Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee: Inquiry into nationhood, national identity and democracy
Director-General, National Archives of Australia
Parliament House, ACT
13 November 2020
I thank the Chair and the Standing Committee for inviting the National Archives of Australia to appear before the committee inquiry into nationhood, national identity and democracy.
I would like to use my appearance here today to emphasise the relevance and importance of national memory to the following aspects of the inquiry's terms of reference:
- rights and obligations of citizenship
- social cohesion
- cultural identity and
- public debate
The role of the National Archives of Australia
The Archives Act 1983 establishes the National Archives of Australia as the Commonwealth agency with the functions and powers to identify, preserve and make publicly available the archival resources of the Commonwealth.
Our role is to keep the Australian nation’s memory intact and accessible, connecting Australians with their identity, their history and their place in the world.
We do this through the performance of three critical functions:
- We protect records from destruction. It is the National Archives that sets the rules for all Commonwealth entities that prevent the unauthorised alteration or destruction of Commonwealth records. Without our role, many records would be destroyed before they ever saw the light of day, leaving Australians even more vulnerable to misinformation, disinformation or even information warfare that would poison our system of democracy and deny Australians their human rights.
- We preserve records, not in some narrow data backup format that becomes unreadable and lost in a few years, but as an archive – discoverable and reusable as a national resource for Australia.
- We provide access. The Archives Act is the only legislation that provides a universal right of access to all government records – even those records that are exempt from discovery under FOI legislation.
The records that we protect constitute the evidence of government actions that hold our successive governments and their officials accountable to the people that they serve.
The records we protect ensure that the rights and entitlements of individuals are recognised and respected.
Our work to preserve those records ensures that the memory of the nation is kept and carried forward from one generation to the next. It is this memory – warts and all – that defines who we are as a nation, and our ability to draw on the memory of the past nourishes our culture and informs our future.
Unique function of the Archives
The function of the Archives is unique among memory institutions.
Archivists don’t keep records because we want to glorify the past.
Nor do we keep records because we want to apologise for the past.
We keep records to remember the past. To remember it faithfully, completely and to have that memory available in equal fashion to all Australians.
In selecting and preserving records, we are not setting out to tell a particular Australian story. We have not curated a fashionable ‘founding myth' for Australia, instead the value of the National Archives is to allow future generations to re-observe for themselves the events of the past, unfiltered, through direct access to primary source records – evidence collected at the time the events unfolded.
I submit that these unique attributes of the National Archives of Australia are of direct relevance to the terms of reference for this Inquiry:
- For citizenship, I would make two points:
- It is the National Archives' protection of records as evidence that upholds rights and entitlements of citizens.
- We set out to accumulate a balanced and inclusive national memory – recording the famous and the everyday Australian. The more that each of us can appreciate how our forebears worked for this nation, the more we will appreciate the privileges and obligations of Australian Citizenship.
- On social cohesion:
- There are millions of individual stories that document the development of Australia's nationhood. Our social cohesion depends on an appreciation of these individual stories and the way that they have all contributed to contemporary Australia. Through the Archives we carry those individual stories through time, from one generation to the next. From this information comes knowledge, and from knowledge comes understanding and respect. Respect is a foundation for social cohesion.
- On cultural identity and public debate
- Contemporary Australia is built upon millennia of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, British colonisation and migration. It’s been shaped by war, natural disaster, economic and technological change and it continues to evolve as we live our lives now in a global interconnected community. Australia’s cultural identity is far too complex and vibrant to be summed up by a statue or any one version of history – even though these individual works can inspire and educate. In the words of EH Carr, history is 'an unending dialogue between the past and present'. I think we can accommodate in Australia a robust open and unending dialogue about who we are as a nation. And as we do so, we will strengthen our national resilience if we maintain the ability for all Australians to engage in their own discovery, for truth telling and a constructive informed re-appraisal of history. In effect I’m saying that in a resilient society with a self assured cultural identity, we need to read books, but we also need to write books – that challenge the status quo and allow all voices to be heard.
In conclusion, I submit that the Committee consider the role of the National Archives of Australia as a national cultural institution – protecting valuable documentary heritage, providing a universal right of access to our national memory, upholding the values of democracy, rule of law, access to justice, freedom of expression and contributing to a just, inclusive and harmonious society.
It is a critical institution for Australia's nationhood.
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