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Friday, 26 May 1989
Page: 2873


Senator REID(3.43) —I know that this is not a popular time to take up the time of the Senate. I am sorry that the Minister for the Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism and Territories (Senator Richardson) has not arrived in the chamber because I wish to refer to an article in this morning's Canberra Times indicating that the Director of the National Museum of Australia, Dr Don McMichael, is leaving because of his frustrations over the Federal Government's handling of its commitment to the National Museum of Australia. Let me say that I recognise, as do others, that it has undoubtedly not been possible for this Government to meet its 1983 election campaign commitment to the museum in the way that it intended at that time. But I do not believe that it has made any effort at all to see that this very valuable resource for the nation has progressed in any way as it should have done between then and 1988, when the project was virtually put on hold in such a way that most people now doubt the Government's commitment to it at all.

Dr McMichael has been in the Public Service since 1973 and has been a distinguished public servant with a great deal to offer in this area. It is certainly regrettable that his frustration at the Government's attitude has led him to retire and leave the Public Service. I must say, though, that I cannot blame him for the course that he has taken. As I said, this Government made a commitment in 1983 that it would proceed with the construction of the museum. By the time of the 1987 policy statement of the Australian Labor Party there was no mention of it at all. The public galleries of the museum were to have been opened next year. Now we are told that they will have to wait until the year 2000. I would not mind if there was a commitment to this being the major project to recognise the centenary of Federation but we do not even have a commitment for that time at present.

I also feel that the Museum of Australia ought to be given the management and refurbishment of the provisional Parliament House, which has been locked now for 12 months and seems to be a matter of no interest to this Government. It is an important national resource. The staff of the museum in recent years have been existing on a shoestring budget with more dedication than funding. They have been given a number of items; they do not even have the ability to accept a number of things which have been offered to them. The failure of the Government to give more encouragement and some more funding-to have given them an opportunity even to have got involved perhaps with private sector development of some of the galleries there-has jeopardised exhibits which have been collected and which ought to be housed and preserved for future Australians.

This month we learnt of a move to have the museum's Aboriginal collection given away to South Australia. It is a collection that should belong to the national museum and should be displayed by it. One would not object to it being lent to South Australia to be put on display but the mere fact that it is being discussed in terms of being given to South Australia is a concern that I have that there is really no commitment whatever to a national museum. Certainly around Australia the impression is being formed that it may never be completed. One cannot blame the State institutions for looking at the national museum's collection with a view to trying to benefit from it. It was a great pity that much of the Bicentennial Touring Exhibition was dissipated by sale at public auction and not acquired for display by the national museum. That was also a very valuable resource. I am appalled at the Government's attitude in this area and I think my view is shared by many.

There was an open day at the museum site about three weeks ago. Ten thousand people visited to see as many items as could be displayed at that time. A Friends of the Museum group has now been established and Jack Thompson is the president of that group. He was present on that occasion. As I said, some 10,000 people visited and indicated their support. The group is anxious to raise funds and participate. There are lots of ways that the public and other groups could help if the Government indicated that there was a commitment to this museum being developed. Of course, it would be of benefit to Canberra but that is nothing compared with the benefit to future Australians of having their heritage displayed in a way that enables them to have a greater understanding of the background of this country.

My colleague Senator Puplick asked Senator Richardson today whether he could comment on whether, in addition to Dr McMichael's retirement, a further five museum staff positions were being cut and whether this was a decision taken by the Minister for the Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism and Territories or the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh). I gather that Senator Richardson has not yet been able to reply to that question. I will be very interested to hear the reply, particularly in view of his answer to a question about the museum earlier this month. Senator Peter Baume asked a question and Senator Richardson said then that the proposals for the museum were before Cabinet. I think, with the matter before the Cabinet, it would be most unusual if any decision was taken unilaterally by the Department of Finance to cut back the museum's already very sparse staff allocation. If, on the other hand, the decision to cut staff has been taken by the Minister for arts, it stands in stark contrast to all the Minister's recent protestations that he is trying to get the project back on the rails. I await the Minister's answer with interest.

I express my sorrow that Dr McMichael is retiring as Director. As I have said, I understand his reasons for doing so. I hope the Government will accept its responsibilities to future Australians and make a commitment to the Museum of Australia in a way which enables the friends of the museum and others who support it to do something meaningful about the collection.