- Parliamentary Business
- Senators & Members
- News & Events
- About Parliament
- Visit Parliament
Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works
New preservation facility and refurbishment of the existing facility for the National Archives of Australia at Mitchell, Australian Capital Territory
- Parl No.
- Committee Name
Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works
ACTING CHAIR (Mr Forrest)
Secker, Patrick, MP
Gallacher, Sen Alex
Urquhart, Sen Anne
- System Id
Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Table Of ContentsDownload PDF
Content WindowParliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works - 09/07/2012 - New preservation facility and refurbishment of the existing facility for the National Archives of Australia at Mitchell, Australian Capital Territory
Go To First Hit
BOYLE, Mr Michael, Project Manager, National Archives of Australia
ELLIS, Dr Stephen, Assistant Director-General, Operations and Preservation, National Archives of Australia
PERRIN, Ms Jennifer, Service Group Manager, Project Management, GHD Pty Ltd
RICHARD, Mr Matt, Director, Rider Levett Bucknall, ACT Pty Ltd
ROSS, Mr Bill, Director, Bill Ross and Associates trading as RPL Pty Ltd
WATSON, Ms Cheryl, Assistant Director-General Corporate Services, National Archives of Australia
Committee met at 15:34
ACTING CHAIR ( Mr Forrest ): I declare open this public hearing of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works' inquiry into the new National Archives Preservation Facility and refurbishment of the existing Mitchell facility for the National Archives of Australia, Mitchell ACT. I thank the witnesses for the inspection we have already conducted. That was a very useful exercise—seeing is believing.
I now call representatives of the National Archives of Australia. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I need to remind you that these hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament. Consequently, they warrant the same respect as proceedings of the parliament itself. I remind witnesses that giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament—always a very ominous introduction.
I would like to offer you all an opportunity to make brief opening remarks. We will have in camera discussion later, but we leave in your hands what you want discussed in the public arena, and what you would prefer to have discussed in camera, in response to any questions you might receive from us. We leave that decision to you. Do you have any opening remarks?
Ms Watson : Yes. I would like to thank the committee for offering this opportunity to make opening remarks. Thank you for attending our tour this afternoon. By way of background, the Archives' charter is to assist Commonwealth agencies in managing their information management needs and to preserve and make available to the public the archival resources of the Commonwealth. A small proportion of the records generated by Commonwealth agencies, currently estimated at between five and eight per cent, have an archival value that justifies their ongoing preservation. The Archives' ability to meet its legislative responsibilities is dependent on suitable storage capacity being available to enable it to accept transfers of records from Australian government agencies and to store those records in optimal temperature and humidity conditions for their long-term preservation and availability.
Despite the fact that many records are now being digitised and many agencies are starting to transfer digital records to the Archives, the need to safely store paper and audiovisual records remains high at this time. Based on the limited available capacity of existing facilities and the current and expected rate of transfers over the next two to three years, the Archives is currently expecting that its major preservation and storage facilities would be full by 2015. A 2010 survey of the holdings of paper records by Commonwealth agencies revealed that there is a significant backlog of paper records—165 shelf kilometres out of a total of 1,364 shelf kilometres held by agencies that should be transferred to the Archives. The survey also revealed that the backlog is likely to grow at 5.5 shelf kilometres per year.
The Archives currently has two preservation and storage facilities in the ACT, the Mitchell facility and the Greenway facility. The Mitchell repository will be retained and refurbished subject to reaching agreeable terms with the landlord and the Greenway facility will be relinquished when the lease expires in March 2017.
To address the Archives' storage pressures, the backlog of records with agencies and the ongoing growth in paper records, the Archives is implementing two strategies. The first strategy relates to the two projects before the committee today, together with a third closely linked project that the Archives will fund from its existing capital budget. Together these will provide much-needed additional preservation and storage capacity that will ensure that the Archives can continue to accept transfers of paper and audiovisual records from Commonwealth agencies. The additional capacity will mean that, based on the current projections, the Archives is able to accept transfers from agencies until 2031. The internally funded third project, an upgrade to part of the Archives' Sydney repository, is a medium works project and was notified to the committee separately on 18 June. The three projects will be staged over eight years so that transfers from agencies can continue seamlessly, risk to the records is carefully managed and disruptions to staff are minimised. The projects are also subject to the independent gateway review process.
