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Cynical politics condemns our national heritage

The Tarkine is our largest cool temperate rainforest, but will that be enough to save it? Flickr/leonrw

Once a place is heritage listed, it’s protected, right? Wrong. Politics and a flawed statutory regime are undermining the independence of the listing system, and threatening Australia’s national treasures.

Late last year, the Australian Heritage Council announced that most of Tasmania’s Tarkine should be included on the national heritage list. But in December 2010, the federal environment minister, Tony Burke, allowed the area to drop off the national heritage list.

Because of this, the Minister is now required by law to ignore the Tarkine’s heritage values when deciding whether to approve several large mines planned for the area. This is not the first time the national heritage list has been manipulated like this.

The explanation for Minister Burke’s decision lies in a mix of politics and a flawed statutory regime. The heritage status of the Tarkine has always been contentious because of the area’s valuable forestry and mineral resources.

Exploiting these resources could provide employment and prosperity to the communities of the area, which suffer relative economic disadvantage.

Ideally, a finding that the area meets the listing criteria would lead immediately to its inclusion on the national heritage list.

Decisions on how the area should be used and trade-offs between economic, social and environmental demands could then be made through the approvals process, where the heritage issues would be duly considered.

While this is the best practice framework, the federal heritage regime gives the environment minister far greater control over how the listing and approval processes work.

The minister has ultimate say over what gets assessed and when, and what gets listed and when. When the minister is deciding whether to list places, he or she can have regard to virtually anything, including political matters. It is a process that was effectively designed to be abused for political purposes.

Mining pressure in the Tarkine is on the rise. There are over 50 active mineral exploration permits issued over the area and there are at least three large mining projects planned – a magnesite mine, an iron ore mine and tin mine. The Tasmanian Government is keen for these projects to proceed and it appears the Federal Government is in no mood to stop them.

By letting the Tarkine’s listing lapse, Burke excluded heritage issues from the approval processes for the mines. This effectively lowered the bar for approval.

When the Heritage Council’s assessment was accidentally published online by someone at the Environment Department (then quickly removed), the Minister said he had sought urgent advice from the department on whether the Tarkine should be re-listed. That urgent advice was that the Tarkine did not warrant re-listing.

The department’s advice was confused, to put it mildly. Because the Minister was considering re-listing the area under the emergency powers, he had to satisfy himself of three things. Did the Tarkine have one or more national heritage values? Were any of those values “under threat of a significant adverse impact”? Was the threat likely and imminent?

The only threat the department believed was relevant was the iron ore mine, which is currently before the Minister for approval. All other mining and forestry activities in the area were ignored for reasons that weren’t explained.

The proponent of the mine, Shree Minerals, did not provide any information to the Department on the potential heritage impacts of the mine, nor was it asked to. The department also believed that a site visit was not necessary to evaluate these impacts.

The effects of the open cut mine on the national heritage values of the area were assessed on the basis of a “desktop analysis”, with the department concluding that the project would have no impact on the area’s wilderness values. It also found that the mine could have an impact on the Tarkine’s aesthetic values but these impacts would not be significant.

These findings contradicted the Australian Heritage Council’s assessment that “consideration of wilderness in the Tarkine…must encompass all of these areas as parts of a whole, as a single wilderness region”. In other words, damage to one part of the Tarkine will affect the nationally significant wilderness value of the whole, not just the parcel of land on which a project is located and its immediate surrounds.

The department’s advice was also in direct conflict with its own guidelines, which state that projects that involve vegetation clearing and construction, or that could introduce pollutants, in a national heritage place will be taken to have a significant impact on the area’s wilderness and aesthetic values.

There are only two possible explanations for the advice: either the department is unaware of the Council’s views and the content of its own guidelines or its advice is being run through a political filter to suit the minister.

Regardless of which is correct, it reflects badly on the department and has once again highlighted why we need an independent statutory authority to control the national heritage list.

This is not the first time the national heritage list has been manipulated in this way. The Dampier Archipelago, which includes the rock art sites of the Burrup Peninsula, was finally listed in mid-2007. But first the boundaries of the area were redrawn to accommodate the “needs” of miners and other developers. The same thing is currently going on in the Kimberley.

What we are calling for is not radical. The national heritage listing process should be solely about whether a place has outstanding value to the nation.

This assessment should be carried out by an independent body staffed solely by heritage experts. If the expert body finds the place meets the criteria, it should be listed.

An elected representative, who is responsible to the people through Parliament, should then decide whether projects that could adversely affect the values of the area should be allowed to proceed and on what terms.

This is best practice and it is the framework that operates in a number of states. It was also the system that operated under the previous federal heritage regime.

Ironically, Labor opposed the introduction of the current regime because it lacked an independent listing process. The Labor Party’s national platform still calls for the heritage listing process to be independent.

Surely it is not overreaching to ask the federal Labor Party to implement party policy?

This article was co-authored by Deb Wilkinson, an author and policy consultant.

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