The Guardian • Issue #1969

What value has the country’s keeper of our history?

It says a lot about the values and priorities of the Morrison government when the body responsible for protecting Australia’s historical records is forced to go to the public with a begging bowl to save hundreds of thousands of important historical records. These archives are a permanent record of Australia’s heritage, carefully selected based on their enduring value.

The National Archives of Australia (NAA) is a treasure trove of historical records, some predating federation. They are a vital source of information for historians, researchers, and members of the public. There are millions of items in the archives, the overwhelming majority available for public scrutiny. There are more than eleven million photographic items and 400,000 records on magnetic tapes or film that could be lost within five to ten years without an adequate funding boost.

These records include tapes of the Stolen Generation Royal Commission, nuclear tests at Maralinga, war records, war-time prime ministerial speeches, ASIO surveillance footage, original films of early Australian Antarctic research expeditions, and rare audio tapes of Indigenous languages. Some of these are in languages at risk of being lost.

Time is running out. These records – paper, photos, posters, audio and cassette tapes, video cassettes, and artefacts – are disintegrating. The few remaining tape machines and other equipment on which to play recordings so that they can be digitalised are no longer produced and are in scarce supply. More than ninety per cent of Australia’s audio-visual tape collection at the National Archives of Australia could be lost by 2025, the NAA warns. Once lost, it is gone forever.

“It’s internationally accepted that by the year 2025, the machinery that runs this stuff will have essentially failed, and the people who can maintain this stuff will have essentially disappeared from the workforce,” NAA director David Fricker warns.


Over the past three decades successive governments have starved the NAA of funds to carry out this work. The NAA has been subjected to the same “efficiency dividends” as other government arts and cultural institutions. As a result, approximately twenty-five percent of staff have been lost in recent years.

In the May budget, the government allocated $700,000 with nothing for additional staffing. An extensive review was conducted last year by an experienced public servant David Tune into the NAA’s funding requirements. Tune found that it would cost more than $400mil to preserve the archive’s delicate collection and recommended that the government provide $67.7mil to preserve the most at-risk items over the coming years.

The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and the ABC played an important role in exposing the huge funding shortfalls and the crisis facing the national archives. Anger and outrage over the measly $700,000 and the NAA going cap in hand to the public forced the government to provide an additional $67.7mil over four years.

The $67.7mil was announced on the 30th of June and is expected to save around 300,000 records. It is a welcome reprieve but remains far short of the more than $400mil to save the remaining endangered records.

“The Archives will likely need further injections of funding to fulfil its critical role in our democracy. These archives belong to all of us; it is vital that all Australian citizens can access records of government decision-making,” Michelle Arrow, co-editor of History Australia said.

True to its neoliberal outlook, the government hates science and takes a philistine attitude towards culture and the arts. It neglects anything that is not going to spin massive profits for its mates in the big end of town. The NAA’s cultural and heritage attributes are anathema to the Coalition government.


The government has begun a $500mil program to redevelop the Australian War Memorial at a time when the NAA, which houses a substantial number of war records, needs an additional $400mil plus. This includes the refurbishment of the main building, bulldozing of the ANZAC Hall, its replacement, and a public space.

Since the project was first announced, the Australian War Memorial redevelopment has met with strong opposition across Australia. The Australia Institute (TAI), a progressive thinktank, carried out a nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 Australians to ascertain their views on the War Memorial development.

TAI asked respondents what they would prefer the money be spent on. They found that only thirteen per cent of Australians would prefer the funds to be spent on the redevelopment of the War Memorial.

Twenty-six per cent (one in four) indicated a preference for Veterans’ support services. Almost half indicated government services like health and education. One of the suggestions raised in response was to direct the money to the NAA.


“The Australian War Memorial in its current form encourages reflection and tribute,” Admiral (Ret’d) Chris Barrie, former Chief of Defence Force 1998-2002, told TAI.

“As Chief of the Defence Force, I saw the solemn impact that the memorial had on foreign military visitors. It is, and should remain, a commemoration of those who lost their lives and to those who survived but were deeply affected by war.

“This proposed expansion would see it become a place of cheap tourist entertainment. It is unconscionable,” Barrie said.

Major General (Ret’d) Steve Gower and former War Memorial Director said, “Given the lack of support and the damage to heritage, there is no excuse to go ahead with the project under the guise of supporting veterans. We should not be building a Khaki Disneyland.”

They are just two of a number of former military leaders who strongly oppose the half-billion-dollar project. If a “Khaki Disneyland” for tourists is the aim, then it is completely disrespectful to the families and military who lost their lives or suffer ongoing traumas associated with war.

The NAA also houses numerous military records. From 1942 to 1952, the National Library and the War Memorial shared responsibility for Commonwealth records – the Memorial for combat-related records, and the Library for the remainder. In 1961 the Archives Division of the Library gained its independence, first as the Commonwealth Archives Office and then later as the NAA.

It has a large collection of material relating to every conflict Australia was involved in from 1899 to 1975. There are navy, air force and army service records; veterans case files; World War II war crimes; World War II internee, alien, and prisoner of war records; war Cabinet records; national service; amongst others.


The NAA provides extensive services to historians, academics and the general public. It has a searchable website and database. It has learning and outreach programs as well as touring exhibitions.

Its ground-breaking 1993 exhibition, Between Two Worlds, was developed in consultation with Aboriginal communities. It was about the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families in the Northern Territory. It toured nationally. Other joint projects with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples followed.

The archives contain more than 20,000 records relating to First Nations’ peoples and their history, including personal records and government policies. These include material on:

  • The 1967 referendum to change the Constitution to include First Nations’ people as citizens
  • British nuclear tests at Maralinga
  • The National Archives’ Reconciliation Action Plan
  • Royal Commission into deaths in custody records
  • The Wave Hill walk-off
  • A petition to King George V for Indigenous representation in Federal Parliament.

The government must provide the more than $400mil still required. This could come from the funds allocated for redevelopment of the War Memorial. Alternatively, it would be appropriate to redirect $500 million from the bloated war machine referred to as defence expenditure in the budget papers.

As the NAA says: “Today it is the memory of the nation, safeguarding Australian history into the future.”

If we don’t know our memories, our history, how can we understand where we are today or plan for the future?

To change the world, we must know it.

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