The second strategy is the implementation of the Australian Government Digital Transition Policy, which was released in July 2011. The policy aims to move all Commonwealth agencies towards digital records management. Digital records management means that the majority of records are created, stored and managed digitally, and where possible incoming paper records are scanned so that new paper files are not created. The policy requires Commonwealth agencies to take a number of actions, including securing senior leadership support to drive cultural change, investing in skilled staff and ensuring their systems have appropriate functionality to manage the records they contain for as long as needed.
The Archives has also developed a digital continuity plan to guide Commonwealth agencies on the ongoing management of digital information. Additional practical advice is available from the Archives' website and many Commonwealth agencies plan to move towards digital records management in the next three to five years. The Archives is consulting with agencies to identify strategies to ensure that that movement is sustained and that success is achieved. The Mitchell facility currently houses a digital archive. The digital archive will be moved to the new National Archives Preservation Facility, and additional space to allow future expansion for that service is provided. Together these strategies will address the Archives immediate need for increased storage while, at the same time, over the medium term addressing the move to digital information management across the Commonwealth which over time should limit the growth of paper records and therefore the need for large capacity paper repositories in the future.
The National Archives Preservation Facility will be a new, purpose-built, preservation and storage facility. It will be delivered by precommitment lease with a private-sector developer, following an open two-stage procurement process. The developer will design, construct, fit-out, maintain and own the new facility to meet the Archives' functional requirements. The precommitment lease will be on a turnkey, ready-to-occupy basis that will include base building, integrated fit-out, including part of the shelving, and facilities maintenance under a single lease, which is expected to be for a term of about 30 years. Existing shelving and specialised map and plan cabinets will be refurbished and relocated to the new facility and it is expected that 80 per cent of the total Greenway shelving will be able to be reused in the building. The reuse is an environmental and cost-effective solution for a substantial part of the shelving for the new building.
As outlined in the statement of evidence, the preferred site for the new facility is 30 Vickers Street, Mitchell, in the ACT. The site is close to a number of our cultural agency colleagues: the War Memorial, the National Museum and the National Film and Sound Archive off-site repositories. In order to locate the new facility on a site that meets the required technical specifications, a value-for-money selection process has been undertaken, culminating in identifying the preferred site and agreeing the price. The Archives are currently negotiating the option agreement on the Vickers Street site. Subject to reaching that agreement and PWC consideration, the option will be transferred to the successful developer.
The new building requirements are set out in a comprehensive functional design brief that has been developed over a number of years in consultation with staff. The design brief will be a key document in the precommitment lease procurement process. The program for the National Archives Preservation Facility is to commence the procurement process in late 2012 and to engage a successful precommitment lease tenderer in mid-2014. The sale of the site will then be completed with the successful tenderer. Construction is planned to start in early 2015 and be completed by mid-2016—a period of 18 months. The Archives will occupy from 1 July 2016, with staff and record relocations to be completed by 2017—over a nine to 12 month basis.
The second part of the project is the Mitchell building refurbishment. The building was built in the late seventies and by 2017 will be 35 years old. While the Archives and the landlord endeavour to maintain the building services, the building, plant and equipment are well past their useful life. In addition to this there is asbestos in a number of building elements, including the vinyl floor tiles throughout the building and these must be removed. It is therefore necessary to refurbish the building to meet current building code requirements and contemporary building standards. On completion of the work, the building will provide accommodation for 75 shelf-kilometres of paper records. The refurbished Mitchell facility will have storage capacity to accept transfers of records from agencies for approximately 12 years to 2031.
The refurbishment is subject to negotiations with the landlord for a new lease. There are obviously some market sensitivities in preserving the Archives' negotiating position prior to these negotiations commencing. Subject to reaching agreeable terms, refurbishment construction is planned to start in mid-2017, when the building will be vacant, and to be completed by mid-2019.
The Archives believes that the National Archives preservation facility and the Mitchell refurbishment projects are cost-effective solutions to provide safe, modern, energy efficient facilities that will ensure that the archival resources of the Commonwealth are preserved safely and securely for future generations. Just as importantly, the new facilities will also provide safe and efficient accommodation for Archives staff. The projects are presented for the committee's consideration.
ACTING CHAIR: Thank you. Unfortunately, Mr Secker has to leave us shortly so I will now defer questions to him.
Mr SECKER: Thank you. It concerns me that you are saying the existing security vaults are at capacity. This is going to take a while to build, so what happens to new transfers in the meantime?
