Opening of National Archives Preservation Facility: Attorney-General

Speech by
Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, Attorney-General
at the opening of the National Archives Preservation Facility, Mitchell,
9 June 2017.

Thank you very much, David, and may I begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambrie peoples as the traditional custodians of the Canberra area and pay my respects to their Elders past and present and to the Elders past and present of all Australia's Indigenous people.

Can I thank you, Paul, for the very moving and fitting commencement to today's proceeding. Your Welcome to Country, your rendition on the didgeridoo connects us with an oral and indeed a musical tradition that goes back some 40 millennia and could not have been a more appropriate commencement to the proceedings today. I acknowledge Dr Denver Beanland, Chair of the National Archives of Australia Advisory Council and members of the Council, including my Parliamentary colleagues, the Hon Jane Prentice and Senator Claire Moore. I've already mentioned David Fricker, the Director-General of the Archives. We are graced by the distinguished presence this morning of their Excellencies the Ambassadors of Japan and Korea, and the High Commissioner of Singapore, as well as the Deputy Head of Mission of China. I also acknowledge the presence of Members of the ACT Legislative Assembly. I want to acknowledge in particular the many distinguished international visitors, who include the National Archivists of the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Singapore and Fiji, as well as representatives from counterpart institutions in Canada, China, France, Japan, Korea and New Zealand.

There are many distinguished leaders of the Australian Public Service and heads of agencies gathered here this morning including Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, Chris Moraitis; the Director-General of the National Library of Australia, Mary-Louise Ayres; the directors or representatives of other national collecting institutions; and the Public Service Commissioner, John Lloyd. I acknowledge the former directors-general of the National Archives of Australia who have come back to the Archives this morning for this ceremony. The directors of state archives; other distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen.

A nation's archives are the repository of its memories. Archivists are the keepers of some of our most precious things: our public documents. And whatever form those documents may take – paper, photographic, digital or some other medium – they are the physical records of our nation's story. So, in gathering here this morning, we are doing something much more than merely opening a handsome new building – the somewhat prosaically named National Archives Preservation Facility. We are engaged in an act of homage: to our history and to the people who made that history. We pay homage to their stories, to all of the events – whether history-changing or everyday events – in which they took part, the totality of which is the story of Australia.

In June 1920, the Prince of Wales – later King Edward VIII – laid the foundation stone here in Canberra of a Capitol building which would house – and I quote – the 'records of Australian achievement and the archives of the nation'. This Capitol building was never built. It was one of several false starts to the task of providing a fitting home for Australia's national archives over the course of the 20th century. But today is no false start. It is the magnificent culmination of the construction of this Archives Preservation Facility, and the hopeful beginning of its use as the repository of around a quarter of the collection of the National Archives of Australia – the very 'records of Australian achievement and the archives of the nation' of which the Prince of Wales spoke nearly a century ago.

It is especially fitting that this opening should take place on International Archives Day, celebrated by the International Council on Archives who meet here in Canberra, as fittingly on the occasion of this opening.

This Preservation Facility, as the Director-General has told us, is a state-of-the-art and environmentally sound building. Its design and construction reflect the need not only to provide a controlled environment for traditional paper archives, and for records of audiovisual, photographic, and other long-established kinds, but also, increasingly, for digital archives. It is a significant investment by the government in the preservation of Australia's past for Australia's future. It is, without doubt, an immense improvement on the leaking and flood-threatened huts beside Lake Burley Griffin that stored our nation's significant records for many years until the late 1970s.

I greatly enjoyed visiting this building while it was under construction last year, and I'm pleased to note, David, that it has been completed on time and on budget. Congratulations. And may I, in that vein extend my warmest congratulations to the developer, the architects and builders. I acknowledge Jure Domazet, Doma Group Principal, and representatives of May and Russell Architects as well as the consultants, contractors and subcontractors who are here today.

From the earliest days of consideration of national archives in Australia at the beginning of the last century to today with the completion of this state-of-the-art facility, inspiration and ideas have been drawn from the great national archives of the world. In his report to the new Australian Government on a tour of European archives not long after the federation in 1901, the editor of the colonial Historical Records of New South Wales, FM Bladen, wrote of being 'dazzled by “the priceless records” of the European past, stored in “magnificent houses and palaces” where they were not only secure but accessible thanks to the archivists' careful arrangement and description'.

Today, our archives and archivists learn from and contribute to the highest international standards of archives policy and practice, without finding the necessity to house the records in palaces. They truly form part of a global community of national archives and archivists. We are very proud that our Director-General, David Fricker, is the current President of the International Council on Archives, and yesterday hosted an international symposium focused on 'Global Perspectives on Documentary Heritage' and 'Influencing Government Information Policy'. For me, the significance of this is partly that it reflects the continuing development of the profession of archivists as a distinguished and noble profession in its own right. As we know, one part of the responsibility and skill of archivists is not only the preservation of archives, but also in determining what – of the immense amount of records that could be kept – will in fact be kept. It is important that the professional development of archivists – who have been called the 'gatekeepers of history' – should continue to progress, and I am pleased that the National Archives of Australia plays an internationally distinguished role in that endeavour.

