The federal opposition says the National Archives lacks the resources to lead major reforms to information management practices in the Australian Public Service due to years of budget cuts, as the agency awaits the outcomes of a looming functional and efficiency review.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus and his fellow MP Julian Hill say the small agency with a big role in APS record-keeping policy has been “stretched to breaking point” by budget cuts of about 10% a year since 2014.
They point to its official response to a critical report from auditor-general Grant Hehir this week, in which the NAA agreed with three recommendations but made it clear resourcing constraints would limit its ability to put them into action. Hill is the opposition’s key representative in parliamentary scrutiny of audit reports, as deputy chair of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit.
Hehir found the Archives had been “largely ineffective in monitoring, assisting, and encouraging entities” as lead agency for the landmark Digital Continuity 2020 policy and that its implementation is falling behind schedule.
Out of a sample of three federal entities — the Attorney-General’s Department, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security — none have completely met all the policy targets for the end of 2018. The AGD is closest, having either fully implemented or “made substantial progress” against all targets. CASA has partially met all but one target and the IGIS is least advanced and has no arrangements to monitor and report on its progress internally.
Meanwhile, former Department of Finance secretary David Tune is expected to complete the functional and efficiency review of the Archives later this month. The agency hopes his report will highlight the challenges it has faced in recent years due to growing demand and shrinking funding. A huge list of submissions overwhelmingly support its cause.
“Budget and staffing reductions are affecting our capacity to perform our fundamental role of securing, preserving, maintaining and making accessible the authentic and essential records of the decisions and actions of government, while providing high standards of service delivery that all Australians should expect from their National Archives,” the agency says in a statement about the Tune review.
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Dreyfus and Hill also linked the budget cuts to the media industry’s Right to Know campaign, arguing the impact of the squeeze was “further exacerbated by the more than $850,000 the National Archives has spent on legal fees fighting applications to access national archival information”.
They say it is likely to cost the agency about $1 million in legal fees to defend its refusal to release correspondence between the Queen and former Governor-General Sir John Kerr, related to Kerr’s controversial dismissal of Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1975.
Historian Jenny Hocking, backed by a team of top lawyers working pro bono and a crowdfunding campaign, appealed the decision to the High Court after the Federal Court accepted the NAA’s ruling that the letters were personal. The opposition MPs take Hocking’s side. Hill says it is “complete nonsense” to suggest the letters are about personal matters and therefore none of the public’s business.
“It is astounding the amount of taxpayer money that is being wasted to block the release of what are public documents,” he said. “Surely Australians have a right to know what was said during this critical time in Australia’s history.”