Ms Watson : That is correct. At the moment our classified vaults at the top secret level are close to capacity. We have little bits of room here and there to take new transfers, but the records are not at risk because we work closely with those agencies so that they are able to maintain the records at their site until we are able to transfer them.
In relation to secret classified material, we have recently invested in upgrading one of our vaults to be able to take transfers of secret classified records for a longer period until the new building comes online. The Mitchell facility currently has capacity for about 10.7 shelf kilometres of classified material. The new building will have an additional 20.5 shelf kilometres of classified material. That will allow us a greater capacity to continue to transfer classified material into the future.
Mr SECKER: And the existing building has a few problems—asbestos, insulation, some ageing and inefficient plant equipment, and a few other things. What are you going to do to fix up those problems in the early period?
Ms Watson : We are planning to do this project in three stages. We will upgrade our Chester Hill facility so that we can increase our RNA, that is, required to be retained as National Archives space. That will allow us to continue to take records whilst we build the new building. Once the new building has been built, we will transfer all records and staff to that new building, which will enable us to strip the existing building back to base level, subject to negotiations with the landlord, and to then have the construction works meet the new current building construction code.
Mr SECKER: Okay. Who is the landlord at the moment?
Mr Boyle : The company is called Mitch Arch Pty Ltd.
Mr SECKER: Okay. And you are negotiating with them—
Ms Watson : We have had early discussions with them which have been positive. Our program shows us commencing negotiations in 2015, which is about 2½ years before we start the work, so there is plenty of time in the program to reach agreement.
Mr SECKER: So are you pretty confident of reaching some sort of successful agreement? And how would you classify a successful agreement?
Ms Watson : We are fairly confident, but obviously we cannot be absolutely confident. I would probably prefer to answer those questions in camera because they go to negotiations.
Mr SECKER: No, I did not want you to go into detail.
ACTING CHAIR: Can I just get you to confirm what the appropriation is for this project? It is a very unusual project, and it is so far in the future and in bits and pieces. There is also that medium works project that we have signed off on. There seems to be some confusion about what the total quantum of the appropriation is.
Ms Watson : Yes. We are not being funded on a capital works basis, so we are not getting capital works appropriation. We are, in effect, receiving funding to assist in project management, relocation of staff and records, rent, and operating costs. The actual funding in the budget is: from 2015-16, funding of $500,000, which is for the initial project costs; in 2016-17, funding of $15.7 million, which is to cover rent, operating, relocation and project costs; and in 2017-18, funding of $8.2 million—and there is an escalation factored in on top of that—for ongoing rent and operating costs.
So, if we were taking up a 30-year lease, we would have a lease stream to fund that. From 2019-29, there is an additional amount of $4.2 million over a 10-year period to assist in the amortised rent for the Mitchell refurbishment.
ACTING CHAIR: Does it have an effective present value quantum of $92.6 million or not?
Ms Watson : In the total project costs, which are in our submission at 1.1, it is listed as $92.6 million, but that includes construction and our own project costs which the Archives is funding from 2012-13 to 2015-16. It is a picture of the total project costs, including construction. So it is not what we would be expecting to go to market with, and I am happy to discuss those in camera.
Mr Boyle : That does not include the Mitchell refurbishment either.
Ms Watson : Yes. That $92 million does not include the Mitchell refurbishment.
ACTING CHAIR: The total quantum of taxpayers' money is what the committee wants on the record, so we will go to the detail because we need you to discuss the smaller project costs in confidence.
Mr SECKER: Why don't you own and build it rather than lease it?
Ms Watson : We presented a number of options. We included design, build and own; a pre-commitment lease; and public-private partnerships against a number of options of types of buildings—one building without Mitchell and various sizes of a new building plus Mitchell. There was a rigorous process there. Given the fiscal environment at the time, it was considered that a pre-commitment lease was a better outcome for the budget.
Mr SECKER: It might have been for the budget—
Ms Watson : There was not a large price difference. There was some price difference between the design, build and own and the pre-commitment lease, but in the end the decision was for us to have a pre-commitment lease. All of our facilities at the Archives are currently leased on that arrangement.
ACTING CHAIR: The government owns the land. It is going to get a private developer to build a building on it and then pay them rent. How does it all work?
