Author Archives: sarahmcmaster

Valuing Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in a Gold Rush Town

Ballarat, located one hour’s drive from Melbourne, has a readily identifiable and valued heritage, linked to its gold rush era origins (City of Ballarat 2010: 1). During the last decade of significant population growth in the city, the planning system has mediated long and divisive battles over the city’s historical heritage, from miners’ cottages through to a civic hall dating back to just the 1950s. Historic buildings have had the benefit of a comprehensive suite of policy and statutory controls against which development proposals have been assessed. Aboriginal heritage controls on the other hand, have lacked a clear connection with the land-use planning system. This has contributed to a number of publicised conflicts concerning Aboriginal cultural heritage, because its consideration in land use and development proposals has been left to the eleventh hour (for example, Byrne 2013; Dixon and Cowie 2014).

One such issue has been the proposed redevelopment of the former Ballarat Orphanage. The orphanage commenced in 1865 and operated in various forms on the site until the mid 1980s, housing more than 4100 children during its operation (Ballarat District Orphan Asylum 2014). Many of these children were Aboriginal, having been taken from their parents under the Aborigines Protection Act 1886 (Commonwealth of Australia, 1997). It has also been asserted by previous residents of the orphanage, that the south-west corner of the site was used as an informal burial site for deceased Aboriginal children (City of Ballarat 2013: 7).

Private developers applied in 2011 for planning and building permits to demolish 12 of the site’s 15 buildings and significant tress, to facilitate the development of approximately 85 residential lots, a medical centre and supermarket. The controls applying to the European heritage of the site were well-known and accepted. Various buildings and trees at the site have long been protected by planning controls in the form of a Heritage Overlay, by virtue of their contribution to a larger historical heritage precinct characterised by its “original and early examples of Victorian, Federation and Inter War” constructions (City of Ballarat 2006: 148).

The permit application to demolish received 38 public objections addressing concerns for the site’s social significance, the demolition’s impact on streetscape and regard for the ceremonial plaques and signifiers that are on the site (City of Ballarat 2013: 12). Ballarat City Council resolved to issue a notice of decision to grant a permit, but with conditions including that retention of an additional five buildings. The developers have lodged an application with the Victoria Civil and Administrative Tribunal for a review of council’s conditions. The case has not yet been determined.

Orphanage bulding 1

Image 1: Former Ballarat Orphanage Building, 2014 (Heritage Victoria 2014)

Unfortunately, the current controls do not address the nature of the site’s Indigenous heritage. The controls neglected the social, historical and contemporary significance to Aboriginal people. Even with the site located within 200 metres of a named waterway, the planning permit application did not trigger the mandatory requirements for cultural heritage assessment under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (Victoria). To activate a trigger in such an instance, the proximity to a waterway would need to be coupled with a proposed action, defined as a “high impact activity”, as per the Aboriginal Heritage Regulations 2007. Examples of high impact activities include subdivision above a certain threshold (reg.46), construction of specified infrastructure (reg.46) or extraction or removal of stone (reg. 48A). Subsequent activity on site, such as subdivision and development of multiple dwellings would have triggered the need for a mandatory Cultural Heritage Management Plan (CHMP), although it would add minimal value to the buildings already permitted for demolition.

The Act and its regulations appear to support the notion that the demolition of Euro-Australian buildings (which may require planning approval), would not impact on Aboriginal heritage. Arguably this stems from a systemic assumption that Aboriginal and Eurocentric (post-contact) heritage are “mutually exclusive: …that Aboriginal heritage has no place in the historic (post-contact) period” (Byrne and Nugent, 2004: 5). The Registered Aboriginal Party for the area, the Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation, responded to the development proposal by seeking to have the site registered as an Aboriginal Historical Place on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register. The successful registration thereby requires that a Cultural Heritage Management Plan must be approved prior to any potentially harmful works occurring at the site. While this outcome successfully required that future works must consider Aboriginal cultural heritage, it is regretful that the lack of coordination between the heritage and planning processes continues to force the protection of Aboriginal heritage into a defensive position of catch up behind development. It is a position that fuels conflict between developers and those with an interest in protection of Indigenous heritage.

The Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 has undoubtedly improved heritage management outcomes for Aboriginal people, but the recent review of the Act included a recommendation that country mapping be done across the state, to facilitate a more strategic, upfront assessment of heritage. Hearteningly, the Victorian Government response supported this recommendation, stating that it “proposes to support Registered Aboriginal Parties to undertake important work such as country mapping” (Government of Victoria, 2013: 4). The execution of such a task will require a tenacious political and financial commitment, but it will be an important step towards strengthening the connection of Indigenous cultural heritage to present-day Australia.

Reference List

Ballarat District Orphan Asylum 2014 Ballarat District Orphan Asylum Heritage Significance. Retrieved on 10 August 2014 from 

Byrne, Dennis and Maria Nugent 2004 Mapping Attachment: A Spatial Approach to Aboriginal Post-Contact Heritage, Department of Environment and Conservation, Hurstville.

Byrne, Pat 2013 “Mediation paves way for Link Road”, Ballarat Courier, November 29. Retrieved on 9 August 2014 from

City of Ballarat 2006 Ballarat Heritage Precinct Statements of Significance. Retrieved on 10 August 2014 from

City of Ballarat 2010 Ballarat Planning Scheme 21.05-2 Heritage. Retrieved 9 August 2014 from>

City of Ballarat 2013 Ordinary Council Meeting Agenda, 23 October 2013. Retrieved on 7 August 2014 from

Commonwealth of Australia 1997 Bringing Them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, Canberra

Dixon, Matthew and Tom Cowie 2014 First steps on road to West Link construction”, Ballarat Courier, January 29. Retrieved on August 11 2014 from

Government of Victoria 2013 Review of the Aboriginal Heritage Act Victorian Government Response 17 June 2013, East Melbourne.

Heritage Victoria 2014 Victorian Heritage Register. Retrieved 10 August from