Heritage really matters to Docklands and Australia

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Jackie Watts

Docklands residents and businesses know only too well that heritage asset protection is non-existent in Docklands. For example: Central Pier.

Despite state and national heritage protection, this heritage asset has been neglected to the point of demolition.

Be vigilant. A similar fate awaits the heritage-listed Shipping Control Tower on the tip of North Wharf. This pattern of neglect in the Docklands Precinct is obvious and shameful.

Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network (MMHN) is supporting the Australian Heritage Advocacy Alliance (AHAA) campaign during the lead-up to the federal election – because Heritage matters – really matters.

For the first time in an Australian election, a campaign is being waged by AHAA to make sure all candidates around Australia understand what is at stake if nothing is done to reform heritage protection policy in this nation.

Once abundant Docklands precinct heritage assets have largely been destroyed. Others remain in jeopardy, threatened in the now familiar pattern of demolition by neglect.

Just imagine the wealth in industrial heritage assets which once existed in Docklands. Melbourne boasted that its Docklands (i.e., your neighbourhood) was the “most mechanised” in the Commonwealth. Victoria Harbour docks handled more than two million tonnes of cargo annually and it remained Melbourne’s most used dock until well into the 1960s.

So much of the maritime heritage infrastructure underpinning Victoria’s prosperity has been simply dumped as scrap metal and timber.

Reflect on the significance of the Shipping Control Tower you see today. It says so much about Docklands’ once splendid heritage.

In 1962, public/private consultations led to the construction of the Port of Melbourne central control “station” to co-ordinate shipping, towage pilots and emergency services in the extraordinarily busy port.

A two-deck reinforced concrete tower was built with a lift and stairs ‒ one deck for observation and the other for radar and communications, manned 24 hours a day.

Such was the importance of the port operations in Docklands to the public of Melbourne that the Shipping Tower’s immensely popular automated telephone service provided shipping information on 116,995 calls in the first year of operation.

The tower you see now replaced a timber octagonal watch tower built in 1934.

Elsewhere in the world such public heritage assets such as the Shipping Tower are recognised and protected as having significant social, cultural and economic value.

Industrial heritage sites and assets are rightly celebrated, protected and have been recognised as underpinning the cultural tourism boom in the UK prior to COVID.

The question arises – while we still have some maritime heritage assets remaining in Docklands, surely, we must learn from this UK experience?

AHAA thinks so, and so does the Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network (MMHN). The forthcoming federal election is an opportunity to make politicians focus on the value of heritage assets and halt further irreplaceable heritage loss.

MMHN joins with the AHAA in trying to break through decades of political apathy and failure to recognise the significant “value” of Australia’s unique national heritage assets, like those already lost in Docklands.

AHAA wrote to 3000-plus heritage enthusiasts calling for examples of heritage assets lost and heritage assets under threat. Many responded. You will find reference to Docklands there. Visit the AHAA website: ahaa.net.au/heritage-lost-threatened

AHAA also wrote to 1000-plus candidates in 151 electorates around Australia. Many candidates are not yet aware that all over Australia, this pattern we see in Docklands of “squander by neglect” is happening Australia-wide. And it may yet happen to the Shipping Tower in your neighbourhood.

What does the federal election mean for maritime heritage in Docklands?

Much is at stake. AHAA and MMHN invites you to get engaged.

Now is the time to make sure all candidates are aware that heritage assets really matter and that those elected take action to reform heritage policy. It is a “no-brainer”.

In October 2020, an independent review of the federal heritage protection legislation (EPBC Act 1999) found that Australia’s heritage protection system was broken. Fundamental policy reform is required.

MMHN and AHAA encourage you to take every opportunity during this pre-election political “gab-fest” to:

Ask candidates about heritage policy reform and a national approach.

Ask candidates about their plans for heritage funding. Better heritage protection requires better funding, e.g., the successful UK Heritage Lottery – which is why AHAA is advocating “solutions” during this election.

Ask candidates to support a dedicated Ministry of Heritage. Responsibility for heritage is languishing in the largely ignored portfolio of Agriculture Water and the Environment. Australia can do better than this.

Squandering irreplaceable heritage assets must cease. Much is at stake. This is the time to put heritage are on the political agenda •

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