6 December 2022

Minister could sack entire Heritage Council after unprofessional behaviour, structural issues discovered

| Lottie Twyford
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Rebecca Vassarotti

ACT Heritage Minister Rebecca Vassarotti said she had lost confidence in the workings of the ACT Heritage Council. Photo: Region.

A “saddened and disappointed” Heritage Minister has revealed she is considering sacking every member of the ACT Heritage Council.

This followed an independent review that uncovered evidence of unprofessional behaviour, a lack of direction and a stressful working environment.

The Council is a statutory body charged with identifying, assessing, conserving, and promoting heritage places and objects and making decisions about the registration of heritage places and objects.

In August, its work was suspended following concerns about dysfunction and a deteriorating workplace environment.

Heritage Minister Rebecca Vassarotti (29 November) tabled the executive summary of the review in the ACT Legislative Assembly, stating she had lost confidence in its workings.

A comprehensive review into the Territory’s heritage system would now begin, Ms Vassarotti confirmed.

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The summary of the review from consultancy firm Nous described the strained relationships between the Council and Government staff and “painted a concerning picture” of “wide-ranging and complex structural issues”.

“I am saddened and disappointed about the findings. It is clear the Government needs to take urgent action to address the findings and restore confidence in the Heritage Council,” Ms Vassarotti said.

The review was damning in its findings.

It stated that Council members did not have a unified understanding of priorities and governance processes and trust had been eroded between them.

It also found unprofessional behaviour by both Council members and Heritage Unit staff had led to stress in the work environment.

Furthermore, both sides were frustrated about how best to improve things even though both felt that a better working relationship was needed.

“There is dissatisfaction and misalignment of expectations between some Council members and the Heritage Unit regarding each other’s work processes,” it read.

“Attempts to resolve this misalignment have been unsuccessful.”

These stressors had been exacerbated by an increase in work, without a corresponding increase in budget and resources.

Ms Vassarotti said while she was considering ending the appointment of Heritage Council members, she would first consult with the Assembly’s standing committee on environment, climate change and biodiversity about any actions she intended to take.

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Ms Vassarotti thanked Council members and staff for participating in the review and said she would continue to make information about her next steps publicly available as she had it.

“I would like to acknowledge all Canberrans who contacted me to support the need for a review of the Heritage Council,” she said.

“The strong support and desire for change is further evidence of the need for the ACT to reform its heritage arrangements. Many residents have taken the time to share their stories and the need for a new approach to the regulation, governance and administration of heritage in the ACT.”

All nine appointed Heritage Council members and four staff from the Government’s Heritage Unit were interviewed as part of the review.

Canberra Liberal MLA Nicole Lawder tried to force the Government to table the full report as well as the recommendations it made.

But this was voted down in the Assembly.

It’s understood the information contained in that report could pertain to individual-level circumstances and behaviour.

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Maybe the whole system is broken? The nominations of many places that date back to self government have not been resolved e.g. the Kingston and Manuka shopping centres. Making any amendment to an existing heritage listing appears to involve renominating the place or object from scratch – just a tad inefficient when there is such a backlog. The 2014 review also removed local heritage as a criterion despite it being obvious that what might be highly significant to the community of somewhere like Tharwa or Royalla not being of interest to most of the Canberra residents. I agree that inadequate resources and low priority within government could have contributed to the stress suffered by frustrated staff and Council members who are keen to promote Canberra’s heritage.

Is Ms Vassarotti et al lookinh in the mirror?
ACT Heritage is doing its best up against an Assembly who dont understand Canberra’s historical and unique role in the evolution of Australia as a unique and significant National Capital. It’s different. Lets keep it that way.

The ACT Heritage Council have sat on a Heritage listing application for the Ainslie Volcanic site, Corroboree Park and the remnant NTG for over 3 years without any feedback. The original application for the Ainslie Volcanics was made in 2012 and the ACT Heritage unit erroneously said the outcrops were exclusively on National land. They also said they have lost the original 2012 application ? The volcanic outcrops on the National land component ( approximately 50% of the outcrops) on the ex CSIRO HQ site have subsequently been bulldozed to oblivion as was the Heritage significant CSIRO building- Contrary to the National Trust requests. Yes, there are indeed major reforms required to the ACT Planning, Environment and Heritage as there is to the NCA. An enquiry into malfeasance of ACT Land development and non enforcement of regulations is urgently required.

Did the government not like a decision? Diversity and lack of clear business value are values that the labor party emanate with confidence.

I am sure the minister is stressed and saddened by these findings. These findings should not occur in a government agency. Those in management positions in the ACT Heritage Council who have been responsible for this sad and sorry state of affairs need to be shown the door. Let’s just reflect. In August, all work was suspended in the agency due to concerns about dysfunction and a deteriorating workplace environment. These concerns included a lack of understanding of priorities and governance processes by management. A government review into the agency has been damning in its findings. The evidence includes unprofessional behaviour, a lack of direction and a stressful working environment for its staff. Changes in this agency are necessary and its management needs to go. Over to you Rebecca!!

Jack D, you could easily replace the words “ACT Heritage Council” with ACT health, prison management, the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate, transport canberra, the Education Directorate etc etc and you’d be right. And as for “A government review into the agency has been damning in its findings” – 1) why isn’t there a “surprised face” emoji available here, and 2) what’s the old government saying about “never order an enquiry unless you know what the outcome will be”?

Spot on Reprobate…..

The Heritage Council does not occupy management positions in the ACT government.

Capital Retro1:22 pm 30 Nov 22

I am still waiting for a response about an exchange of information I sent to them 12 months ago.

They seem to get hung-up on lost causes.

“The strong support and desire for change is further evidence of the need for the ACT to reform its heritage arrangements. Many residents have taken the time to share their stories and the need for a new approach to the regulation, governance and administration of heritage in the ACT.” In other words, the pesky Heritage Council is given the elbow to smooth the path for a truckload of developments in heritage areas. How are just 4 (at most) Heritage Unit staff of varying qualifications and experience going to deal with all the nuances of sympathetic heritage requirements… oh wait, they won’t need to bother with that, I’m sure Minister Vassarotti will happily rubber stamp anything that comes across her desk.

From personal experience I know that serving the Heritage Council has always been hard, as the Heritage Unit gets pushed and pulled between it and the government of the day. Looks like after all this time the govt has done the big final push…

Finagen_Freeman7:17 am 01 Dec 22

Nailed it.
Consultancy firms always used to keep negative government decisions at arms length. Heritage losses momentum just as rules-based building planning regulations change. Look out high density here we come.

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