Ms Watson : We are not going to own the land. We are taking out an option on the land and the successful builder will take up that option and own the land and then it will all be costed into a lease stream for the Archives.
Senator GALLACHER: Can I ask a dumb question. Obviously, I am very new to this role and did not understand how much money was involved in archives. Perhaps the average voter does not realise that either. Where are we in terms of international best practice? Are we creating a whole new system or are we doing what older and more established democracies do with their historical records?
Dr Ellis : We are right up there with modern best practice. There have been a number of major countries that we normally compare ourselves with—for example, France, Germany, Northern Ireland and the United States—which—have built buildings like this in the last 10 years. These sorts of facilities are pretty standard for those countries.
Senator GALLACHER: Do those countries lease them or own them?
Ms Watson : Most that we know of, they own.
Senator GALLACHER: You mentioned this growth—you said 'an explosion'—in records in the sixties or the seventies. From a layman's point of view and from the point of view of someone who has run a couple of small offices which were paperless, that growth would be capped now, wouldn't it? Your main customers are Defence and Immigration. What are you doing about telling them to bring the stuff in a shape that does not require you to do a lot of work and that you just do your custodian duty?
Dr Ellis : We do have the digital transition policy; we are attempting to get government support to direct agencies to do exactly that. But at the moment those paper records already exist out there and the cost of converting them retrospectively into digital form is prohibitive.
Senator GALLACHER: I still struggle to understand what we are archiving when you have this explosion of paper. Just because someone was able to create a record, what merits it to be archived?
Dr Ellis : Again, it is only a small proportion of the total volume of records that is created at any particular time that merits being kept as an archive. That varies between five and eight per cent of what an agency would have created at any particular time. We do impose, or try to impose, obligations on agencies to be quite rigorous about making those decisions about what ought to be kept. But, given the increase in the base volume of records, that still leads to a big increase in the residual or net quantity that would come to the Archives.
Senator GALLACHER: Just reading through the papers there I noticed there is provision for 15 per cent contingency. Was that the Mitchell refurbishment? On another matter, this morning we heard there was a three per cent escalation for Canberra; you have made 15 per cent. What is the 15 per cent all about?
Mr Boyle : Could we take that question in camera, please, Senator?
Senator GALLACHER: You can if you like but it is out there.
Mr Boyle : It is in recognition of—
Senator GALLACHER: Fifteen per cent is a percentage.
Mr Boyle : Okay. It is in recognition of the nature of the work for the refurbishment for the Mitchell component of the work. It is not a greenfield site. It is not new work so there are lots of unknowns. When the refurbishment actually starts things will be discovered in the upgrades, so it is to make provision for those unknowns and the higher level of risk of that type of work.
Senator GALLACHER: All right. Thank you.
Senator URQUHART: Can you give us some indication of the process that you have gone through with staff in relation to the consultation about that? I noticed when we were out there that you have moved some staff into what used to be storage areas. They operate in little dark rooms, so I am sure they are very interested to find out what their new facilities are going to be like. Can you step us through what that process has been like—how that has been received and, if there are any issues, how you intend to deal with that?
Ms Watson : The Archives has been developing this project over a number of years and we have developed a detailed functional design brief. Staff have been heavily involved in that development—particularly those staff who have specialist needs, like conservator experts and digital archives staff as well. So throughout that process, as we have designed it bottom-up, we have had staff consultations. We have also had an independent assessment of the type of shelving that is best needed for the building and we have included staff in that. That has ranged from high-level ceiling height storage shelving that would require cherry pickers to the current lower storage shelving that we have. Staff preference, given business needs and having to pick those boxes up, move them around and deliver them, was for that low shelving and the expert advice supported that; so staff have been involved in the selection of what shelving height we would use.
In addition, we have a dedicated Infonet page, which is our internal intranet site, for this project. We have run face-to-face workshops through the budget process, the announcement of staff and what the projects are at Chester Hill and Mitchell. We update the intranet site as we progress, including links to our statement of evidence when we go forward to the PWC; we will also be involving staff through the design stage when we look at the new workplace and furniture design. Certainly, what we have focussed on with the new project is having a dedicated staff accommodation space which obviously, as you have seen today, they have not had previously.
Senator URQUHART: I noticed that some of the desks and so on were brand new so I guess that some of those will go over to the new facility.
Ms Watson : Certainly in our cost planner report we identified some reuse both of the shelving and of those desks as possible value management and saving options given that we have just expended that money.
