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Thursday, 20 October 1983
Page: 1993


Mr HOLLIS(11.06) —My comments in this debate will be restricted to the Archives Bill 1983. When one speaks of archives to people they rarely get terribly excited. I doubt if this debate will generate the heat of many other debates in this chamber. The benches on either side of the House are not exactly overflowing with honourable members wishing to put their point of view on this Bill. I suppose that many people think of archives as dry and dusty and it must follow that speeches on the topic would be consequently dry and dusty. I will leave it to honourable members to decide whether my comments are dry and dusty. But the buildings housing our archives are not dusty; they are exciting places and in no way could the activities of the Australian Archives be described as dry and dusty.

I am pleased to add my voice to this important debate because this Bill concerning archives is about Australian history, a topic which I have had an interest in, and a love for, all my life-an interest I feel many honourable members of this House would share and a passion I know the Minister for Trade ( Mr Lionel Bowen), who is at the table, shares. The Archives Bill is complementary to freedom of information legislation. Broadly, freedom of information legislation regulates access to documents which are 30 years old or less, while the Archives Bill applies to documents older than 30 years. The importance of placing for the first time, the Australian Archives on a sound legislative basis cannot be underestimated. Up to this time it has operated on a series of general Cabinet decisions and administrative instructions. Without legislation it cannot effectively serve the Government in the manner intended when the organisation was established.

The Archives has two general functions of basic importance. The first is the preservation of the greatest collection of primary source material of Australian history since 1900. These records produced by all departments tell the real story of this nation's development; that is, of its political history, its role in the international scene, its economic development, its educational development, and of social change within it, of immigration to it and of its cultural development. In short, Australia's history in its fullest expression is housed within the Australian Archives. This is an enormous cultural treasure which this nation must preserve.

It is nothing short of a national disgrace that this cultural treasure, this reservoir of our heritage, has been neglected through want of appropriate legislation. As the honourable member for North Sydney (Mr Spender) said, legislation was first introduced into the Senate in 1978. It has been supported by all parties and it has been widely discussed and debated; indeed, consensus has been reached. The Bill, including Government amendments, was passed through the Senate with the support of all parties. It is the intention of this Government to ensure that after this long passage of time this necessary legislation is placed upon the statute book.

The second most important function of the Australian Archives is to act as the organisation responsible for the effective management of all government records; that is, to assist agencies in the efficient organisation and maintenance of their records, to house all government records under conditions that will preserve them for use by the public and the Government and to prevent unlawful destruction, but to ensure that necessary destruction of records of temporary value is carried out by properly approved and publicly known procedures. Its task is also to provide the nation with information about information; that is, to ensure that the public and the Government can know what records are in existence and how and where they can be obtained. By this preservation and orderly management of records, legislation in fact provides the administrative system necessary to ensure the effective working, now and in the future, of freedom of information legislation. In doing so, it ensures that the most effective and economical methods of management are used.

To manage effectively the enormous record production of governments is a technical and complicated business. It is essential that these processes be governed by legislation which will ensure the greatest degree of openness in government as well as the protection of privacy and the rights of individuals and organisations throughout Australia. The Archives is a nationwide organisation with officers and repositories in every capital city as well as Townsville. These repositories are equipped to handle under secure and modern conditions all types of records from the old-fashioned file through to film, radio and video tape, to the product of the most modern technology. This building program which has been continued over many years hopefully will culminate in what is planned to be the national building of the Australian Archives which is planned for the parliamentary triangle and will house records of permanent value to be made available for exhibition and public use. Contained in the records for which the Archives are responsible are, for example, all the entries for the design of Canberra. What a fascinating collection these are. One might be somewhat thankful that the judges chose so wisely. But what a wonderful public exhibition this would be if they could be put on display. Another record held is Mawson's proclamation of Australia's sovereignty over Antarctica. There are many other priceless aspects of our history, documents that many Australians know nothing about, but documents which have contributed to making this country what it is, documents that must be preserved. The possibilities of exhibitions are endless. I know that the responsible Minister shares my enthusiasm for some of these documents to go on public exhibition. Indeed, I suspect the Minister might be even more enthusiastic than I am. I have long felt that such exhibitions would create not only an interest in our history, but also a pride in it and with this, a pride in our country and in what has been achieved in, historically speaking, so short a time.

As the Minister for Home Affairs and Environment (Mr Cohen) said in his second reading speech:

The Bill does not establish the Australian Archives as a statutory authority; such action was not felt to be appropriate at this time. However, the office of the Director-General is to be a statutory position, and the Australian Archives is to have the benefit of an Advisory Council whose members will include parliamentarians and representatives of users, both Commonwealth institutions and the public. The Council will be able to advise the Minister and the Director -General as requested, or on its own motion, on all matters relating to the functions of the Australian Archives.

The Australian Archives has recently been the subject of a joint management review as a result of which its management practices and systems are being completely overhauled and modernised. Its capacity in relation to systems, automatic data processors and the development of policy have been greatly strengthened as an organisation. It is becoming increasingly capable of playing a central management role in a changing administration and information environment.

I recommend that this House support this Bill which is of basic importance to the preservation of our cultural heritage and to the provision of effective services to government administration. I hope that this House can show the same unified support from all sides which has marked the Bill's progress to date. This will be a fitting recognition by all honourable members of the importance and value of the work of Australian governments and the Australian people.