Helen Garner, Tara June Winch, and Peter Doherty AC (Images: Flickr, UQP, Wikimedia Commons)

The news that significant sections of the National Archives of Australia, a repository of literally irreplaceable historical records, was dissolving down to nothing, was met with a shrug by the federal government. For a deeper look at what it says about the historical nihilism of the Liberal Party, you can read Guy Rundle’s piece on the matter.

In the meantime, over 150 writers, academics, and prominent Australians have signed an open letter to the prime minister protesting the decade of neglect that led us here, and urging the government to implement the modest funding increase recommended by former secretary of the Department of Finance David Tune’s review of the institution.

Below is the letter and the list of signatories in full. The non-partisan group includes two Nobel laureates and three Australians of the Year.

Saving the Nation’s Memory Bank

An open letter to the prime minister

We write as friends and supporters of the National Archives of Australia. Some of us are historians, including multiple winners of Prime Minister’s Awards, some are independent writers and researchers, and some are former members of the National Archives Advisory Council. We have differing political viewpoints but share a deep love for the knowledge of Australia’s past embodied in its archives and libraries.

We are writing to you because we fear that the integrity of the nation’s premier memory bank, the National Archives of Australia, is in jeopardy and to urge you to secure its future.

As the institution created by parliament to maintain the official records of the Commonwealth, the National Archives is one of the pillars of our democracy. It makes decision-making more transparent. It holds governments, past and present, to account. And in the words of Justice Michael Kirby, it “holds up a mirror to the people of Australia”.

In this respect, the National Archives is not like other cultural institutions, such as museums, galleries and opera houses. Its most important users have yet to be born. The value of many items in its collection may not become apparent for many years because we simply do not know what questions future inquirers may ask.

Only in recent years, for example, have researchers begun to tap the riches of the National Archives’ repatriation records, the largest continuous record of the health of any people anywhere, for medical as well as historical research.

We welcomed the comprehensive review of the function and efficiency of the archives conducted by Mr David Tune and endorse his incisive analysis of the challenges now facing it. He shows beyond doubt that large parts of the collection, including fragile and irreplaceable film and paper records, are in danger of disintegration and loss without investment in urgent conservation and preservation work.

Successive cuts in the form of “efficiency dividends” have weakened the National Archives’ capacity to undertake this essential work. Even the routine work of retrieving and clearing records for researchers has been compromised to the point that researchers can no longer undertake projects based on the archives with confidence that the records will become available in time.

The National Archives is one of Australia’s premier cultural institutions. It has always enjoyed the support of governments of both persuasions. In 2011 its reputation as an international leader in digital record keeping and preservation was recognised by UNESCO with the prestigious Memory of the World Prize. In the report he presented the government in January 2020, Mr Tune helpfully identified the needed works and cost offsets that will allow the archives to “stay contemporary in the digital age”.

We were disappointed, therefore, that in a budget that increased the funding of other national institutions, and made very large investments in the expansion of one of them, the Australian War Memorial, no allocation, even of interim funding, was made for the National Archives of Australia. We were further alarmed by the tenor of remarks attributed to a representative of the government that “all sources degrade over time”, that this was “business as usual” and that the National Archives should look for philanthropic support, rather than government funding, to finance preservation of its records.

The National Archives is not a charity that should have to shake a tin or secure buy-in from the public for support. It is a legislated responsibility of government and should be adequately funded from public revenues. No other national archive is reliant on private funds for its core functions of preserving the records of the national government.

The funding recommended by Tune for urgent digitisation ($67m over seven years) is modest when compared with the historical importance of the records and their value to posterity.

We understand that some of the recommendations of the Tune review await further consideration by government, but strongly urge you to provide interim funding in order for this essential work to proceed, and reaffirm your support for a vital institution.

