7 December 2022

'Difficult decision to make': Entire ACT Heritage Council sacked

| Lottie Twyford
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Rebecca Vassarotti

ACT Heritage Minister Rebecca Vassarotti has acted on her word and disbanded the entire ACT Heritage Council. Photo: Region.

Heritage Minister Rebecca Vassarotti has done as she threatened to do last week (29 November) and disbanded the entire ACT Heritage Council.

She has also committed to undertaking a comprehensive reform of heritage in the ACT.

Several members had already begun resigning from their roles after Ms Vassarotti’s warnings last week and the positions of the remaining members have now been suspended.

Concerns about a deteriorating workplace and the council holding up work came to light in August, and the council’s work was suspended with an urgent review ordered.

Last week, a “saddened and disappointed” Heritage Minister confirmed that the review had discovered the structural and governance issues which had been suspected.

The summary of the review, which is the only part that has been made public, from consultancy firm Nous described strained relationships between the council and government staff. It confirmed the two sides were frustrated with progress and unable to work alongside each other.

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In a statement, Ms Vassarotti described the dissolution as a “difficult decision to take”.

“As Canberra continues to grow, the community and the government now more than ever require well-functioning heritage arrangements to ensure that the ACT’s natural, cultural and First Nations heritage are recognised and conserved for future generations,” she said.

“I want to ensure that the future framework presents the best way forward not only for the Heritage Council, for our government officials and for Canberrans.”

A “large-scale review” has begun into how the ACT Government works with heritage, including both the workings of ACT Heritage and the structure and statutory functions of the Heritage Council under the Heritage Act 2004. (ACT Heritage provides administrative support to the council and advice to the Minister for Planning about the range of heritage matters for which they are responsible.)

It will look at the legislative framework and the systems that support their work.

Ms Vassarotti said the review would be a priority for her over the next 12 months.

“This will commence with a jurisdictional review, which will begin shortly and will examine how heritage matters are dealt with across the country and the role of council equivalents. Of critical importance for me through this review is enhancing protections for First Nations heritage,” she said.

Caption: Chair of the ACT Heritage Council, David Flannery, at Goulburn’s early rail infrastructure that coincided with a golden era, similar to the potential growth on offer from light rail in Canberra. Photo: John Thistleton.

Former chair of the ACT Heritage Council David Flannery, said his time on the council had been a “personal learning experience”. Photo: File.

The former head of the ACT Heritage Council David Flannery wouldn’t comment on the current saga unfolding with the council when approached by Region this week.

He left that position in 2021, but he echoed the sentiment expressed by the Heritage Minister, saying his time on the council had been a “personal learning experience” in regard to the extent of Aboriginal history and culture in the ACT.

“It was a real eye-opener to learn how significant the impact of Aboriginal peoples over tens of thousands of years – some say 20,000 years in this particular area – that was nothing short of mind-blowing.

“We need to continue … [with] the protection of Aboriginal places and objects.”

An ACT Legislative Assembly inquiry was also announced into the Territory’s heritage arrangements earlier this week.

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Ms Vassarotti will appoint an interim Heritage Council early in the new year once the necessary recruitment process has occurred.

“The functions of the interim Heritage Council will continue to deliver their responsibilities under legislation, including their ability to accept heritage nominations and formally register places/items as outlined in the Heritage Act 2004,” she said.

“The interim Heritage Council will also play a key role in providing expert advice to support the review.”

Recruitment for those positions will open in the coming weeks and that council is expected to be in place for no less than 12 months while the review is conducted and any recommendations or changes are put into place.

Ms Vassarotti thanked Heritage Council members and ACT Government officials who were involved in the initial review for their time and transparency around the issues presented.

That initial review has not been released as it’s understood to contain sensitive information related to individual-level incidents.

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William Newby9:07 am 11 Dec 22

Vassarotti should do the decent thin and stand down herself, isn’t it her job to oversee this department.

With things so bad that the entire department needed sacking surely she is part of the problem, a conpket lack of oversight lead to this.

Vassarotti is paid top dollar to manage this department, clearly she couldn’t run a chook raffle.

Richard Willow10:15 pm 08 Dec 22

If the Conservator of Flora and Fauna and the Chief Planning Executive served on this council that had governance issues, perhaps they should resign their Government positions as they are demonstrably unfit for governance.

Leon Arundell4:43 pm 08 Dec 22

The Government needs to review the way it selects people for appointment to the Heritage Council. Nine of the Council’s eleven members were appointed by Heritage Ministers. The chief planning executive is appointed by the government, and is an ex-officio member of the Council. The other ex-officio member is the conservator of flora and fauna, who is appointed by the chief planning executive.

Vassaroti is up there with the worst Greens MLA we have seen yet.

HiddenDragon6:41 pm 07 Dec 22

“Concerns about a deteriorating workplace and the council holding up work came to light in August….”

Sounds like the now former Heritage Council would have been right at home in the ACT public sector – the problem was clearly inconvenient views and values.

A high priority for the shiny new Council, after going through the motions of a review, will, of course, be to dream up reasons to ensure that the right streets and enclaves (occupied by suitably well-connected people) will be heritage-protected when the delights of “building up not out” hit Canberra suburbia under the new Territory Plan.

Hooray! hooray! hooray! Well done that minister. A review from first principles is badly needed. First, there is a need for a more appropriate balance between heritage and other things, especially the natural environment. Then there needs to be a better balance between the emphasis put on indigenous heritage and non-indigenous.

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