It has been observed on other occasions how far we have come in this country since the appointment of Australia's first national archives officer, the remarkable Ian Maclean, in 1944, when he laboured away in the corner of an office in Old Parliament House studying Hilary Jenkinson's Manual of Archives Administration. Today's opening is indeed a milestone in the history of this important national institution, and I am delighted that three former Directors-General – Keith Pearson, Brian Cox and Stephen Ellis – and current and former staff of the Archives are here to mark the occasion. I thank the staff for all their hard and effective work, which has led us to this day.

Keith Pearson – who is here today – served as Director of the Commonwealth Archives Office in the early 1970s, several years before the Archives came to be governed by an Archives Act. The souvenir booklet for today features the words of my distinguished predecessor, Senator Peter Durack, who as Attorney-General in 1978 introduced the first Archives Bill into the federal Parliament. Peter Durack said of the Archives, 'this great accumulation of information opens up a vast wealth of research material of vital interest to almost every profession and of great significance in the recorded history of this nation. The Government wishes that … this great national resource should be put at the disposal of the public through a network of archival facilities and reference services.' Recognising that Commonwealth records 'form only a part of the wide variety of material which records events of both national and local significance', Peter Durack observed that 'archival resources, in general, comprise an important part of the national heritage'. But he went on to say that 'the most important single function of the Archives' is 'the care and management of Commonwealth records no longer required for current use in Government administration'.

The Archives Bill that Peter Durack introduced was very concerned, as all archives policy of recent decades has been, with 'the question of public access to Commonwealth records'. Indeed, it is telling that it was a twin bill with Australia's first freedom of information legislation, reflecting the fact that archives policy necessarily forms part of overall government information policy. Peter Durack said that the provisions of the Archives and of the Freedom of Information Bills had 'been carefully coordinated in order that together they should constitute comprehensive arrangements covering the public accessibility of the widest range of Commonwealth documentation', both old and new, subject – of course – to privacy, security and other relevant considerations. That emphasis on the public accessibility of information reflects the fact that the role of the Archives is not only to hold government records for the purpose of efficient government administration, but also to enhance public accountability through access to information, and to provide material that is of use to researchers, professional and amateur, on topics of both public and private interest. It expands knowledge and aids the memory of government and of the nation as a whole.

The work of the Archives has of course developed significantly with the digital revolution. We are witnessing an ever-faster march toward the almost complete digitisation of government processes and the commensurate explosion in records of potential archival value. This shift towards the digitisation of government presents opportunities – for example, allowing ever-more users to access records from their own computers – as well as challenges – such as securing digital records from malicious or mistaken disclosure. As an increasing proportion of archives are held in digital forms, this National Archives has become a leader in the digital transformation agenda of the Government, partnering with other parts of government to help them to manage and use digital records, as well as enabling ever more people to have access to records from afar. I am delighted that many departments and agencies are represented here today. In that connection, I want to acknowledge the work of the Secretary of my Department, Chris Moraitis, which plays a leading role in the development of government information policy, under Chris' leadership.

I am also delighted that there are users of the Archives from outside government – including historians and genealogists – with us today. Earlier, I quoted Peter Durack as saying that archives are an important part of our national heritage. From humble origins, initially embryonic within the Australian War Memorial, Old Parliament House and later the National Library, the National Archives of Australia has become one of our great national cultural institutions in its own right as well as being a custodian of government information. It is a respected partner of our nation's other great cultural institutions such as the National Library, the National Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Film and Sound Archive, all represented here this morning.

The construction of this facility has coincided with the relocation of over 15 million records. This has been an immense undertaking and, inevitably, a considerable disruption to the collection – despite all reasonable steps to minimise it has occurred. I would like to thank the public – for whom the Archives ultimately exists – for being patient while this important move took place in the interruption of access to some documents.

One of Peter Durack's contemporaries in the Senate, who worked on the Archives Bill in the late 1970s, was Chris Puplick, here today in his capacity as Deputy Chair of the National Archives Advisory Council. I want to thank the Advisory Council, led with such commitment and energy by Denver Beanland, for its wise counsel to the Director-General and its wise counsel to me, as the responsible Minister. As I look at Chris Puplick, I cannot help but think what a long journey it has been for someone so passionately committed to open government and the accessibility to the public of government information from your days as a young senator, debating the Archives Bill and the Freedom of Information Bill, for the role you now occupy as the Deputy Chair of the Advisory Council at a time when this fine facility is being opened.

It is with deep sadness that I note the absence of a superb Council member, Dr Mickey Dewar, who passed away in April at the too-young age of 61. I am sure that Dr Dewar, an historian of note, would wish everyone well at the beginning of this exciting chapter in the history of the National Archives, which plays such a crucial role, as I said at the start, in preserving and revealing the history of our nation. For so many hundreds, if not thousands of people, Council members, staff, contractors, subcontractors, consultants, members of the public, professional researchers, historians, amateurs who use or have played a role in the life of the Australian Archives. This has been a work of professionalism for some and dare I say of love for all. It is a significant moment in the history of our nation to be opening this new facility and it is a great personal privilege for me to do so. To all who have contributed, my heartfelt congratulations.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017