SIGNATORIES
Louise Adler AM
Vice-chancellor’s professorial fellow, Monash University

Isabella Alexander
Professor of Law, UTS

Dennis Altman FASSA
Emeritus Professor of Sociology, La Trobe University

Rachel Ankeny FAAAS
Professor of History and Philosophy of Science
President International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

Michelle Arrow
Professor of History, Macquarie University

Bain Attwood FAHA
Professor of History, Monash University

Philip Ayres FAHA FRHS
Biographer Sir Owen Dixon, Malcolm Fraser, Sir Douglas Mawson

Kathy Bail
CEO, UNSW Press

Ted Baillieu AO
Patron, Public Records Office of Victoria

Alison Bashford FBA FAHA
Laureate Professor of History, University of NSW
Formerly Vere Harmsworth Professor, University of Cambridge

Joan Beaumont AM FASSA
Emerita Professor of History, ANU
Winner PM’s Prize for Australian History

Diane Bell
Professor Emerita of Anthropology, George Washington University
Distinguished Honorary Professor of Anthropology, ANU

Katherine Biber
Professor of Law, UTS

Catherine Bond
Associate Professor of Law & Justice, Associate Dean (Academic), University of NSW

Frank Bongiorno AM FRHS FAHA FASSA
Head of School of History, Australian National University

Joanna Bourke
Professor, Birkbeck College, London
Fellow of the British Academy
Global Innovations Chair, University of Newcastle

Kathy Bowrey
Professor of Law & Justice, University of New South Wales

Troy Bramston
Senior writer, The Australian

Judith Brett FASSA
Emeritus Professor of Politics, Latrobe University

Carl Bridge
Professor, Department of History & Menzies Australia Institute King’s College, London

Richard Broome AM FAHA FRHSV
President, Royal Historical Society of Victoria

Martin Butler
Winner PM’s Award for Best Documentary

Gabrielle Carey
Winner PM’s Award for Non-Fiction

David Carment
Emeritus Professor of History, Charles Darwin University

John Carroll
Emeritus Professor of Sociology, La Trobe University
Senior Fellow, Center for Cultural Sociology, Yale University

The Hon Stephen Charles AO QC
Former Justice of the Victorian Supreme Court of Appeal
Centre for Public Integrity

David Christian FRSN FAHA
Emeritus Professor of Modern History, Macquarie University

Anna Clark
Associate Professor, Australian Centre for Public History, University of Technology Sydney

Sir Christopher Clark FRHS FBA
Regius Professor of History, Cambridge University

Catherine Coleborne FRSN
Professor, Head of School, Dean of Arts, University of Newcastle

J. M. Coetzee FAHA
Nobel Laureate for Literature

Ross Coulthart
Winner PM’s Prize for Australian History

James Curran
Professor of History, Sydney University

Ann Curthoys FAHA FASSA
Honorary Professor, Sydney University

Joy Damousi FAHA FASSA
Director, Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, Australian Catholic University
Former President, Australian Historical Association
Former president, Australian Academy of the Humanities

Kate Darian-Smith FASSA
Professor, Dean/Pro Vice-Chancellor
College of Arts, Law and Education, University of Tasmania

Jim Davidson AM

Glyn Davis AC FASSA FIPAA
Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Australian National University
Visiting Professor, Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University

Mark Davis
Professor of Publishing and Communications, University of Melbourne

Graeme Davison AO FAHA FASSA FFAHS
Emeritus Sir John Monash Distinguished Professor, Monash University
Former member of NAA advisory council
Former President of the Australian Historical Association

Bentley Dean
Winner PM’s Award for Best Documentary

Peter Doherty AC
Patron, The Doherty Institute
Nobel Laureate for Medicine Australian of the Year 1997

Philip Dwyer
Professor of History, Director of Centre for the Study of Violence, University of Newcastle

John Edwards AM
Adjunct Professor, Curtin University
Senior Fellow Lowy Institute
Winner PM’s Prize for Australian History

Peter Edwards AM FAIIA
Australian Official War Historian

Erik Eklund
Professor of History and Regional Studies, Federation University

Lisa Featherstone
Associate Professor and Convenor, History Discipline School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry University of Queensland

Mark Finnane FAHA FASSA
Professor of History, Griffith University

Professor Tanya Fitzgerald SFHEA FRHistS
Dean and Head of School, University of WA

Sheila Fitzpatrick FAHA
Professor of History, Australian Catholic University
Distinguished Service Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago
Winner PM’s Award for Non-Fiction

Jan Fullerton AO FAHA
Former Director-General, National Library of Australia

Bill Gammage AM FASSA
Emeritus Professor of History, ANU Winner PM’s Prize for Australian History

