Image for Heritage canal under siege

Further evidence that the Tasmanian Heritage Council is a toothless weapon in the fight to protect our historic jewels landed in my email box last week.

It arrived as a consequence of Ruth Young’s application to have placed on the state heritage register the historic late-1800s canal cut through South Egg Island in the Huon River.

Unless someone somewhere in Australia can come up with evidence to the contrary, it appears that the canal — completed in 1885 — has firm claim to being the oldest working canal in the nation. If this is a fact, that alone should be enough to qualify it for protection from disfigurement by 21st technology. 

Young’s application was lodged with the Tasmanian Heritage Council after Huon Valley councillors in February voted (7-2) to give Southern Water permission to lay a water pipe along the canal.

Historian Young went to amazing lengths, with the help of historian partner John Young and others, to compile a persuasive case for the protection and preservation of the canal.

What did she get in return for her weeks of selfless toiling to meet the highly detailed requirements of a heritage register application?

She got this letter, dated March 18, from Michael Lynch, chairperson of the Tasmanian Heritage Council:

Dear Ruth

Application for the entry of the South Egg Island Navigation Canal, Huon River on the Tasmanian Heritage Register

Thank you for your letter of 24 February 2010 and the enclosed application for entry of the South Egg Island Navigation Canal, Huon River on the Tasmanian Heritage Register.

A preliminary assessment of the application would suggest that the navigation canal could have values that would warrant its inclusion on the Heritage Register. However the Heritage Council receives a number of individual applications each year and is also implementing municipal heritage surveys in conjunction with local planning authorities across the state. Our assessment priorities are identified each financial year, as our resources are extremely limited and not all applications are processed.

It is also the case that it is the policy of the Heritage Council not to formally initiate the assessment of an application for entry to the Heritage Register where a planning process has commenced, which I understand to be the case with respect to the navigation canal. The Heritage Council has taken this position so as to ensure natural justice is provided to all parties in the planning process.

At this stage therefore the Heritage Council will not proceed to assess your application. Your application will be retained however and assessment will be undertaken when resources allow or a municipal heritage survey is undertaken in the Huon Valley.

I have taken the liberty of providing a copy of this letter to those parties that contacted the Heritage Council supporting your application.

I appreciate the time and effort you have put into preparing and lodging this application.

Yours sincerely

Michael Lynch

If the import of chairperson Michael Lynch’s letter has not sunk in, read it again.

In essence, it says there is no hope for the canal to be protected, well, anyway, at least not until the “planning process” is complete; and that “assessment priorities” are only “identified” once a year.

Which means that, should the canal eventually be deemed worthy of heritage register protection, it could by that time have been defaced by a water pipe crossing the Huon from Franklin to Cradoc.

And did any of you spot the supreme irony in the letter? The THC takes its position to “ensure natural justice is provided to all parties in the planning process”.

That has to be a joke. Conveniently forgotten by the THC board — or possibly unknown to it — is that seven Huon Valley councillors in early February, in granting Southern Water permission to lay the pipe, yet again denied “natural justice” to the people they represent by failing to consult them.

Which conjures up another thought: is the decision to consider or reject an application left to the THC’s public servant chairperson or is Lynch’s letter a reflection of a decision made by a meeting of the THC board?

I say that last month’s Huon Valley Council vote to give Southern Water permission is yet another example of councillors’ contempt for their constituents. In February last year, in the face of growing Franklin opposition (antique shop proprietor Shane Johnson was having no difficulty finding signatures for his petition), they voted for the destruction of the town’s historic local football clubrooms at the southeastern corner of the football oval. And the dastardly fulfilment of that decision came to pass later that month in a bulldozer operation, under police supervision, starting at first light. By late afternoon it was barely possible to imagine that anything like a building redolent of mid-20th century sporting culture had once stood there. Rarely have Franklin residents been witness to such civic efficiency!

But back to the canal. A pipeline on piles, lying along the canal’s north bank — as well as defacing a delightful, almost primeval, natural scene — is likely to cause severe eddying in the canal as tidal waters rise and fall. Such eddying could render impossible the dredging occasionally necessary to maintain it as a “navigation canal”.

At council’s February meeting this year, one might have got the impression that the Huon Valley Team of seven councillors could not find the courage to back down on any aspect of the regional water scheme conceived and planned by council management, without community consultation, over several years.

So secret was the management’s planning that Greens councillor Liz Smith had to resort to freedom-of-information legislation to get her hands on details of the project. And, when her FOI request was (many months later) finally approved, she still had to fork out more than $100 of her own money to pay for the printing of the information she sought and which was in her own council’s files. So much for openness in local government.

Times they are a-changing, and now, under new management, council has been showing signs of performing in a more transparent, sometimes even more conciliatory, manner. But that doesn’t mean the veil of secrecy has been lifted entirely. Far too much authority delegated to council management should still be of concern to those who feel only real “commercial in confidence” and “personal” matters should be withheld from public view.

Last year, in the case of the Huon valley water scheme, council was able to wash its hands of responsibility to ratepayers and residents by having to hand over its still largely secret plan to the newly established Southern Water, one of three utilities legislated by David Bartlett’s Labor government to manage state water services.

(“It’s the law,” insisted then general manager Geoff Cockerill, intimating that he saw no point in councillors even debating the ramifications of a management recommendation that meant council parting with assets valued at about $60 million. At the time, councillors, knowing that the council’s “investment team” had probably squandered about $4 million by putting it into exotic investments, were quite reasonably sensitive to such a large slice of property assets being voted away on the promise of water dividends that might never eventuate.)

When council granted Southern Water permission to lay the pipeline at last month’s open meeting, “pro-development” mayor Robert Armstrong remarked to the effect that descendants of those who cut the canal in the first place would probably like a pipeline laid along this “working canal”.

Maybe some of them would. But there are others out here, Mr Mayor, who believe there is more to life than development at any cost.

I for one would like to see a lot more action — rather than lip-serve being paid — to ensure that echoes of Tasmania’s past remain captured in time to be savoured by our children and those who come after them.

Maybe guilt about a dark and better-forgotten Tasmanian past has contributed to the chronic failure of successive destructive state governments to give strength to institutions ostensibly established to protect those things that should be recognised as worth keeping.

As it stands, Tasmania would probably be just as well off with no heritage body at all rather than the pathetic under-staffed, under-funded organisation that Michael Lynch describes in his letter to Ruth Young.

— Bob Hawkins is a Huon Valley ratepayer and an advocate for transparency in all democratic institutions. He is not a member of any political organisation

Mike Peters: What the pipe will look like: From THIS to THIS: HERE