Piggott, Michael: Out of Tune, but still mouldering: the National Archives of Australia

Michael Piggott*

‘Out of Tune, but still mouldering: the National Archives of Australia’, Honest History, 20 September 2021

This article follows Michael Piggott’s earlier piece, ‘Mouldering away: how long a journey for our National Archives?’, which coincided with a campaign to increase funding for the Archives. The campaign was only partially successful, as the following article shows. HH

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On 1 July 2021, the Morrison government announced that the National Archives of Australia would receive additional funding. This followed months of intense media pressure from journalists and the urging of interested organisations, individuals and the Archives Advisory Council, years of advocacy by the Director-General David Fricker, a formal review, and embarrassing appearances at Senate Estimates by the relevant minister Senator Amanda Stoker.

The need for the funds had been one of 20 recommendations made in the review of the Archives’ role and needs led by ex-public servant David Tune and begun in April 2019.[1] His report, handed to government in January 2020, was only released when forced by Senator Rex Patrick’s FOI request in March 2021. The funding decision followed in July. Then, on 19 August, a formal response to the review’s recommendations was issued by the Attorney-General Michaelia Cash and her Assistant Minister, Amanda Stoker.[2]

The funding decision

The funding urged in Recommendation 8 of the Tune review report was for the preservation, including digitisation, of high priority at-risk records. It totalled $67.7m. over seven years. To its credit, the government agreed to reducing the spread of the funds to four rather than seven years. To its shame, it had taken 18 months to act and, in a petulant twist, it required the funds be used to address several other needs identified by Tune, as well as the urgent preservation.

The government might have dragged its feet on the review response, too, but, even after the funding announcement, the Archives’ indefatigable Director-General kept his organisation before the public, addressing the National Press Club on 4 August. Two weeks later, the formal response to the Tune review was issued. Two weeks after that, it was announced that the Director-General would not be reappointed when his current term ends on 31 December. Yes, yes, I know, post hoc ergo …  The vacancy has now been advertised[3], with a surprisingly short two-week deadline. Perhaps they have a military gentleman already in their sights for the job.

The response to Tune

The government response to the Tune review report agreed with all 20 recommendations ‘in full or in principle’. To me, these 19 pages seem a hastily drafted document. It has confused tenses, sentences which make no sense, and careless proofreading (‘record-keeping’, ‘recordkeeping’ and ‘record keeping’ on a single page). It begins with two Forewords, both full of platitudes and cliches – challenges need to be faced, funds invested, organisations positioned, stories told, capabilities built, cyber security bolstered, and issues addressed. In Senator Stoker’s Foreword, she shares the remarkable insight that our nation has ‘a unique history’ and ends by reassuring us:

The Morrison Government is equipping the National Archives for the challenges of the future. This will ensure records vital to our history are preserved and made more readily available. It [presumably the Archives, once equipped?] will empower future generations to learn from our history, so their contributions to our nation’s story are informed by the challenges and triumphs of the past.

Of Tune’s 20 recommendations, most were accepted outright and about a third agreed to with qualification, or as the response put it, agreed ‘in principle’. As noted, the previously announced funding was intended for preservation (Rec. 8), but also spread across several other recommendations (Rec. 6, digital archiving, Rec. 7, cyber resilience, Rec. 10, on-demand digitisation). Though the 1 July announcement of funding also indicated some of the $67.7m. was to help reduce the backlog of access applications (Rec. 11), curiously this was not repeated in the official response.

EG Whitlam, Prime Minister 1972-75, whose government in 1973 appointed Professor RG Neale as the first Director-General of the then Australian Archives (NAA)

Just as strange was the response to the proposal that the National Archives assume ‘authority and responsibility for information management, recordkeeping and archiving across the Australian Government’ (Rec. 4) and to what Tune called a GIMM model (Rec. 5) which proposed the centralisation of agencies’ records staff within the Archives. The official response to both – ‘Agreed in principle’ – did no such thing. It ignored Rec. 4 altogether – one suspects the hand of powerful central and specialist defence and intelligence agencies here. As for GIMM, it required alternatives be pursued ‘in the short to medium term’. Whatever that might mean.

Considered as a whole, the response – like the Tune report itself – left much unresolved. Tune foreshadowed business cases and consultation, while the government’s response anticipated new committees and referred six times to ‘future budget processes’. How it resisted mentioning the all-purpose COVID excuse I don’t know.