Helen Garner
Winner Windham-Campbell Prize for Non-Fiction

Stephen Garton AM FAHA FASSA FRAHS FRSN
Vice-Chancellor and Principal, University of Sydney

Andrea Gaynor
Associate Professor of History, University of Western Australia

Ross Gibbs PSM
Director-General, National Archives of Australia 2003-11

Dr Jane Gilmour OAM
Chair, William Buckland Foundation
Co-editor, The French-Australian Review

Stan Grant AM FAHA
Vice-Chancellor’s Chair of Australian-Indigenous Belonging, Charles Sturt University

Bridget Griffen-Foley FAHA
Professor of History, Macquarie University

Billy Griffiths
Lecturer in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies, Deakin University

Tom Griffiths AO FAHA
Emeritus Professor of History, ANU
Winner PM’s Prize for Australian History

Gideon Haigh

Paul Ham

Ian Hancock
Editorial fellow, Australian Dictionary of Biography
Historian of the Liberal Party, biographer Sir John Gorton, Nick Greiner
Former member of NAA advisory council

Tom Harley
Former Federal Vice-President of the Liberal Party

The Hon David Harper AM QC
Retired Justice, Supreme Court of Victoria Centre for Public Integrity

Jenny Hocking FASSA
Emeritus Professor of Australian Studies, Monash University

Chloe Hooper

Julia Horne
Professor of History, Sydney University

David Horner AM
Emeritus Professor of History, ANU
Winner PM’s Prize for Australian History

Andrea Hull AO FAICD FAIM
Emeritus Professor, University of Melbourne
Chair Melbourne Recital Centre

Ivor Indyk
Whitlam Chair, Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University

Helen Irving FASSA
Emerita Professor of Law, Sydney University
Former member NAA advisory council

Margaret Jackson AC

Barry Jones AC FAA FACE FTSE FASSA

Gail Jones
Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney University
Winner PM’s Award for Fiction

Nicholas Jose
Emeritus Professor of English and Creative Writing, University of Adelaide

Evelyn Juers
Winner PM’s Award for Non-Fiction

Grace Karskens FAHA FASSA
Emerita Professor of History, University of NSW
Winner PM’s Award for Australian History

Thomas Keneally AO FAHA Dist FRSN
Winner, the Booker Prize

Bruce Kercher
Emeritus Professor of Law, Macquarie University

Catherine Kevin
Associate Professor of History, Flinders University

Shino Konishi
Associate Professor of History, Australian Catholic University

Marilyn Lake AO FAHA FASSA
Professorial Fellow, Melbourne University
Former President of the Australia Historical Association
Co-winner PM’s Award for Australian History

Meredith Lake
Honorary Associate, Department of History, University of Sydney
Winner PM’s Award for Australian History

Susan Lawrence FSA FAHA
Professor of Archaeology and History, La Trobe University

Mark Lunney
Professor of Law, University of New England

Trish Luker
Senior Lecturer, UTS Faculty of Law

Jane Lydon FSA FAHA
Professor, Wesfarmers Chair of Australian History, University of Western Australia

Andrew May FASSA FRAS
Professor of Australian History, Melbourne University

John Maynard FASSA FAHA
Emeritus Professor and Director, Purai Global Indigenous History Centre, University of Newcastle

Iain McCalman AO FRHS FAHA FASSA
Emeritus Professor University of Sydney
Former President Australian Academy of the Humanities

Janet McCalman AC FAHA FASSA
Emeritus Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor, Melbourne University

Richard McGregor
Winner PM’s Award for Non-Fiction

Stuart Macintyre AO FAHA FASSA
Emeritus Laureate Professor of History, Melbourne University
Former President of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia

Susan McKemmish
Professor Emerita of Archival Studies, Monash University
Laureate, Australian Society of Archivists

Mark McKenna FAHA
Emeritus Professor of History, Sydney University
Winner PM’s Award for Australian History

Peter McPhee AM FAHA FASSA
Emeritus Professor of History, Former Provost, Melbourne University
President of the History Council of Victoria

Eve Mahlab AO

David Malouf AO FAHA

George Megalogenis
Winner PM’s Award for Non-Fiction

A. Dirk Moses
Frank Porter Graham Distinguished Professor of Global Human Rights History Department of History, University of North Carolina

