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BEHIND ENEMY LINES: Seeing red as Brighton Bypass steams ahead

A Facebook group set up to protest the destruction of the attractive red awnings of a Hobart heritage building. Another heritage battle to protect ancient Aboriginal artefacts has recently been lost in the Apple Isle.

NATIONAL: Why can’t Australia see the significance of our priceless Aboriginal heritage, asks AMY MCQUIRE*.

Some of the good citizens of Hobart are seeing red. They’re fuming, and they’re using their anger to fuel public discontent over a heritage issue they feel has been taken out of their hands.

The local newspaper – The Mercury – has been following the issue relentlessly, digging around for new angles and keeping the issue alive on the streets of the picturesque city.

And it’s all in support of the red awnings.

Yes. Window shades, albeit, beautiful ones which stick out of the face of what would otherwise be a relatively unattractive façade of the former Savings Bank, a heritage listed building in the inner city.

To the Tasmanian Heritage Council, the awnings disguise the building’s beauty from full view and distract from the heritage significance of the site.

And thus they believe that in the process of a gentle facelift on the building, these awnings should go.

But the vulnerability of the awnings has incensed a large number of Hobart residents, who believe the exact opposite, and are calling for the popular blinds to stay.

The campaign has swiftly gained momentum, aided by a Facebook page – “Save the Red Awnings” – which by the time of press had more than 2600 members.

The red awnings have also been supported by local business. For example, the manufacturer, located on the same street, has had an upsurge in customers enquiring about them.

The owner of a local coffee shop has also taken to hanging red drapes in the windows in a sign of solidarity.

A petition supporting the awnings has attracted more than 3,000 signatures, while a poll by the Mercury has found 93 percent of respondents were also in support.

And in the tradition of all great protests, a song has been written.

Supporters say it is not just about the red awnings.

It’s about the bureaucracy and the resources spent on the decision to remove such a simple thing.

Others have used it as an encouraging sign that Tasmanians can become incensed over a heritage issue.

All well and good.

What people decide to protest about is their business, and while it’s largely a local issue, it’s also a good example of community coming together against suffocating red tape.

But it’s awfully silly when put in the context of another battle waged recently in the Apple Isle.

The Brighton Bypass is one of those modern travesties that has gone largely unacknowledged by the wider Australian public.

It’s a fight that has ultimately been won by a state government which prioritises the commuting time of motorists over the protection of priceless, ancient Aboriginal heritage.

The fight began in 2008 when an archeological investigation found traces of a highly significant Aboriginal heritage site near the Jordan River directly in line with a proposed 9.5 km bypass.

The proposed bypass – a $176 million infrastructure project – had been the subject of extensive environment and heritage assessments over the preceding decades.

The 2008 assessment, described by the Tasmanian Department of Infrastructure, Energy and Resources (DIER) as “extensive and sophisticated”, confirmed the heritage site was the oldest yet to be discovered in Tasmania, and possibly in Australia, indeed the entire southern hemisphere.

It is estimated to be 40,000 years old and provides an incomparable insight into the earliest living conditions of the local Aboriginal community.

This heritage is priceless, so naturally the local Aboriginal community were on immediate alert.

They’ve been campaigning over the past three years to keep construction away from the site, to ensure damage already done to significant artefacts does not continue.

The government’s response, after consultations and submissions over alternative routes, was to build a bridge over the Jordan River levee, rather than re-direct development away from the site to ensure its protection and preservation.

But protestors say this doesn’t go far enough.

Artefacts will continue to be disturbed.

The signing of the last permit happened in April, and construction on the bridge began not long after.
Aboriginal protestors immediately set up camp at the site – Kutalayna.

Twenty-one protestors were arrested in one stand-off at the site.

All while the Tasmanian Labor Government has refused to halt construction work.

It has been supported by the Liberals, but opposed by the party that has helped Labor form minority government – the Greens.

The former Minister for Aboriginal affairs, Greens leader Nick McKim has been lobbying Labor along with his federal counterpart – Senator Bob Brown.

The party holds two ministerial positions in the State Government but has proved powerless in stopping further destruction.

It’s a troubling illustration of how governments in Tasmania and elsewhere ignore our cultural heritage, and a telling reminder of the need to keep up our own fight in NSW for stronger heritage protection.

Australians appear quick to support meaningless things – like red awnings – but are reluctant to sign up to the one fight that should really matter.

Would Egypt think of compromising the sanctity of its pyramids? Would England consider knocking down Stonehenge? Would the Romans ever blast away the Colosseum?

Aboriginal cultural heritage is not so easily seen or understood.

It’s apparently not as striking as the red awnings that brighten up a Hobart street.

But that doesn’t make it any less significant.

Once this heritage is destroyed, we can’t get it back.

If we have the capacity to care about window shades surely we can find it in our hearts to protect the 40,000 year old history of a culture we should all be proud of.

• Amy McQuire is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist who hails from Rockhampton in Central Queensland. She is the editor of Tracker.

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