Our heritage is crucial in forming our national identity. I believe that we Australians value this connection deeply.
Our governments also profess to value heritage - like motherhood and apple pie. It would be unthinkable for them to say otherwise. But unfortunately their actions do not match their rhetoric.
Over the past several years the Australian Greens have become increasingly concerned about the lack of leadership shown by the Australian government when it comes to heritage issues. Far from giving our heritage the attention it deserves, the government has left it by the wayside, at risk of degradation and neglect.
One of the most obvious symptoms of this neglect is the lack of consistent, adequate funding.
In last year’s budget, the government cut funding to the Heritage Department by 30 per cent over four years. What was an already small investment in heritage (by the standards of other nations) was significantly reduced. The Australian Greens predicted at the time that this cut would rip the guts out of the division’s ability to do its job.
Unfortunately, this assessment is proving correct.
The 2011 State of the Environment report, which was released late last year, confirmed that funding constraints are limiting the extent and effectiveness of current programs and seriously eroding federal government leadership in this area.
With limited resources, the Heritage Department has little or no ability to instigate effective monitoring and evaluation of heritage places, let alone the capacity to mount proactive surveys or assessments of those areas not yet identified.
And so, many areas remain unidentified, unlisted and - as a consequence – vulnerable to development and destruction.
When it comes to Indigenous heritage places, the situation is just as troubling. The State of the Environment report tells us that survey, assessment and listing of Indigenous heritage is patchy and inconsistent around Australia.
Although Aboriginal people have become more involved in managing their heritage and environment overall, they still remain mostly consultants and advisers in this area instead of genuine decision-makers with power to protect.
There have been too many examples of Indigenous sites threatened by destruction which have not been protected sufficiently. Recently, in Western Australia, Goolaraboloo people (at James Price Point) and Yinjibarndi people (in the Pilbra) have not been able to protect precious sites from clearing and blasting work despite the presence of obvious cultural heritage values.
Sadly, I must conclude that the Australian government lacks commitment to safeguarding our heritage. Currently, we have no clear national plan for managing, conserving and promoting our cultural and historical heritage legacy into the future.
While the Government is currently in the process of drafting an Australian Heritage Strategy, the Department’s website does not give any indication when this strategy might be available and how it will protect our heritage.
The future of our past is alarmingly uncertain.
And I fear that, far from an improvement in the next budget, we may see even further cuts to an area which the government just does not seem willing to prioritise.
Australians value heritage. Without a clear plan - and adequate funding - from the Australian government for the identification, conservation and promotion of our precious heritage assets , it won’t be a matter of “you don’t know what you got til it’s gone” but “we’ll never know what we had now it’s gone.”