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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
Canberra's national institutions

RITCHIE, Mr Craig, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies


CHAIR: I now welcome the representative of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies to give evidence today. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Mr Ritchie : Thank you. I'm very pleased to be here to contribute to this important inquiry. I begin by acknowledging that the land on which the parliament sits and on which we meet is Ngunawal land and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. As a Dunghutti Birripai man from the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, I thank them for allowing me to live on their country. I lead a national cultural institution that is now 54 years old. Only the National Archives and the National Library are older than the institute. It was founded in 1964 by the then Menzies government as an institute, modelled on a quasi-academic, quasi-learned academy, with a remit to research, document and collect material related to Aboriginal culture at the time, framed around the notion that, through a process of assimilation, Aboriginal people would disappear from the pages of history, which we patently haven't done.

Over the 54 years, our remit and mission as an organisation has changed, most notably in 1989 to include Torres Strait Islanders within the scope of the work that we do. For over 50 years, then, we've nurtured and safeguarded what is now the world's single most significant and best contextualized collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, history and heritage—and what we describe rather forlornly as one of our nation's best-kept national secrets. But we use our unique collection to promote better knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia and, as a national institution, to speak to our sense of national identity from the perspective of First Australians. Our collection includes a range of media from motion picture, art and objects, audio material—most of which relates to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, many of which are no longer spoken—video, books, publications, manuscripts. It's a diverse and very interesting collection.

As an institution begun basically from the perspective of research, we have at times in our history been relatively insular, and we're in the process now of transitioning and transforming our institution into an outward-facing, publicly engaged national institution that speaks not just with and to Indigenous Australia but to the nation at large, and, more recently, internationally as well.

CHAIR: I have visited the Museum of Australia, near your facility. I haven't been to your centre. What are the public-facing aspects that I would experience if I were to visit?

Mr Ritchie : As it stands at the moment, our facility on the peninsula is designed to house researchers, so our public exhibition and engagement space is fairly limited. We use about 40 square metres. That's basically the foyer of our facility. We do, however, have a public library, which is open to the public, in which we stage events when we have the opportunity to. One of the greatest challenges for us in transitioning to being more publicly engaged is that our facilities were designed for another purpose. We continue to engage with the Commonwealth, particularly around our capital needs, which are twofold. There's that aspect of it and, as you just heard, like all national institutions, the issue of storage is critical for us. Our vaults are at capacity and they're ageing.

CHAIR: What's the size of your collection?

Mr Ritchie : It's in excess of a million items across that range of media.

CHAIR: What is a description of the types of items that you hold?

Mr Ritchie : I can detail it to you or I can provide it to you on notice. It's films, art, artefacts, publications, rare books and lots of curriculum material that's been developed for schools, particularly around languages. The largest part of our collection is just short of 800,000 photographic images, and they range from glass plate images through to digital material.

Ms BRODTMANN: Thanks very much for the presentation and for your submission as well. I think it's really heartening to hear that you are actually reassessing and repositioning yourself, because my perception of your organisation has always been of a research institution. So well done on that. This is a question I've asked of all of the national institutions: what are the challenges you're facing over the next 12 months or two years? Can you just outline what they are.

Mr Ritchie : I'll start with perhaps the easier ones. That's the work that we need to do internally in terms of our organisational culture to reorient that to the public. Practically there are two broad areas. One is the issue of our facilities. Storage, in particular, is critical because, as I say, our vaults holding that large collection are at capacity. We're sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place in many respects because our legislation requires that the first function of the institute is to build and make accessible a national collection. It's difficult to build a national collection when your capacity to look after objects that could come to you is fairly limited. So our focus is on that.

Also, sustainability in terms of making the most we can from our appropriation. One area in particular is troublesome to us and, I'm sure, to other institutions, and that is that all of our staff are employed under the Public Service Act and therefore fall within the ASL cap requirements. So of necessity we employ a lot of contractors. Our contractors costs us 25 per cent more than employing people as either non-ongoing or ongoing public servants. That's a real challenge to us because it actually impacts on our ability to build a sustainable workforce over the long term.

CHAIR: Do you receive private funding?

Mr Ritchie : We can receive private funding, but the amount of money that we get from private sources is fairly minimal.

Ms BRODTMANN: What are your governance arrangements?

Mr Ritchie : We have a council established under the act. The council is constituted of nine people, and a majority are Indigenous. Five of the nine are appointed by the relevant minister, and four of the nine are elected by members of the institute, for four-year terms each.

Ms BRODTMANN: How is that working?

Mr Ritchie : It works pretty well. It achieves a good balance, I think, of being able to bring the right kind of expertise onto council and also representing the interests of the members. We're not an advocacy body or a representative organisation in that sense, but it does allow our membership to shape and influence the way that the organisation evolves and develops.

Ms BRODTMANN: In terms of the reorientation of the culture, have you got a time line on that? That is a big—

Mr Ritchie : It's a bit like 'How long is a piece of string?'

Ms BRODTMANN: I know, you've got this challenge.

Mr Ritchie : I was terrified by a McKinsey metric that said that for every seven years of an organisation's life it takes a year to affect change. Well, that's a long while for an institution that's 54 years old. We're hoping to prove McKinsey wrong. We're working across a four-year corporate plan. It really is just continual effort and continual work to help people reorient their practice. We don't want the archivists or the technicians to be anything other than very good at what they do; it's much more about creating the right kind of context that gives a meaning and a reason to doing the things we're doing.

Ms BRODTMANN: How has the efficiency dividend affected you?

