Hocking, Jenny: Archival secrets and hidden histories

Jenny Hocking

Archival secrets and hidden histories‘, Griffith Review 67: Matters of Trust, February 2020

Access is the pivot between archives and history; it is the filter through which an archival record steps out from a shadowy past and becomes part of the historical record. It is this nexus between history as lived and history as written that makes public access absolutely fundamental to our knowledge and understanding of history. Decisions on access, on what we can and cannot see, effectively determine what we know about our own history.

What purpose is there in collecting and preserving such significant historical records if they remain closed to us? How can we know our own history if we cannot access the documents that would reveal it to us?

The piece moves from a glance at the early history of the National Archives to its straitened circumstances today, beset by budget cuts, job losses and delays in access for clients. There is much on the author’s problems getting access to records associated with the Dismissal in 1975: based on limited Archives releases, ‘[i]t is now untenable to claim that Kerr acted alone or that he gave no warning to others of what he might do’. The role of High Court Justice, Sir Anthony Mason, was crucial on the Canberra end.

On how the Archives goes about its business, Hocking concludes thus:

The Archives has increasingly adopted an approach to public access steeped in a culture of security rather than in the presumption of public access that underpinned its foundation. Securitisation brings with it a cautionary approach to the release of controversial, or even potentially controversial, documents. The default position is one of closure or, more commonly, relegation to the archival limbo of “withheld pending advice” (WPA), neither closed nor open, at times for years on end.

While Hocking’s piece focuses mainly on the ‘Palace Letters’ case before the High Court of Australia, in which the National Archives will be defending its continued closure of letters sent to the Queen about the Dismissal, she also points to more general aspects of the National Archives today, contrasting it with its predecessor the Australian Archives when PM Gough Whitlam appointed an eminent historian, Professor Robert Neale, as its first Director-General in 1974. The NAA’s handling of requests for access to records today is highly variable, with many requests dealt with speedily while others can be delayed for years. In 2019, the Morrison government announced a functional and efficiency review of the Archives led by former Finance secretary David Tune. Many submissions (including from Honest History associates Michael Piggott, Peter Stanley and David Stephens) criticised the Archives’ management of access. More on Tune.

See also: Anne Twomey on the High Court case; Hocking again on the case; ABC podcast, The Eleventh, including Hocking’s interview with key player Mason, who advised a nervous Governor-General, Sir John Kerr.

Update 30 May 2020: High Court decision opens the way to release of the letters.

24 February 2020 updated


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