Parliamentary committee recommends national resting place for Indigenous remains – but resists temptation to push hard for corporate dollars for national institutions

Update 20 May 2019: Paul Daley in Guardian Australia makes a useful comparison.

Update 17 April 2019: Gina Fairley in ArtsHub comments.

Update 5 April 2019: Canberra Times story on the puzzlement of MOADOPH on what the report said about it. The RiotACT story on the report generally.

Update 5 April 2019: Ramona Wadi in Eureka Street on Indigenous remains keeping in South Australia.

The Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories tabled its report (page 72 in draft Hansard) in the House of Representatives yesterday. The report, Telling Australia’s Story – and Why It’s Important: Report on the Inquiry into Canberra’s National Institutions, follows an inquiry last year which received 83 submissions.

National resting place

Notable among the Inquiry’s twenty recommendations was Recommendation 13:

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government relocate the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) from its current location on the Acton Peninsula to a new location in Canberra’s Parliamentary Zone; and expand the remit and facilities of AIATSIS to constitute a comprehensive national institution focused on the history, culture and heritage of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This should include public exhibition facilities, and a national resting place for repatriated ancestral remains that cannot immediately return to Country. The institution should be developed under the leadership and in comprehensive consultation with Indigenous Australians.

On the concept of a national resting place, the Inquiry report said this (paras 4.69-70);

The concept responds to the removal for more than 150 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestral remains from their Indigenous Country, to be placed in museums, universities and private collections in Australia and overseas. While the return of ancestors to their traditional lands is extremely important to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, in some cases their exact location of origin can not be identified. In other cases, traditional owners may not have suitable land for their reburial on Country.

At present, remains which cannot be returned to Country are housed mostly in the National Museum of Australia, and also in some state museums. Indigenous people have expressed concern for some time, however, that museums are not a culturally appropriate location for their ancestors. They have sought the establishment of a national resting place where these ancestral remains could be housed in a way that recognises their deep significance, accords them respect and dignity, and allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to visit and pay respect to them in culturally appropriate ways.

Other recommendations

Honest History made a submission to the Inquiry (submission 14), followed its proceedings closely, and was disappointed not to be invited to give evidence at a hearing of the Committee. We noted that the terms of reference of the Inquiry seemed to be pushing national institutions towards over-reliance on external sponsorship, and that much of the interest of committee members seemed to be in how to attract more tourists to Canberra rather than in striking a proper balance between this imperative and the national heritage role of the institutions. Despite these features of the Inquiry, its recommendations turned out to be reasonably sober and thoughtful.

See, for example, Recommendation 1 that national institutions ‘develop and articulate a shared narrative that directly connects them with Australia’s story’. This might help to neutralise self-serving boasts like the Australian War Memorial’s oft-repeated, ‘Every nation has its story. This is our story.’ Recommendation 2, for collective branding and marketing, is a natural corollary.

Recommendation 4, for a review of the Department of Education’s PACER (Parliament and Civics Education Rebate), is welcome. Such a review could look at why a visit to the War Memorial, as well as to Parliament House and the National Electoral Education Centre, is mandatory if a visiting school is to receive a rebate.

There are also useful recommendations for developing a business case to establish a national history museum, for finding ways to offset the impact of the efficiency dividend on small agencies, and for a whole-of-government digitisation strategy. Hairy-chested recommendations that institutions chase the corporate dollar are fortunately absent although the Committee’s terms of reference about ‘cultivating private sector support’ and ‘developing other income streams’ are pursued in a judicious discussion at paras 5.83 to 5.100 of its report.

Honest History’s concerns about aspects of the War Memorial’s pursuit of corporate funding were briefly paraphrased (para 5.95) as ‘ Some [submitters] also cautioned that there should be transparency around the sources of funding’, with an endnote referring to page 8 of our submission, where we said this:

19. Eagerness to tap corporate funding sources should be accompanied by best practice in ethics and transparency. National institutions should each develop and publish a code of practice for public and corporate donations to the institution. This would clarify what donors may receive in terms of recognition and other benefits in return for their contributions.

20. The representatives of two corporate donors to the Australian War Memorial – Boeing and Kingold – received Memorial Fellowships (plaques, ceremonially awarded and accompanied by an inscription on the Memorial’s wall). But the Memorial needs to clarify the process by which such recognition is granted, whether it is available to other donors and, if so, what scale of donation might lead to such recognition.

21. It is our very strong view that greater transparency in these matters is required, including full disclosure of the amounts donated. National institutions also need to perform due diligence on donors to ensure that their conduct and character meet the standards of probity expected in Australian public life, and that they do not constitute a security risk.

The Committee said nothing about recent reports of the War Memorial’s fundraising practices. Some observers will conclude that the Committee missed an opportunity to make a firm statement on standards in this area.

David Stephens

4 April 2019 updated

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