Mr Ritchie : I did neglect to mention the efficiency dividend. For us, it has a particularly difficult effect. In this financial year, it costs us $300,000 dollars, and it will rise to $600,000 in 2019-20. When you've got an appropriation of $20 million, that eats away fairly significantly. Our average staffing costs are $100,000. If you convert that into staff numbers from having to absorb that every year—as for every institution and every part of government, it has an impact on your ability to deliver outcomes.

Ms BRODTMANN: Could you say that again? $300,000 and it goes up to $600,000 next financial year?

Mr Ritchie : No, in 2018-19 it'll be $500,000 and in 2019-20 it will be $600,000. I can get you some more detail on that.

Ms BRODTMANN: Out of a $20 million budget?

Mr Ritchie : $20 million appropriation.

CHAIR: What was the catalyst for the change in the focus? Was it something that has been erected by government?

Mr Ritchie : It was government, to be honest.

CHAIR: Which goes to my point about changing your focus with the resources needed to do that.

Mr Ritchie : In 2012, the review of Indigenous higher education, conducted by Professor Larissa Behrendt, highlighted a particular role that the institute had played over the long term, particularly in training Indigenous people in research and research-related fields. That led to an external review of the institute under the auspices of then Minister Pyne, who was education minister, as well as an assessment independent of the state of the collection. That latter review revealed that our collection was at catastrophic risk for lots of reasons relating to the size of the appropriation resources available and the facilities. The upshot of that was some amendments to our act that effectively modernised the act—I think they were good changes—and an increase to our appropriation in the 2016-17 budget of $10 million a year. We were basically at $9 million to $10 million, and from 2016-17 on we got an additional $10 million each year, which took us $20 million.

CHAIR: Wouldn't this change in focus put at risk some of your collection activities if you have to do that within your existing budget?

Mr Ritchie : We will always make the choice to focus on collection, preservation and those kinds of things first, because the collection is indeed a national treasure, and then, as we're able to, use technological innovation to be able to deliver content—perhaps online rather than through exhibitions, although there is something about coming into a facility and experiencing and encountering our cultures. We'll always prioritise the care and preservation of the collection while we try to give effect to this outward-looking mandate.

Ms BRODTMANN: Do we have a visit to your centre as part of our—

CHAIR: I've suggested that we should.

Mr Ritchie : I put it on the record that you're invited!

Ms BRODTMANN: It would be good to get down there to see it, particularly that space, if this is part of your new strategic direction. How much space have you got?

Mr Ritchie : Currently about 40 square metres for public display. I have one member of my council, Rachel Perkins, who keeps banging on, 'We only have 40 square metres, Craig!'

CHAIR: I suppose that leads me to—I mean this in good faith: Australia's story is told in Canberra. We fund students to come here. People come here to experience the story of our democracy and visit the War Memorial. The Indigenous history of our country within the parliamentary triangle is represented by the tent embassy. I think it is sad and disappointing that we don't also have a great opportunity to learn about Indigenous art, culture and language as part of this national capital area where you do learn about the history of our nation. The 40 square metres is not sufficient to do that.

Mr Ritchie : I'd agree with you. I think the opportunity, notwithstanding your issue in relation to the Parliamentary Triangle, the potential or the plan to develop the Acton Peninsula, where we currently are, given the traffic that comes through there in terms of school groups and so forth, is immense. We have been working on a capital proposal to put to government that would allow us to extend our facility and create some innovative spaces for people to engage in all sorts of ways, not just traditional museum gallery activities, but utilising digital technology to be able to generally and really powerfully engage with the culture and history of Australia's Indigenous people. We're very committed to the principle that the first story of Australia is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander story and is 65,000 years old. We would share your concern that Australians in the main are missing the opportunity to engage with that in a very powerful way and in the absence of that are left with mythology that might be played out in the public space.

CHAIR: The only visualisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues is one of protest, with an anti-Adani sign painted on the side of the shed. While that is important, for me the richness of our Indigenous heritage—culture, arts and language—is something that needs to be brought to the fore. The Museum of Australia has an important Indigenous component in the art gallery. That's good, but should it be in the one institution? Should it be an institution that you go to, or is it better being across those different institutions?

Mr Ritchie : A significant proportion of the museum's Indigenous collection came from us at the time the museum was established. It was in our collection and it was transferred to the museum. We're very clear that we're not trying to compete with the museums or the galleries. They have their job to do. We have a really unique mix of functions. We have archives, we do gallery functions, museum functions, research and education functions. There is something to be said, though, for the role that we play as an institution that's led by a majority Indigenous council and where the two most senior administrative positions will always be held by an Indigenous person. So there's something about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people curating our own stories to the nation that can't be replicated by other institutions, with all the goodwill in the world. As for location, there is something powerfully significant about the idea of a significant Indigenous institution in the Parliamentary Triangle. That would take some serious investment by government, of course. Certainly from our perspective, whilst we like the peninsula, we're up for that as well. There has been some significant work done in the past to scope out what a national keeping place or resting place for repatriated Indigenous remains might be. The report that the consultants produced in relation to that identified some sort of keeping place in the Parliamentary Triangle. Again I think, for the same reason that you're suggesting, that an institution like ours might be located there.

CHAIR: Thank you for your evidence today, Mr Ritchie. I apologise for the time. I see today's discussion with you as an introduction to your institution. We will take up your invitation to visit your institution and talk to you further about how you can continue to achieve your institution's objectives. You'll be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections and transcription errors.

Committee adjourned a t 14:59