Senator URQUHART: In terms of the construction, once you get to that point at the new site, what process will the National Archives go through with the contractors to try and ensure that local companies and local workers get first dib, if you like, at constructing that?
Ms Watson : As a financial management act agency, the Archives is required to comply with the Commonwealth procurement rules, so we will be going to an open tender process. We are going to go through a two-stage process, so we will go out to an expression of interest, shortlist companies from that and then go to a full tender process. Obviously, in our documentation we will be inclusive to attract as broad a market as we can through that process. It will be lodged on AusTender and I understand there are various service communication mechanisms to alert the market that we are going out to tender that we will use as well.
Senator URQUHART: The proposed new site is in a light industrial type area. It did not look like there were too many houses around, or neighbours particularly, but have you consulted with those around to find out what their issues are in terms of a building going in there of the like of the archive?
Ms Watson : We have not had discussions with the adjacencies to this point in time. We feel that it will be low-risk. The nature of our business is fairly quiet. Obviously, there will be a bit of movement while we move the records and the staff in, but we are not an intrusive business. I understand that we are IZ1 industrial at that site, which is exactly what our current facility is zoned at, so there should be no issue there. We are seeking PWC's consideration, and we will then discuss with our adjacencies in the development approval process.
Senator URQUHART: Mr Secker touched on the issue of the asbestos tiles. There is quite some time between now and when you move out of the building to actually get rid of them. In the meantime, what sort of contingencies have you put in place? I noticed a couple of areas where there was a bit of gaffer tape, which works wonders with everything, I think—you could almost build a house with it—but we are dealing with quite a toxic substance.
Ms Watson : We had extensive staff involvement from the time when—it was before I started at the Archives—the asbestos was recognised, so staff are aware that it is there. They have a notification process to my facilities staff. We also have a contractor notification process. Whenever we bring in contractors to do work in the Archives, there is an appropriate register so that they are inducted and informed of the issue. Then we manage it appropriately to limit what we do with the disturbing of the tiles, as far as possible, with the asbestos. We manage it as rigorously as we can. Staff and contractors are notified and know what is involved. Obviously, having the project and refurbishing and removing that is a much more ideal outcome.
Mr Boyle : There is a hazardous materials register in the building and also a hazardous materials management plan for the building.
Senator URQUHART: That is available to staff to go through that process?
Mr Boyle : Yes.
Senator URQUHART: In terms of the loose tiles that are gaffer-taped down, what is the immediate process to deal with those? Clearly, if they are struck down with gaffer tape, I would have thought that is not a good thing.
Mr Boyle : I would have to confirm with our director of facilities, but there is a process where the asbestos removal specialists come in and remove the tiles and replace them with non-asbestos tiles. I am not exactly sure of the state of the tiles that we saw today and whether there is a plan to replace those in the near future, but I do know that in the past, where there have been incidents where the tiles have been scored, the area is isolated and the specialists come in and remove them, usually after hours. There is lots of air quality testing done as part of that process and they are replaced with non-asbestos tiles. There are some instances around the building where you can see quite different coloured tiles, and that is where that process has taken place.
Senator URQUHART: Would you be able to take on notice that particular section and let us know what the actual process for that is?
Ms Watson : Yes.
ACTING CHAIR: One of the things the parliament charges us to do as a committee is to make sure that taxpayers are getting proper value for money. It is really hard to make an assessment because it is almost like esoteric that these records are worth keeping and they are priceless and all of that. What sort of yardstick do you use that all this money to save these records that somebody might ask for in one day is good value for money? A tough question, but how do you assess your way through that?
Dr Ellis : It is a difficult judgment to be made. In creating those classes in records authorities people look at the legal requirements to retain records, they look at things like the risk to the Commonwealth in terms of future liabilities that might arise either through having the records or through not having the records and they look at the sort of advantage that can accrue to the community through being able to access records about government decisions about government policy making. So in each particular case it is always a matter of judgment when it comes down to the wire about whether a particular record or a particular set of transactions in a particular agency meets those criteria. Those sorts of judgments are usually made by people in the government agencies who know the work of those agencies and we rely upon that decision-making process.
ACTING CHAIR: You mention how we rate with other countries, but do you say, 'Each record costs us $10 or whatever the figure might be and this compares with Canada where they spend X amount'?
