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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Joshua Black, Political Historian and Administrator Officer, Australian Historical Association, Australian National University

Australia has had its fair share of public record-keeping controversies in recent years. Some have been mere farce, as in the case of two formerly government-owned filing cabinets (containing classified documents) sold at auction in Canberra in 2018.

The recent (and more grievous) failure of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to transfer 14 documents about Australia’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War to the National Archives of Australia might also fit in this category.

Other cases have raised thorny questions about ownership and access to the contentious corners of our national past. Academic and author Jenny Hocking’s successful litigation to secure the release of former governor-general Sir John Kerr’s correspondence with Buckingham Palace has led to new interpretations of the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government. It also represents a significant victory against a transnational network of royal secrecy.

Big questions about record-keeping and ownership remain. How does Australia manage the records of its former political leaders? Who donates, collects, preserves and governs these repositories?

Our new research article examines Australia’s ad hoc, discretionary governance of politicians’ papers. These records matter, not just for researchers but also for the Australian public’s understanding of politics, past and future.

Who owns politicians’ papers?

In theory, records created by ministers in their executive capacity are Commonwealth property. This means they should be transferred to the National Archives of Australia when leaving office. In practice, political offices contain a bewildering mixture of Commonwealth and “personal records” (the latter encompassing nearly everything that is not part of their ministerial duties).

As they leave office, ministers and prime ministers have often gathered documents into boxes and departed with them. Some have used these records to furnish a tell-all memoir. In other cases, ministerial advisers have taken custody of their employer’s records in the interim, storing them until a more permanent home could be arranged.

Before the 1980s, the National Library of Australia and the fledgling Commonwealth Archives office competed for control of politicians’ papers. Relations between the institutions “were often frosty”. Wily politicians such as former prime minister Billy McMahon knew how to extract from that situation maximum personal control over their records.

In 1983, a new Archives Act provided for the Australian Archives (later National Archives of Australia) to ensure the “proper management” of and “public access to” Commonwealth records. The act, alongside the Freedom of Information Act, was intended to ensure greater transparency in public administration.

The rise of prime ministerial libraries changed the landscape again. Since the 1990s, these have been established in collaboration with Australian universities in honour of Alfred Deakin, John Curtin, Robert Menzies, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and John Howard. (Not all contain original papers of the relevant prime minister.)

Some have welcomed these institutions and their valuable contributions to record-keeping in the “public interest”. Others have criticised what can seem an avowedly American influence on Australian political culture.

Consulting the political past

Ownership of political records is one thing, accessibility another entirely. While all of the institutions that house political records have vast record-keeping expertise, problems with acquisition and transparency remain.

Notwithstanding the legal requirement to deposit official material with the archives, politicians don’t always make for punctual depositors. In October 2018, for example, the archives advised a Senate committee that former prime ministers Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull had not yet deposited their official diaries with the archives.

Delaying deposit makes records more vulnerable to accidental destruction. Former prime minister Paul Keating reportedly lost “the Australian equivalent of a presidential library” when a fire damaged his storage container in Sydney in 2003.

The story is even more complex for personal papers. Discretionary instruments of deposit govern these personal records. Individuals can impose long closure periods or stipulate extra caveats on access.

In theory, these restrictions can’t apply to official records. However, our inquiries show personal and official papers are often inextricably mixed. This could lead to these extra restrictions being imposed on official records.

Those restrictions can sometimes be formidable. An FOI request revealed Fraser sent his personal papers to the Australian Archives in 1983 on the condition that he or his wife would determine access. After their death “access may be granted to serious students of history [who have] an established professional standing and reputation”.

Ironically, it was Fraser himself who removed those papers 20 years later. He sent them to an eponymous centre at the University of Melbourne for greater accessibility, winning something of a “coup” against the archives in the process.

Institutional priorities also matter. The “records of former governors-general and prime ministers” are the archives’ first acquisition priorities for personal papers. This inherently favours an “official” view of the political past and deprioritises the women, Indigenous, independent and minor-party MPs.

Prime ministerial libraries have been a blessing for many researchers. These are smaller and often more responsive institutions staffed by some of the best archivists, embedded in the intellectual life of their respective communities.

But problems can sometimes emerge when researchers imagine they are dealing with a complete body of records, not realising the archives, usually, still retain the official documents that complement the personal collections. Further, prime ministerial centres can feed a perception of politics in which individual leadership matters above all else, and larger systems and processes are of secondary importance.

Where to from here?

Clearly, records that are truly personal must be treated as such. But so much of the primary record of Australia’s political history has been managed in an ad hoc, discretionary way. What steps might be taken to protect the Australian public’s right to know its own past?

First, the Archives Act could be amended to strengthen Commonwealth ownership of materials created in and received by ministerial offices. This should include documents created by political staffers. Currently, advisers are restrained from destroying official documents. It is unclear, though, how many documents escape the official departmental document registration systems.

Second, we need greater transparency around the instruments of deposit and access restrictions that govern personal collections. It is one thing to protect a document, but another thing entirely to conceal its existence.

Finally, the Archives Act would benefit from amendments that would prevent unreasonable access restrictions on political records, even if they are contained in personal collections.

These institutions are tasked with preserving Australia’s collective memory. Excessive restrictions make life harder for researchers and archivists alike. They are also fundamentally undemocratic.

The Conversation

Dr Joshua Black holds a Palace Letters Fellowship with the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University.

Daniel Casey does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Access to documents about Australia’s political history is fraught and inadequate. It needs to change –