Funding from the National Archives is welcome but no longer needed to preserve Australia’s history

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When one of Australia’s most experienced public servants, David Tune, led a thorough examination of the funding needs of the National Archives, he stressed that a piecemeal approach to safeguarding the nation’s archives would never be sufficient.

Structural reform was essential. This is important to keep in mind, because while the recently announced federal provision of $ 67.7 million to preserve the most at-risk items in Australian history is certainly welcome, much more is needed.

The National Archives collection includes deteriorated images of Italian prisoners of war in Australia. Credit:National Archives of Australia

In the months that followed Age revealed that many treasured items in the Archives’ collection were at risk of disintegration due to a lack of funding and resources, historians have expressed outrage, dismay and frustration. After the Archives raised just an additional $ 700,000 in May’s federal budget, tens of thousands of dollars were donated by the community. The suggestion of Amanda Stoker, Deputy Minister of the Attorney General, that the government had “nothing embarrassing” was deaf.

The Morrison government received Tune’s review in January 2020, but it did not release the report until March of this year. While the government has yet to release its response, it has come under considerable public pressure to fund the most obviously urgent aspect of Tune’s recommendations. In particular, the $ 67.7 million intended for the preservation of deteriorating objects has been allocated over four years, not seven, which will relieve the administration of the Archives.

But there were three key elements in the initial phases of the structural reform proposed by Mr. Tune: the preservation of seriously deteriorating documents, films, audio recordings and artifacts; the establishment of a fifth generation digitization system; and give the Archives the capacity and authority to manage records in all government agencies. Tune’s review said all of these priorities were the “most pressing priorities.” Establishing a fifth-generation digitization system that would bring the Archives to world-class standards would cost around $ 167 million, but it’s critical.

It is certain that if the government feels the need to inject more than half a billion dollars in expansion of the Canberra war memorial – ostensibly for reasons of military heritage – he could drop half of this sum in the archives.

The National Archives building in Canberra.

The National Archives building in Canberra.

Behind the predicament of the National Archives is the pressure exerted by successive governments for government and quasi-government agencies to constantly cut corners. It has been an ongoing budget theme for about three decades. But the 2015-2016 federal budget requirement of an additional 3% “Efficiency dividend” by cultural institutions, including the Archives, which come under the prosecution, has been particularly damaging.

Trying to squeeze agencies, especially small ones, for budget savings ultimately leads to disaster: there is a point of no return. And applying uniform principles of cost reduction to institutions, regardless of their individual characteristics and requirements, amounts to poor and potentially reckless administration. In the case of the National Archives, they must – by law – constantly expand their collections to obtain, preserve, preserve and publish the historical archives of the nation. Digitization and preservation require investment.

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