(Image: Gorkie/Private Media)

A nation without history, the poet A.D. Hope called us, but he didn’t intend it as a programmatic statement. Coalition governments have fixed that.

Despite the investigations, the exposes and the Tune report, there remains a mystery around the genuinely shocking neglect by and of the Australian National Archives (NA). As news reports have made clear, the archives appears to have allowed itself to approach a “digital cliff” in which large amounts of material in the form of old tapes, film and the like are hitting the point at which they dissolve into their elements.

The report by David Tune on the NA’s woes put forward a figure of $67 million required to catch the place up to its digitisation and preservation requirements. In the most recent budget, the government gave it nothing for this — zip, zero. This despite the fact that more public-facing institutions such as the National Library all got specific new allocations.

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How did it get to this state? None of the reports have been able to give us an answer. It doesn’t appear to be a political punishment; the NA is run by an ex-ASIO spook, who spent far too much money and time trying to block the release of the John Kerr-Buckingham Palace letters from public view. Quite possibly, it’s the opposite. The NA leadership was unwilling to give the government problems it doesn’t need, and so didn’t advocate for itself.

Were this government interested in doing the best for the nation, the simple reaction to the Tune report would have been well, that’s a stuff-up somewhere, we’d better fix that, and given it an extra $20 million a year over three years, thus fixing the problem and employing a significant number of young specialists from the archive and preservation courses now being offered.

But of course this government has no interest in anything but reproducing itself, like one of those eternal sea slugs on the ocean floor. So nothing was done and in estimates, junior minister Amanda Stoker was sent out to go on the attack.

Stoker’s perfect for the role of not-giving-a-damn-about-the-things-the humans-care-about: a Brandis protege arts/law Lib-bot, her only distinguishing feature is being half-Swedish, giving her a monochrome blonde demeanour, so she looks like line-drawn clip art from the ’80s, like stock photo art for an executive PA job ad, like the first actual emoji to join the frontbenches, like the personification of the Dogecoin dog, if she were any whiter she’d be Channel Nine, I couldn’t choose between them, so I used them all.

Stoker did her duty, noting disdainfully that the government “had nothing to be embarrassed about … time marches on and all sources degrade over time”. Wow. That is impressive. That is hardcore right-wing politics right there. Hey, it’s old shit. It dissolves. It gets on the elegant furniture. Stoker gave the impression that she would quite like to tip the whole thing into the bin. It was a shocking performance in terms of anything regarding the things we value. But Stoker did what was required of her — that is, not give a millimetre.

In The Australian, Gideon Haigh had a game go at making the obvious point: that a government and party which bangs on about our proud history and Western civilisation so much might actually take some interest in ensuring the survival of its record. I presume that was a stab at shaming a few MPs into doing something about this, and maybe it’ll work behind the scenes. But it relies on the fiction that the sort of people who now fill the ranks of the Coalition have any atom of conservatism about them (as I’m sure Haigh knows).

They don’t, of course. They’re nihilists, the pure expression of a politics-first-and-always attitude. They have no interest in the preservation of actual history and documents, with their details and complexities and contradictions, that allow us to tell new and different stories about the past, to reconfigure our present, or simply to have the pure presence of it resisting time and entropy. The Hawke/Keating governments poured money into history and documentation, and new versions of it.

From John Howard’s accession on, the pursuit has been for a simpler mythologisation, something of an obsession with Howard, an attempt to use the nation’s memory to shield his own neurotic attachments to a fantasy past. It ended with his ridiculous attempt to rewrite the national curriculum that his own hand-picked panel had created, trying to turn it into a chronicle of kings and prime ministers.

The current government extends this approach, with kitsch like the half-billion National War Memorial boondoggle, devoted to give an ever purer, simpler and more usable version of the past, in which the messy, chaotic history of our foreign wars is simplified to an eternal Australian spirit, and the frontier wars that constituted us are excluded from memory altogether. In pursuit of that, there’s actually a good argument for letting the actual history dissolve, so that the unitary myth can replace it.

Predictable for the actual Coalition parties. But there’s no voices raised from the “intellectual” right, either.

Quadrant has had dozens of articles on various matters, including the alleged “killing of history” by the new draft curriculum, but nothing on the actual killing of it by neglect. The Centre for Independent Studies has a piece on “cancelling the culture” about “woke” stuff, but nothing about doing it through unnecessary decay. The Institute of Public Affairs has a series on “abolishing the Australian way of life” but nothing on abolishing it by… well, you get the picture.

Were this happening under Labor, they’d all use this disaster as an example of the Rule of Woke, and the disdain for the past. Nor has there been any roar of protest from any of the billionaires who claim to be Australian patriots, and could fill the gap from chump change (if there has, they’ve kept it quiet).

This whole crowd shows that there is no Australian conservatism worth the name. Liberal governments gave away our publishing rights to the UK, destroyed our film industry in the 1930s, fought the creation of the ANU, buried our Victorian cities under concrete, trashed the Murray-Darling, are killing our universities, and appear determined to drive iconic species onto extinction. Letting the national physical heritage die is simply part of the wider approach.

Quite possibly, someone will now quietly put some money into the archives through intra-budget funding, without admitting any error. Fine, do it. But since ameliorating all of the above to any degree means getting Labor and the Greens in, there’s the question of whether there’s an electoral angle in this.

In seats like Higgins, Kooyong, Bennelong and Boothby, I reckon there is, out there among the “Hamer liberals”, “moral middle classes”, “doctors and spouses”, call ’em what you will.

Added to some stuff about the ABC, the universities and the Australian biosphere, I reckon it’s good for shaving off a few more votes and switching a few more 1 Green 2 Liberal, etc preferences. And these seats will swing on these diverse reactions, on finding a unified swing group who all have different reasons why they couldn’t stand it anymore.

Worth a try. Has to be tried. What will the future make of this government? Nothing. Because there will be nothing. These are the people we were warned of, the deserts from which the profits come.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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