Dr Ellis : In the past we have done those sorts of comparisons and we are reasonably comparable with countries like Canada. It is a bit more difficult to make comparisons with, for example, European countries, which have a much longer history than Australia has, and the United States, which has a much longer history and a much bigger government and so on. By and large there are economies of scale about keeping records, but the Archives errs on the side of advising agencies to be rigorous about that process rather than be generous about that process. As I said, it is inherently quite a difficult process because you are not at any one particular point comparing, let us say, the records of the Office of the Gene Regulator with the records of the Department of Defence. People are making those decisions within the context of their particular agency. Having said that, I would say that the Archives itself does actually review records in its custody and we keep looking at the records and checking that process. We have an internal review process whereby we look back over records and say, 'Is this still worthy of being kept?'
Senator GALLACHER: Do you have any revenue that comes back in as a result of the Archives recordkeeping?
Dr Ellis : We have a small quantity of revenue from selling copies of records, yes.
Senator GALLACHER: What is that, $100?
Dr Ellis : No, it is about $1.2 million a year from all of our chargeable activities.
Senator GALLACHER: Is there any scope to increase that?
Dr Ellis : At the moment, we charge for as much as we can charge for. Because we are an FMA agency, we cannot charge for functions which we are mandated under legislation to provide. We get what used to be called a net appropriation. We get the entitlement to use that revenue, but we cannot charge for services for which we have received parliamentary appropriation to provide the service.
Senator GALLACHER: If it is free to Archives and it is free to access the Archives, there is no incentive for anyone to be rigorous about what they archive, is there?
Dr Ellis : Yes. That is one way of looking at it.
ACTING CHAIR: Could you provide the committee with an assessment of the number of inquiries you get and therefore the amount it costs per inquiry? For example, you have millions of files but only a small percentage of them are ever going to be asked for. Do you keep those sorts of records?
Dr Ellis : Yes, we do have those in our annual report. We report regularly on access to the records. We have dramatically increased our level of efficiency in providing access to records. We now provide access to millions of records, whereas we used to provide access to thousands of records. In the last decade, we have had dramatic productivity improvements in that area.
ACTING CHAIR: Can that conveniently be made available?
Dr Ellis : Yes, we can do that. We have the figures.
Ms Watson : We can provide the access requests online and in our reading rooms.
ACTING CHAIR: And your assessment of how much the requests cost—that is what I am trying to find out.
Ms Watson : I am not sure if that is as clear. It is certainly not as clear in our annual report.
Dr Ellis : Yes. There are difficulties in costing activities about drawing dividing lines, nevertheless we can provide you with some.
ACTING CHAIR: I can tell you the background to my line of questioning. I remember the inquiry we did with the National Film and Sound Archive where I was pursuing this same line. At the end of the day, it came back to us that this was art and it was priceless, that it had to be preserved no matter what. These records are not quite the same though similar; it is historical information. We agreed that the art is priceless. They took us and showed us some of what they store and it is incredible.
Ms Watson : We have the Archives Act, so we are legislated and the government has said that it is an important business process that the Archives collect those that are the most significant records of the Commonwealth government. The current valuation in our financial statements of our collection is $1.4 billion. It is quite valuable and, as Stephen has said, with online capacity we are now making access available to millions through our online and meeting rooms. From those numbers you can see that there is value for money. There is obviously a demand for these records from the community and the independent valuation of our collection, as I said, is currently $1.4 billion.
ACTING CHAIR: That is good. You are satisfying me. In another 50 years will the focus be digital, as in the little computer room that you showed us? How many shelf kilometres is that small room replacing?
Dr Ellis : I cannot do the maths off the top of my head. I will come back to you with that.
ACTING CHAIR: My guess is that that little computer room has replaced quite a few of those big rooms you showed us.
Ms Watson : We do expect that a digital repository would require less space than a large paper repository; hence the government is moving to that decision—because you can store a lot more on a hard drive. Technology, as Stephen keeps telling me, is getting bigger and stronger all the time and you can store quite a lot on hard drive. But we can take that on notice.
ACTING CHAIR: It is just going to get even more fantastic. We have nano-nodes or whatever they call them now that will quadruplicate the storage. You will be able to store on your thumbnail your whole archive. But, then again, it is only worth storing if you can find it. Run us through the process by which you can find it. You have millions of records there. How long would it take to find a record?
