritage Act in the past.

I need to, on behalf of stakeholders who have expressed concern to us, ask the minister why there was no consultation on this legislation. We have an amendment to put forward to the sections in the act which allow for significant decisions to be made out of session, remembering that the Tasmanian Heritage Council has 15 members while the principal act sets a quorum at seven.

The threshold in this act, under these amendments, for an out-of-session significant decision in relation to cultural heritage, sits at seven, which is less than half the composition of the Tasmanian Heritage Council. We will be moving an amendment that lifts that to eight, so at least you have more than half the council who are participating in significant decisions.

So, the two amendments we have. First of all, being helpful and useful to government, there is no definition of 'commission' in the legislation. I believe, obviously, it is the Planning Commission, but the word 'commission' is used in the legislation without any definition. We propose a new clause (a) on page 4, before clause 4, which simply inserts the definition of the Tasmanian Planning Commission.

The second amendment amends clause 16, paragraph (a) and proposes that new subclause (1) is amended by deleting (7) and inserting instead (8).

It is not adequate to set up a new process for the Heritage Council to make significant decisions about works on heritage properties or development applications that may impact on heritage properties with less than half of the Heritage Council constituted to make that decision.

There are a couple of other issues that have been raised with us by stakeholders. That was one of them, particularly concerning. I will read out the concern in a complete form from Anne McConnell, who is a heritage expert and also a representative of the United Nations heritage body ICOMOS. In section 16, schedule 2, section 5(a), the resolutions outside of meetings, Ms McConnell says -

This proposed amendment is of concern as it is a significant departure from how the Tasmanian Heritage Council makes decisions as a council.

While I am not opposed to resolutions outside of meetings per se, I am concerned that this amendment does not seem to make any provision for the full Tasmanian Heritage Council to make a full and informed decision and for the full council to vote.

As Ms McConnell reads it -

There only seems to require seven members to sign to say they agree with a particular document. There appears to be -

1. No clarity around when an out-of-meeting resolution can be considered.

2. No requirement for the document to be circulated to the full council prior to getting seven signatures.

3. No requirement for the full Tasmanian Heritage Council to vote, and no provision for other views to be recorded, and

4. No requirement for consultation with the Chair of the Tasmanian Heritage Council.

This all seems, Ms McConnell says, very irregular.

There is a risk here that the council - and I am not talking about current council as it is made up, or any particular individuals on the council - but there is a potential here, given that we are lowering the threshold for decision making, for a group of people on the council to form a block, if you like, and with less than half the members, make some very pro-developer decisions. That is of significant concern. That is the major concern.

In relation to the lack of consultation, Ms McConnell says:

It is extremely poor and unacceptable process to not allow public comment and especially heritage profession feedback on matters relating to cultural heritage, as the act deals with matters of public benefit. In this case which potentially directly affects the public in relation to proposed amendment 15, I can see no excuse therefore in relation to this bill for such a lack of openness and transparency about the amendments happening or for denying an opportunity for public review and comment. I believe that the Government should be challenged about the lack of transparency that they have used.

The second point she makes is:

The lack of public openness about the process has meant that yet again, two amendments later Heritage Tasmania or the Heritage Council can fly under the radar and avoid making important amendments to improve the protection of cultural heritage, in particular a number of amendments recommended by the 2005 McKay Historic Cultural Heritage Review. The failure to appropriately amend the legislation to implement some of these recommendations continues to see really significant heritage being destroyed or irreparably damaged because Heritage Tasmania or the council argues that it cannot prevent this because of the constraints of the act. [TBC]

With something as significant as our historic European cultural heritage there should be the most inclusive and open conversation with the community and key stakeholders who have dedicated substantial parts of their lives to the protection and promotion of Tasmania's European cultural heritage. The lack of openness in relation to this amendment bill is hard to understand and, of course, when there is a process that is really untransparent, it raises quite legitimate scepticism about the thinking that went into this amendment bill.

There is nothing in here that is terribly offensive and we hope the minister will accept our amendments, but there is nothing in here that strengthens heritage protections for Tasmania's historic cultural heritage. Nothing in this amendment bill does that. Of course this is consistent with the Government's position on European cultural heritage where they pay lip service to it but by deed undermine protections for our built heritage. I cannot understand why this has been such a secretive process - why the development of this bill was so secretive and why there was no public consultation. When you are talking about an asset base, for want of a better term, that is integral to our cultural identity as settlers, as non-Aboriginal Tasmanians, I just think it is poor form. I look at who the minister is and I am a little less surprised, because this minister -

Mr Gutwein laughing.

Ms O'CONNOR - You think it is funny.

Mr Gutwein - I do because, to be frank, you would look for a conspiracy anywhere. This actually strengthens the act.

Ms O'CONNOR - No, it does not.

Mr Gutwein - Yes, it does.

Ms O'CONNOR - It does not strengthen protection for heritage.

Mr Gutwein - It does, absolutely. It ensures that the Heritage Council is informed, when before it would not have been, in terms of applications passing through the process and it puts in place authorised officers. It strengthens the act and you know that.

Madam SPEAKER - That is enough. Through the Chair, please.

Ms O'CONNOR - Madam Speaker, I am not going to cop that sort of garbage from that minister because by deed, Mr Gutwein, you are no friend of Tasmania's built heritage or Tasmania's natural heritage. That is what I see when I look at you.

We will be needing to go into Committee in order to put our amendments that will, at the margins, make some improvements to this legislation. We are not going to vote against it, obviously, but we think it is a real missed opportunity to implement some of those recommendations that came through from heritage experts 14 years ago and to be really transparent about what your policy is in relation to European cultural heritage. As far as I can see - and I have looked - there is no strategy for Tasmania's European heritage and we need a plan to make sure it is not trashed within the term of a government and we are not losing significant buildings and attributes.