THE MINING COMPANY RIO Tinto was recently responsible for the blasting of a set of highly significant caves in Juukan Gorge in the Hammersley Ranges. This was legal; Ministerial authority under Western Australian law gives consent to this kind of mining development, which can then not be held up in other courts. By contrast, Heritage Acts across the States protect non-Aboriginal cultural heritage more elaborately. In Sydney, the Sirius Building, whose redevelopment was, in a similar way, given direct consent by the Minister, was looked over by the Supreme Court, and saved from demolition. Plain racism explains a great deal of the distinction, but not everything.

Australian public culture, in contrast to its relaxed self-image, is one of the most rule-bound and officious of the world. We are protective of European cultural heritage, particularly old buildings, with the world's most elaborate and developed system of assessing and evaluating 'heritage', in part to offset (as David Lowenthal put it) the 'curse of recency'. The Burra Charter leads the world as a set of organising principles for cultural significance and Australia ICOMOS, like our Olympic athletes, punches above its weight in world heritage. Had the caves in the Pilbara been merely a terrace house in an inner-urban suburb in an east coast city, they would have had their pick of arenas to battle for protection, from appeal to administrative tribunals to Interim Heritage Orders. Nobody dynamites urban heritage; at least not like that: a well-paid professional is hired by the project manager to write a report separating the non-significant from the Heritage, and only then the blasting caps are laid. Gold for Australia, protection for the significant, iron ore for the export market!

It isn't just that white eyes see more value in Federation bricks than in the Aboriginal past (though they do), it's that officials and conservationists both have established Heritage as a systematic exercise in listing and assessment and development consent, which, because Australia is the country it is, exists in a plane superior to the real, and certainly greater than the questions of history and memory. We value heritage, and have given it a place in the Pantheon of our society's treasures: the project manager's spreadsheet list, complying with all the applicable frameworks, of consent items to close out. A former colleague, a town planner (the greatest legal originalists of all), warned me once about reading intention or outcomes into the planning system---the only thing that matters is is the letter of the law, because that's how the application forms will be drawn up, and forms are where power is exercised.

I've written before about my culture's many resemblances to that of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. Complacent self-satisfaction, a tendency to 'misrecognise miraculous good fortune as good management', and a fear of change, a set of national myths and historical stories that are ridiculous on their face but are taken extremely seriously, a fixation on baroque culture war arguments and personal honour, monuments upon dedicated memorials upon sacred chapels upon monuments, and of course, fear of and fascination with Muslims and Asians. To this we can add a reification of forms and preoccupation with official processes, check-box exercises that give assurance and permanence to our self-regard as valuers of Heritage, which mere explosives will never shake.



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