Australian Government’s About-Face on Archives

In a startling about-face, Australia’s center-right government has announced that it will provide modest funding for emergency maintenance of the country’s National Archives.

The funding responds to a review — Functional and Efficiency Review of the National Archives of Australia — that the government took 15 months to release after its completion in late January 2020. The government’s handling of the review has sparked protests from many Archives users and observers. Some noted that one study had estimated that the National Archives is 1,400 years behind schedule if it is to preserve even its current holdings.

The most recent review was by David Tune, a former senior civil servant. He stated bluntly that “budget and staffing reductions are affecting our capacity to perform our fundamental role of securing, preserving, maintaining, and making accessible the authentic and essential records of the decisions and actions of government, while providing high standards of service delivery that all Australians should expect from their National Archives.”

He drew particular attention to audiovisual holdings: “Among our urgent priorities are preserving the unique at-risk collections that tell the Australian story, including tens of thousands of deteriorating audio visual items that could be lost as soon as 2025.” Technological obsolescence also loomed as a severe problem, he found.

Those jeopardized audiovisual materials include, for example, recordings of threatened or now-lost indigenous languages and cultural practices, historical surveillance films captured by federal security agencies, and audio recordings from inquiries into the decades-long practice of removing “the Stolen Generation” of Aboriginal children from their families.

Tune recommended a modest $AU67.7-million increase in funding over seven years, enough to digitize just the most at-risk holdings.

The federal government’s budget, handed down in May 2021, provided no increase. But this week two government ministers announced that they would provide the $AU67.7-million, after all. The country’s attorney general and assistant attorney general, in a joint announcement, said the money would boost the National Archives’ critical functions as the custodian of Australia’s history.

The ministers said the $67.7-million will go towards preservation of the most at-risk materials through an accelerated four-year digitization project. That would partly address backlogs in applications for access to material. Some of the money will be invested in cybersecurity and digitized portals for accession of records.

The most at-risk records, the government said, included many on paper, maps, and photographs, as well as motion picture films on nitrate and acetate film.

In May 2021, one of the two government officials who announced this week’s new funding, Amanda Stoker, a junior minister of the conservative government, created a storm of protest among archivists and archive users when she told a parliamentary hearing that the deterioration of Archives holdings was “business as usual” because “time marches on and all sources degrade over time.” (See “Let Them Preserve Cake.”)

She said deterioration and loss was “part of the usual process of the work of the Archives.”

And, she added, alluding to charges of budget neglect, the National Archives should solicit philanthropic support to replace or supplement government funding of preservation of its records.

In response, more than 150 prominent Australian cultural figures issued an open letter to the Liberal-National Party coalition government of Scott Morrison, about what they viewed as a deploring neglect of management of the Archives, and the government’s attitude to the preservation of historical records as reflected in the disdainful tone of Stoker’s comments.

The signers urged Morrison “to stop the neglect of the National Archives and protect the nation’s history.”

The letter, whose signers from varied political viewpoints include two Nobel laureates and three Australians of the Year, came after years of concern about the government’s management of the country’s historical record.

Alluding to some of the Tune review’s findings, the letter writers charged that the government’s disdainful response to Tune’s reporting that significant sections of Australia’s archives were “dissolving down to nothing” illustrated “the historical nihilism of the Liberal Party.”

They wrote that, through successive cuts framed as “efficiency dividends,” the government had “weakened the National Archives’ capacity to undertake its essential work.

This week, in announcing its belated funding, Stoker and her colleagues said they would respond to the Tune review more fully, at some point. Among the review’s recommendations was to make more of the Archives’ collections available “through innovative and engaging experiences in a new, purpose-built National Archives public building,” to replace the Archives’ current home in a repurposed government office building.

Some observers are casting the government’s reversal as a pre-election effort to cover an earlier decision that could have hurt it at the polls.

In a statement announcing the $AU67.7-million funding, Stoker and colleagues said that they were providing for the Archives’ “immediate needs.” But Tune handed the government his review, in which he detailed those immediate needs, back in late January 2020, 15 months before the Morrison government released it in May 2021.

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