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Heritage Speech to Parliament

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Ellen Sandell
State MP for Melbourne
25 November 2016

Ms SANDELL (Melbourne) — It is my pleasure and privilege to contribute to the Heritage Bill 2016. I too would like to acknowledge the traditional owners on the land on which we stand, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and acknowledge that sovereignty of this land where we stand was never ceded.

When we talk about heritage here in Victoria, Aboriginal cultural heritage must absolutely be at the forefront of that conversation, and it must be Aboriginal people leading the conversation.

Last week the Royal Historical Society of Victoria and book retailer QBD published Remembering Melbourne 1850–1960, with Latrobe University's Professor Richard Broome as lead editor. The book details the loss of more than 320 buildings across Melbourne and surrounding suburbs.

Within my seat of Melbourne, these include magnificent examples of period architecture, such as the Prell's building at 34 Queen Street, the Finks building on Collins Street and the Federal Hotel and Coffee Palace on Flinders Street. These buildings were spectacular examples of period architecture which have been replaced for the most part with rather bland blocks of steel, concrete and glass dating from the 1960s and 1970s.

If these buildings still stood, they would definitely be on the state heritage register and would be cherished as icons of the Melbourne cityscape, much like Flinders Street station, the Carlton Royal Exhibition Building or this very building in which we have the privilege of assembling, Parliament House.

By reflecting on what has been lost, Remembering Melbourne 1850–1960 is a clarion call for action to prevent further irreplaceable loss by moving to properly protect heritage buildings and places. It was the loss of this gold rush era architecture and the ensuing public outcry that finally led to legislative action.

Premier Rupert Hamer passed the Archaeological and Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act 1972, the Victorian Conservation Trust Act 1972, the Environment Protection Act 1970, the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and the Historic Buildings Act 1981. These provided the first comprehensive legislative framework for the protection of heritage in any jurisdiction in Australia. Dick Hamer was a true conservationist, protecting heritage in all its forms, whether it was the natural or the built environment, or colonial or Indigenous history.

He happened to be the leader of the Liberal Party of Victoria, as we know, and yet I am sure he would be considered far too socially liberal for the likes of that party today — which has a misnomer of a name — to make it past the first round of preselection.

Mr McGuire — He was the last liberal Liberal.

Ms SANDELL — He was the last liberal Liberal; indeed, that is true. With respect to heritage, Hamer possessed a healthy distrust of crummy developers. This is an instinct that both Labor and the coalition would do well to cultivate today, considering some of the travesties that have been committed by the old parties over the decades at both the state and local government levels since the time of the Hamer government.

The next step after Hamer in legislative evolution was the Kennett government's Heritage Act 1995, which was a pretty mixed bag of heritage protection. On the positive side it granted the Heritage Council of Victoria additional powers to protect gardens, trees and archaeological sites of significance.

However, it did curtail the right of citizens to object to the plans of developers. The local knowledge and capacity of municipal governments were weakened through the amalgamation of councils, which happened at the same time they were handed responsibility for identifying and cataloguing our heritage. When the building boom hit in the mid-1990s, many local councils had not yet identified or protected areas or sites of significance, so there was no impediment to the bulldozers and wrecking balls as the Liberal Party's developer mates got their way.

Like the concerned citizens of the postwar years, Melburnians today have much to be concerned about when it comes to heritage protection. Far too often, cherished icons are reduced to rubble in the face of developer greed. An example of this is in full view of Parliament House.

The Palace Theatre, formerly the Metro Nightclub, at 30 Bourke Street, was a prime cultural institution that is now largely gutted due to a developer ripping out the insides of this beautiful building. I have a piece of tile from the inside of that theatre sitting in my office. It was sent to me by a generous constituent who tried valiantly, alongside many others — many locals and artists in our community — to save the Palace, to protect this important theatre. Every time I walk down Bourke Street I am so saddened by what we have lost in the Palace and so many buildings like it.