Dr Ellis : About 45 seconds if it is in our electronic system and you come to me with the right question.
Senator URQUHART: You say, 'If it is in your electronic system.' Do you have some that are not?
Dr Ellis : By illustration, you cited a service number of your grandfather or father during the Second World War. All of the items that you saw in that room are at item level in our electronic system. If you gave me that VX number, I could go into our system and find that record in 45 seconds.
ACTING CHAIR: What if I can only provide you with the name?
Dr Ellis : I would probably find a lot more records as well as that record, probably in 47 seconds. If, however, you came in, had a lot less precise information and were interested in a topic of a certain type and so on, as we discussed on the tour, we would probably have to have a more extended conversation and I would have to find a way to relate your topic to the structure of government at a particular time over the last 112 years. It is a principle of archives that archives are kept in their original order. The doctrine is that the particular meaning of a particular document is not held simply in that document but also in the context through which that document came into being. So we need to know what was the administrative process that brought a particular document into being. That is what our system does. We would have that discussion about what your topic was, we would narrow down the time, we would relate it to the structure of government at that time and then we would look at the different series of records in those periods.
As I mentioned, since 2002, every record that has been transferred to the system has been transferred at item level, so we have that item level data in our system. But, prior to 2002, they came in on either typed or hand-printed lists, so they were in paper form. We can still trace them through; they are still controlled, but it requires somebody to look through those lists, with the exception of some particular series like the military service records. They are all totally itemised.
ACTING CHAIR: What if I am a historian and I am writing the history of the Bay of Pigs and Australia's involvement in it? We know the year that occurred and I am looking for the telex that Prime Minister Gorton sent to the US President about his concern about that incident. Would that be enough information for you to find it in 47 seconds?
Dr Ellis : The Bay of Pigs was before Prime Minister Gorton; it would have been Prime Minister Menzies.
ACTING CHAIR: I was not thinking much about the Bay of Pigs. It just came to me!
Dr Ellis : I had to score that point! Nevertheless, in that example we would say, 'Okay, a telex was sent.' You have reason to believe that the Australian government in some way or other reacted to information received either privately or publicly about the Bay of Pigs incursion, which occurred early in the Kennedy administration, in the early 1960s, so we have narrowed down the time frame.
If it was sent from Australia to the United States, it was either sent to our ambassador and our ambassador took the message or somehow or other it was signalled across. So it would be in the Department of Foreign Affairs' records. I think at that time it was called the Department of External Affairs. So we would narrow it down and look into their signals records. We would look into the records of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet at that period, and possibly also into Defence records, because it related to our major ally at that time and it could well have had connections with mutual obligations, some area like that.
So, in all of those cases, a significant proportion of the records that we are concerned about would be in our system electronically, but probably the greater proportion would not be, so we would have to look at the consignment lists. Then we would hit the question: were the records transferred to the Archives in a form that would make it clear that that file, for example, contains a telex or a telegram about the Bay of Pigs? Because it is probably not sitting in a file called 'Bay of Pigs matters'; it is probably sitting in a file called 'relations with the United States of America' or something like that. That sort of discovery process goes on quite regularly, and our reference staff assist people to do that.
ACTING CHAIR: Does the computer have your head knowledge?
Dr Ellis : It has a certain proportion of it, yes.
Senator URQUHART: That is the paper file. We have seen photos in frames or pictures in frames, for example. What is the value of the Archives keeping those sorts of things? What is the value of them hanging up there covered over with a dark sheet or something?
Dr Ellis : The examples that you walked past out there are the original drawings for the design competition for the Canberra. They happen to be, because they are watercolours, very light-sensitive and that is why they are stored in those dark conditions. The reality is that, with something of that character, it actually only has what we call a 'fixed display life'. The unfortunate fact of physics is that displaying things to light actually starts to bleach colour from them; and the stronger the light, the more the colour is bleached out of them. So all of those types of things deteriorate under light. So we operate a process of trying to manage that sort of display life and therefore lengthen the period of time people can see the actual original record.
As you saw, we can produce facsimiles of them and, in some cases, we can produce facsimiles which look very much like the real thing but using totally different technology. However, the purpose of keeping those other important originals is to ensure that future generations of Australians will be able to see them and, say, 'Yes, that is actually the original.' It is the same reason Magna Carta is reserved in argon in Parliament House. It is one of the original copies of Magna Carta. There are plenty of digital copies of Magna Carta around the world.
