Books, PhDs under threat as scholars fear national archives ‘starved of funds’

“Once you’ve written a really big book on the reserve powers, that will be the work that everyone will use for the next 50 years.

“Once history is written, it’s written.”

The legal expert is one of dozens of top academics and archivists who have complained of extraordinary delays and abandoned research projects ahead of an all-encompassing review into the national archives.

The Tune Review, led by former Department of Finance secretary David Tune, has archives staff and users sounding the alarm over an institution they say has long been neglected by the federal government to the point where it is “starved of funds”, haemorrhaging staff and at risk of losing undigitised records.

In the years since Twomey first requested those documents for her book, the national archives shed 74 jobs, had its budget increase at a rate below inflation, and saw its backlog of record applications blow out to nearly 25,000.

The Nicol family, British migrants to Australia, 1950. Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.Credit:National Archives of Australia

“There are stories simply not being told because of these archives,” Professor Frank Bongiorno, head of history at the Australian National University, says.

“I would strongly argue that contemporary history and particularly archive-based contemporary history is weaker in Australia than any number of other comparable countries partly because of this very problem.”

Bongiorno was himself a victim of the delays and had to publish his latest book The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia before important documents were made available four years after he had asked the archives for them.

He says some colleagues have resorted to obtaining documents through Japan’s national archives system because they feared seeking Australian copies would be fruitless.

In one case another colleague, former Deakin University history professor Klaus Neumann waited 12 years before an archived document was released to him.

Neumann is currently waiting for 153 files to be released by the archives – 20 of which he applied for more than four years ago – and has been forced to extend a government-funded research project on Australia’s contribution to immigration.

“Historians at Australian universities strongly discourage history honours, masters and PhD students from embarking on research projects that rely on the examination of archival files held by the National Archives,” Neumann writes in a submission to the Tune Review.

“This means not only that many aspects of Australian history remain under-researched. It also means that new generations of Australian historians are no longer trained to do projects that are based on a critical analysis of historical government documents.”

Twomey agrees, saying “few research students are game to commence a thesis that is dependent upon archival research, and few supervisors encourage such work because of the risk that it will not be able to be completed.”

She adds that perhaps the archives, currently run by a former Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation bureaucrat, cherish secrecy.

“There is a culture of excessive secrecy that involves the redaction of files, the removal of folios or the closing of files for no rational or legally permitted reason,” Twomey says.

Twomey requested two documents in 2012 relating the Gough Whitlam’s 1975 dismissal, and she says it “beggars belief” that they are yet to be released.

“Either we have a functional archival body that provides access to primary records concerning pivotal issues in Australia’s history, or we do not. At the moment, we do not.”

Archives director-general David Fricker, who was deputy director general at ASIO, admits his organisation could do better for researchers, but stresses that in deciding whether to release historical documents, its value to academia is just one consideration: national security and individual privacy must also be considered.

Academics say Fricker strays in favour of government too much, and believe the current record release procedure hands great power to self-interested government agencies.

The national archives has the final say on what is released, but often waits for advice from agencies such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or the Attorney-General’s department.

There, academics argue, public servants twiddle their thumbs, drawing out the archive process for years in hopes they can avoid releasing not only sensitive documents but embarrassing ones too.

“There can be a natural tension in making these records more public, and letting these agencies maintain the sort of confidentiality they need,” Fricker says.

“Often we are waiting for advice because we are consulting agencies.”

Fricker notes that 94 per cent of applications are released in full, and fewer than 1 per cent are returned fully redacted.

Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II signs the visitors' book at Parliament House, while Prime Minister Paul Keating and Parliament House officials look on, February 1992.

Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II signs the visitors’ book at Parliament House, while Prime Minister Paul Keating and Parliament House officials look on, February 1992. Credit:National Archives of Australia

A breakdown of applications reveals that the vast majority of documents awaiting approval have been requested by a handful of individuals.

More than half of all documents requested at the end of March this year came from four individuals, and 103 individuals are responsible for 19,879 of the nearly 25,000 current applications.

“That’s a good thing,” Fricker is quick to say. “I don’t regard any of those applications as vexatious or unworthy or unwanted.”

And Fricker insists there is a way to make everyone happy, and believes it will come from the Tune Review.

“Like technology – if we could acquire and implement some advanced digital technology for problem, using emerging tech like artificial intelligence, we could achieve a great productivity improvement in the way we can examine and inspect these documents.”

Implicit in Fricker’s answers is the need for more funds – something that many academics, including Twomey, who says the archives are “starved of funds”, call for.

The archives’ $92 million budget makes it less resourced than the National Gallery of Australia and National Library of Australia – but better resourced than Old Parliament House and the National Portrait Gallery of Australia.

The government did not respond to questions about the archives’ budget.

The Tune Review is due to hand down its report in August.

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