We have a Minister for Planning, the member for Richmond, who refused to intervene to stop this destruction, to buy the Palace or to take any action on the preservation of this important theatre. Despite huge community opposition, dedicated research into the building's historical value and evidence of its critical importance in fostering Melbourne's internationally renowned music scene, the Palace Theatre, which opened its doors in 1912, has now been gutted.

All that will remain, if developers proceed as planned, is its Art Deco facade. What will take its place? A premium, unremarkable chain hotel that will be simultaneously opulent yet generic and that will conform to a global standard yet be locally detached from place and history. The Art Deco facade will stand as a tombstone to the local culture buried beneath.

I am sure many out-of-town members of this Parliament will spend their taxpayer-funded accommodation allowance at the planned premium hotel, but when they do so, I hope they remember the gutting of the Palace Theatre as a cutting loss to several generations for whom the Palace or the Metro was a mecca for inclusivity and artistic expression.

The Palace is a classic example of where developers deliberately neglect buildings in an effort to lessen their perceived heritage value. The same goes for the Princess Mary Club, another heritage building we are sadly losing to developers. This is also what happened to the Corkman Irish Pub, the latest incarnation of the Carlton Inn. By all reports, the Corkman, prior to its demolition and suspect fire, was not the most salubrious establishment in Carlton. The fact that it was a cheap and cheerful establishment is what endeared it to locals and students alike.

We do not preserve buildings because they have the perfect qualities of a museum piece and solely reflect the tastes of the 1 per cent. We preserve them because they mean something to the community today and reflect a time and period that is important to the culture and history of that community.

Too often developers simply do not give a hoot about local values, and they will eagerly raze historic buildings like the Corkman. As a community, we could be smarter about this and put in place measures to ensure that refurbishments are respectful and meaningful to history and place, and we could make sure that the developers do not get away with what they have been getting away with in recent times.

We could empower local government with stronger heritage protections instead of having a reliance on malleable planning overlays. We could reassess the role of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. Its arbitrations too often reflect developer interests rather than community will.

This heritage bill is a step in the right direction. It increases the penalties for developer misdeeds, and it provides for a more transparent application and review process for Heritage Victoria. It is just sad that it took the loss of the Corkman pub, such a treasured institution, for a government to act. Currently there are insufficient protections for modern architectural pieces. For example, there is no state-based heritage regulation that could be used to assess the proposed Apple Store in Federation Square. State protections for privately owned heritage buildings of public significance are insignificant.

We are also still seeing government agencies having little regard for important natural heritage.

We have seen VicRoads raze a whole bunch of really important vegetation to widen the Western Highway. We have seen the widening of CityLink and the Tullamarine Freeway knock down an incredibly important 96-year-old lemon-scented gum in Parkville. Government agencies are doing this, with no barriers in their way.

As the Minister for Planning has just pointed out, this bill will do nothing to protect the Corkman Irish pub because it was not listed on the state heritage register; it was council listed. So the stiffer punishment envisioned in this bill does not apply to buildings in council-listed places and premises. The senseless divide between state and local heritage protections persists.

A broader problem with respect to heritage preservation in Victoria is that Heritage Victoria was gutted of funding by the previous coalition government, a move that would have left Dick Hamer aghast if he had lived to see it. Heritage Victoria lost capacity to process heritage registration applications or intervene when breaches of the Heritage Act 1995 occurred. The Andrews government has provided $30 million in funding, but most of it is directed at administered grants, not at the rehabilitation of the budget and the capacity of Heritage Victoria itself.

The Greens will work to develop amendments to this bill to rectify these shortcomings, and we will have more to say in the Legislative Council. The amendments will provide for stronger protection of heritage places that are significant to the local area, the state, the country, our environment and our Aboriginal cultural heritage.

Because if we truly want to be the most liveable city in the world we actually have to protect the things that make our city liveable, not just now but into the future.

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Ellen Sandell
State MP for Melbourne
25 November 2016




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