Senator URQUHART: We have seen that normal process that one of the employees was patching up and working on. Can you explain the process? It comes into the Archives, and you look at how you are going to fix it. What do you do? What happens? What is the process there?
Dr Ellis : Records of that character are assessed as to how—first of all their importance is assessed. If they are just a bit of rubbish or a purely working copy of something which we have a better example of, then we might not accept it.
But assuming that it is an original—and in that case it was actually the original that was sent by the Griffins—up until it was rediscovered we only had a photograph of it. First of all, it is examined and assessed. It is pointed out exactly what it is made of and what the deterioration processes are that are going on in that record. After that examination then there is a bit of a conference of those qualified conservators and they discuss ways to stabilise the record.
There is now a tendency for us to stabilise records rather than to restore them or bring them back to an original, because it is found that less intervention in a lot of the areas that we work in is better than a lot of intervention. But in some cases we have to do a lot of intervention on particular items, which amounts to restoring them. In that particular case that record was produced by a process on paper which in itself was very acidic. Therefore the effect of acid on paper is that over time it breaks down the polymer bonds in the paper and that makes it very brittle. You could see how it was actually cracking around the edges. It tore very easily.
Cheryl mentioned that she could not wash it, so she could not spray it with a de-acidifying liquid or anything like that because it would have run everywhere. So there are a limited number of things we can do to that and fixing and stabilising those tears was the maximum amount of work that could be done.
Senator URQUHART: When that process is finished that item will go in one of those darker areas?
Dr Ellis : I am not sure whether that particular item will be hung or whether it will be stored flat in one of those large format things that we showed you. But the purpose of restoring that is that, again, that is the original thing that the Griffins actually worked on. The plan at the moment is to display that next year on Canberra's 100th birthday. It probably does not have a very long display life. As you can see it has already badly deteriorated. It will probably have to be stored in darkness for quite a long time and not displayed very often—and just made an issue of when it is.
Senator GALLACHER: We heard that you guard against WikiLeaks knocking off all your digital records and throwing them around the world and embarrassing the country, subject to 15-year-old records being—
Dr Ellis : We showed you the digital archive. Our digital archive is not connected to any other network at all. It is physically impossible to download anything from our digital archive. You actually have to go into that room.
Senator GALLACHER: So it has to be an inside job.
Dr Ellis : It has to be an inside job.
Senator GALLACHER: Which is what it was in America.
Dr Ellis : In any security system, people are the weakest link. Our staff working in those areas are cleared to the appropriate level. They go through the same Australian government vetting system that all other government agencies do.
Senator GALLACHER: As happened in America, someone was charged with treason because they released all the secret files. So you have some level of protocol, with people exporting things—
Dr Ellis : There are controls. There are both procedural controls and there are system controls on that system, which ensure that you cannot just stick any device into the computer and operate it and download stuff. Only certain people can do that. I showed you on the tour that only certain people can go into certain rooms. I could not go into some rooms. All of those controls are in place. While it would not prevent an internal person who had those privileges committing that sort of act, it would mean that those acts are traceable and auditable and that therefore action could be taken against anybody who did that.
ACTING CHAIR: I have only one technical question. Going to clause 6.1.2, on page 20 of your submission, there is a long list of prohibited materials. I wonder whether there is anything left that you could actually use—lacquers and paints. Page 20 of your submission refers to: 'cellulose nitrate; polyurethane based products; pressure sensitive (tacky) adhesives; unstable chlorine containing polymers; and oil based paints and varnishes'. Is there anything left that you could use that is able to be utilised? In the building specification, obviously you will have to have those declared?
Ms Watson : Yes.
Mr Boyle : Yes. That is actually lifted from our functional design brief.
ACTING CHAIR: It only says what they are not allowed to use; it does not say what they can use.
Mr Boyle : I guess the three dot points above it were specifying that they are low-volatile organic compounds. I believe there are materials that do not include those that could be suitable.
ACTING CHAIR: Do you know whether low-volatile organic compounds actually exist and are on the market?
Dr Ellis : Yes. But we also did not want to specify the positives too narrowly in the sense of limiting what might be offered to the market if there were alternatives.
ACTING CHAIR: We will close the public part of the hearing.
Resolved (on motion by Senator Urquhart):
That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.
Evidence was then taken in camera—
Committee adjourned at 16:53