Predictably, the response agreed to every mention of savings, new fees, ‘commercial opportunities’, philanthropy, ‘higher revenue streams’, and efficiencies; it sanctioned the further eroding of actual collections in the Archives’ shop fronts in state capitals; it agreed a new national archives building was not a priority; and it endorsed the continued existence of the Archives Advisory Council. It said it ‘will reform the Archives Act’ (Rec. 16) but warned that the ‘precise nature’ of the reforms would require ‘further consideration’ …, this time not even resorting to our old friend ‘short to medium term’. It did promise, though, to consider amending the Act in the meantime to allow further fee charging.

The official response covered three further issues, all serious, and each left unresolved. The first concerned the backlog of applications for access (Rec. 11). The 1 July announcement of special funding foreshadowed a portion going to boost the Archives’ declassification resources. The official response added soft soap. It ticked off process improvements already in train, gratuitously stressed the security of sensitive records, and anticipated consultation through a new committee of NAA staff and ‘senior officers responsible for data and information management in agencies across government’.

So, the elephant in the room – the way security and intelligence agencies’ processes, philosophies and resources influence their handling of Archives referred access requests – remains. Several recent public reminders from ASIO about declassification complexities (Canberra Times, 22 July 2021, p. 2) and its real priorities (Canberra Times, 10 September 2021, p. 17) do not engender optimism.

The second failure concerned Tune Recommendation 19, that the Minister ‘develop a statement of expectations for the National Archives, in consultation with the Advisory Council, outlining areas of government interest and priorities’. The official response, 20 months later, was ‘Agreed’. But this doesn’t mean a statement will be developed. After ‘Agreed’, the response added, ‘The Government welcomes the opportunity to outline its key interests and priorities to help clarify the National Archives’ role to both government and the public’. Seriously.

A third failure concerned an issue which returns us to a fundamental professional intellectual and governance failure of the Archives and to an extent, of Tune. For decades, the Archives has believed its role protecting the people’s record in the digital age is best served by a conceptual fudge. Because, in the minds of agencies digital records are so difficult to separate from digital information and digital data, a compromising pretence is required. In defence of the Archives legislation, drafted in the pre-digital 1970s and early 80s, its definition of ‘Commonwealth record’ ironically can be read as allowing this, but it has encouraged Archives’ mission creep to be increasingly unsustainable as new digital complexities such as cyber security emerge.

For decades, despite a continuous decline in staffing, the Archives has claimed – rather than been unambiguously allocated – lead agency status for records, information and data policy standards and preservation across the machinery of government. The Tune review received submissions and reported on this very issue. It did not help. Tune’s very first recommendation urged

  • The National Archives of Australia be included in government decision-making bodies determining information management policy and standards

yet in Recommendation 4 Tune proposed, as if the Archives hadn’t already asumed it, that

  • The National Archives assume authority and responsibility for information management, recordkeeping and archiving across the Australian Government.

Professor Jenny Hocking, who battled the NAA for the release of Buckingham Palace records relating to the dismissal of the Whitlam government (Whitlam Institute)

The government’s overall response document was equally confused, referring to ‘records’ (over 70 times) and ‘information’ (over 40 times) but also using phrases like ‘records and information’, ‘information and data’, ‘records management’, and ‘information management’. As for the specific recommendations, essentially the government agreed to the Archives’ inclusion in discussions, and, lumping Recommendations 4 and 5 together, addressed Rec. 5 while completely ignoring the proposal quoted above that the Archives ‘assume authority’.

The Palace Letters High Court decision showed that the legislative meaning of terms like ‘record’ matters. Until the Archives Act is properly revised, and policy is thought through, the muddle will remain. It was certainly not resolved by Tune or by the response to his recommendations.

