The Politics of Preservation: As Australia Celebrates the Listing of Its 15th World Heritage Site, Ian Connellan Reflects on the Heady Mix of Politics, Conservation and Constitutional Crisis That Have Surrounded the Nation's World Heritage Listings

By Connellan, Ian | Geographical, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Preservation: As Australia Celebrates the Listing of Its 15th World Heritage Site, Ian Connellan Reflects on the Heady Mix of Politics, Conservation and Constitutional Crisis That Have Surrounded the Nation's World Heritage Listings


Connellan, Ian, Geographical


Visible from any elevated point in Sydney, the Blue Mountains appear as a low range of hills shrouded in a bluish haze--thought to be caused by fire delicate mist of eucalyptus oil that hangs over the region's millions of gum trees, scattering sunlight. From a distance, the mountains are decidedly unspectacular; there are no soaring, solitary monoliths, no snow caps.

But the haze hides a few world-class natural truths, and these are precisely the reason why the Greater Blue Mountains Area was declared Australia's 14th World Heritage site in 2000.

Behind the somewhat banal facade is a spectacular landscape of soaring cliffs, ancient caves and shadowy gorges. This varied terrain provided plants and animals with a refuge from climatic change during recent geological history, resulting in a rich diversity of life that includes more than 90 eucalyptus species and threatened animals such as the long-nosed potoroo.

Capping it off is the area's size, location and unexplored character. It's about a third the size of Belgium and one can reach it on a Sydney suburban train. In 1994, a national parks ranger hiking in the region discovered the 200-million-year-old Wollemi pine--the botanical equivalent of a live dinosaur. In 1995, bushwalkers stumbled across Aboriginal rock art perhaps 4,000 years old near the pine site. Whatever else is bidden in the Blue Mountains, it's enshrined and protected as World Heritage.

Australia ratified UNESCO's World Heritage Convention in August 1974, becoming the seventh signatory. The continent's first three World Heritage properties--the Great Barrier Reef, the Willandra Lakes Region and Kakadu National Park--were inscribed in 1981, just three years after the Galapagos Islands became the first World Heritage site. Another 12 Australian sites have followed (see map, page 80).

As the State Party to the Convention, only the Commonwealth (Federal) government has the right to submit nominations for Australian World Heritage properties. In practice, the states and territories prepare their own nominations. In general, this arrangement has worked fairly smoothly, although a few nominations have created controversy, and a couple of them have prompted animosity between state and Commonwealth governments.

Australia's Constitution gives each state parliament the power to make its own laws, except where they're inconsistent with Commonwealth law Historically, the Commonwealth government has rarely overridden state powers, but it has done so in matters concerning World Heritage protection Some of these actions have been undertaken at least partly for political reasons but the result, nearly 30 years after Australia signed time Convention, is a much more certain conservation regime

The Federal Labor government of Gough Whitlam embraced World Heritage in 1974 in part as a response to the inundation of pristine Lake Pedder, in southwestern Tasmania. The decision by the state's Hydro-Electric Commission (HECI to build a dam and flood the lake prompted one of Australia's first concerted conservation campaigns and its first Green political party; it also drew the attention of UNESCO.

Soon after the Whitlam government was elected in 1972, it mounted an inquiry that reported that Lake Pedder was too important to destroy. The inquiry recommended a moratorium and agreed to cover the costs. The Tasmanian government ignored the inquiry and ordered the HEC to proceed, which it did, at the cost of the lake and to the horror of the conservation lobby.

However, it was to have a positive long-term effect. Lake Pedder's destruction hardened conservationists--with the result that when Tasmania's next major conservation battle arose, ten years after that for Lake Pedder, they would be superbly organised and led, and their success would ensure the lasting importance of World Heritage listing as a conservation measure.

This happened late in 1982, when a long-running dispute between the HEC and Tasmanian conservationists escalated into direct confrontation. …

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