Doug Munro
Adjunct Professor of History, University of Queensland

Allan Myers AC QC
Chancellor, Melbourne University

Amanda Nettelbeck FAHA FASSA
Professor of History, University of Adelaide

George Nichols
Director-General, National Archives of Australia 1990-2000

Sir Gustav Nossal AC CBE FAA
Australian of the Year 2000

Melanie Oppenheimer FASSA
President, Australian Historical Association Chair of History, Flinders University

Fiona Paisley FASSA FAHA
Emeritus Professor of History, Griffith University

Robert Pascoe
Dean Laureate, Victoria University

Susan Pascoe AM
Adjunct Professor, University of WA
Inaugural Commissioner of the Charities and Not for Profit Commission

Mark Peel FASSA FRHistS
Emeritus Professor, University of Leicester

Michael Piggott AM
Laureate, Australian Society of Archivists

John Poynter AO OBE Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académique FAHA FASSA
Emeritus Professor, University of Melbourne

Wilfred Prest AM FRHistS FAHA FASSA
Professor Emeritus of History and of Law, University of Adelaide

Marian Quartly
Emeritus Professor of History, Monash University

Henry Reynolds FAHA FASSA
Professor of History, University of Tasmania
Co-winner of the PM’s Award for Australian History.

Lyndal Roper FRHistS FBA FAHA
Regius Professor of History, Oxford University

Michael Roper
Professor of Sociology, University of Essex

Professor Kim Rubenstein FAAL FASSA
Co-Director, 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra

Lynette Russell AM, FRHistS, FASSA, FAHA
Director, Monash University Indigenous Studies Centre

Penny Russell FAHA
Professor Emerita of History, Sydney University

Paul Santamaria QC
Former chairman National Archives Advisory Council

Dr Joanna Sassoon
School of Media, Curtin University

Julianne Schultz AM FAHA
Publisher, Griffith Review
Professor of Media and Culture in the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University

Tiffany Shellam
Associate Professor of History, Deakin University
Winner PM’s Award for Australian History

James Spigelman AC QC
Former Chief Justice and Lieutenant-Governor of NSW

Fiona Stanley AC FAA FASSA
Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health, University of Western Australia
Australian of the Year 2003

Peter Stanley FAHA
Professor of History, University of NSW

Brian Stoddart
Emeritus Professor of History, La Trobe University
Distinguished Fellow, Australia India Institute

Gary Sturgess AM
Adjunct Professor, Australia & New Zealand School of Government

Shurlee Swain AM FAHA FASSA
Emeritus Professor, Australian Catholic University

Martin Thomas
Professor of History, ANU
Co-Director, the Menzies Australia Institute, King’s College London

Alistair Thomson FASSA
Professor of History, Monash University

Anne Tiernan
Professor, Griffith Business School, Griffith University

Kate Torney
Chief Executive Officer, State Library of Victoria

Maria Tumarkin
Associate Professor, Melbourne University
Winner Windham-Campbell Prize for Non-Fiction

Christina Twomey FAHA FASSA
Professor of History, Head of the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies in the Faculty of Arts, Monash University

Elizabeth Tynan
Associate Professor of History, James Cook University
Winner, PM’s Award for Australian History

Prue Vines FAAL FSEA
Professor of Law & Justice, University of NSW

David Walker AM FAHA FASSA
Emeritus Professor of Australian Studies, Deakin University
Inaugural BHP Billiton Professor of Australian Studies, Peking University

James Walter FASSA
Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Monash University
Former member NAA advisory council

Maggie Walter FASSA
Distinguished Professor, University of Tasmania

Stuart James Ward
Head of the Saxo Institute for History, Archaeology, Ethnology and Classics, Copenhagen
University

Don Watson

Nadia Wheatley

Richard White
Associate Professor of History, Sydney University

Tara June Winch
Winner, Miles Franklin Award; winner, PM’s Award for Fiction

Tim Winton
Four times winner Miles Franklin Award

Angela Woollacott FAHA FRHistS FASS
Manning Clark Chair of Australian History, Australian National University

Alexis Wright FAHA
Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature, Melbourne University

Clare Wright OAM
Professor of History, Latrobe University

Barbara Yeoh AM FAICD

Peter Yule
Research fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne

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