The bigger picture

What should we make of this rare moment when archives funding created headlines and political embarrassment? Keep some perspective, at least. Many praised the 1 July funding decision, and in the same breath warned of complacency. As Professional Historians Australia put it, ‘While this win should be celebrated and goes some way towards saving some most at-risk records in the immediate term, these funds still fall short of the $167.1 million recommended by the Tune Review’.[4]

Indeed. The irritation for the Morrison government – actually, just a single junior minister, was fleeting. ‘New normal’ service has long since resumed. The Archives has formed a Project Hub to urgently spend its windfall; its version of Brendan Nelson is preparing to leave the stage. All the COVID-related processes requiring proper recordkeeping and archiving remain invisible to public imagination. Debate over the place of Anzac in the nation’s soul (and now curriculum) continues. The Auditor-General still makes the usual ineffectual noises about poor recordkeeping, and Royal Commissions continue to show how fundamental records are to justice redress and accountability. Independent senators and ministerial staffers continue to exploit and frustrate FOI. Historians and writers continue to think TROVE is the answer.

At a deeper Commonwealth level, what has changed? For national cultural institutions the efficiency dividend, an absence of coordinating policy, unequal funding criteria and inconsistent portfolio placements still apply. Still, no one’s remit seems to cover the Frontier Wars. If the government’s response to Tune is an indicator – in which the Archives was lectured about cooperation with other institutions – limited understanding of libraries, archives and museums continues within government. As eminent audio-visual archivist Ray Edmondson quixotically argued, it is indeed ‘Time for another visionary moment’, but no one is holding their breath.[5]

Meanwhile, archival institutions, archivists and their supporters and researchers search in vain for a communication strategy which will ‘cut through’, one which shows we are all stakeholders, beneficiaries and complicit. And search for champions to apply it.

Briefly, the mercurial maverick writer and journalist Gideon Haigh seized the baton when, with historian Graeme Davison, he led a campaign to help the National Archives. Who has gleaned and will apply the lessons from this one flower which bloomed? Would an open letter and publicity work again? Could it convince a university collecting archives starved of staff and storage to rescue hundreds of metres of historical documents from a hundred-year-old failing Australian business? Could it stop the Jehovah’s Witnesses shredding compromising documents?

While we wait, the quest for an overarching coordinating framework for the creation and preservation of public community and private archives at all levels of the nation continues, the efforts in recent years of the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Committee to initiate action on a national documentary strategy demonstrating how elusive concrete results will be.

Trying to end optimistically and remembering that the National Archives is but one of nearly 500 Australian archives organisations, we might note two recent developments from Melbourne. A week after the Archives’ Tune funding was announced, the Victorian Pride Centre was opened in St Kilda. Though the Centre is intended to operate as a hub for organisations, businesses, and events, it will also house the Australian Queer Archives. The land was donated by a local council and the Victorian government provided $25m.

RG Menzies, prime minister 1949-66, whose government established the Commonwealth Archives Office in 1961, creating some records in his Parliament House office (NMA/NLA)

Then, opening later this year, based at the University of Melbourne and long in preparation, will be a Robert Menzies Institute intended in part to preserve relevant material and document his life and ideas and enabled by private donations and $7m. from the former Turnbull government. As Judith Brett noted during the Archives funding campaign, it was Menzies’ government which ‘established the precursor of today’s institution, the Commonwealth Archives Office, in 1961 so the records of the past could help guide the future’.[6] We shall see.

* Michael Piggott AM is a semi-retired archivist with many years’ experience and has been Chair of the (ACT) Territory Records Advisory Council. He has a chapter in The Honest History Book. In 2020, he contributed chapters to Community Archives, Community Spaces: Heritage, Memory and Identity (Bastian & Flinn, ed., Facet, 2020) and “All Shook Up”: The Archival Legacy of Terry Cook (SAA & ACA) and wrote the Australian chapter in Archival Silences, edited by Moss and Thomas. He has written many book reviews and other pieces for Honest History (use our Search engine), including a review of  I Wonder: The Life and Work of Ken Inglis, edited by Peter Browne and Seumas Spark.

Endnotes

[1] https://www.naa.gov.au/about-us/tune-review

[2] https://www.ag.gov.au/rights-and-protections/publications/australian-government-response-tune-review

[3] https://www.ag.gov.au/about-us/careers/statutory-appointments/national-archives-australia-director-general

[4] https://www.historians.org.au/news/2021/7/6/national-archives-of-australia-funding-campaign-and-tune-review

[5] https://insidestory.org.au/time-for-another-visionary-moment-at-the-nfsa/

[6] https://theconversation.com/in-neglecting-the-national-archives-the-morrison-government-turns-its-back-on-the-future-162599

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