National Archives faces backlog of 20,000 access requests

By Shannon Jenkins

July 26, 2021

If Rex Patrick’s bill becomes law, all companies would have to show that any imported goods along their supply chain are free of slave labour.
If Rex Patrick’s bill becomes law, all companies would have to show that any imported goods along their supply chain are free of slave labour. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Independent senator Rex Patrick has slammed the head of the National Archives of Australia and the prime minister after it was revealed that the archives has a backlog of more than 20,000 outstanding requests to access government documents.

In response to a question Patrick asked during Senate Estimates in May, the National Archives has revealed that more than half of the 20,178 applications were submitted between five and ten years ago.

“256 applications for access that were submitted more than a decade ago have still not been decided,” Patrick noted in a statement on Saturday.

“The Archives Act 1983 imposes a statutory requirement for access applications to be decided within 90 days. This legal deadline has been completely ignored, it’s absolutely outrageous that Australians should be waiting five or indeed ten years for access to our nation’s history.”

The senator argued that National Archives boss David Fricker had ‘conspicuously failed to deliver on a core responsibility of his agency’, and slammed the prime minister for not adequately resourcing the entity.

“Mr Fricker‘s time as the archives’ chief has seen progressive budget cuts, staff reductions and a persistent failure to declassify sensitive government records within statutory timeframes. The mountain of files sitting for years awaiting access clearance is evidence of egregious failure,” Patrick said.

“Prime Minister Scott Morrison is happy spending half a billion dollars on a massive expansion of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, but appears equally content to see much of Australia’s history sit at the bottom of a memory hole, inaccessible to historians, journalists and other researchers.”

Read more: National Archives ‘struggled to fulfil its mandate’

Among the outstanding access requests, 3,145 are for Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade records, and 177 are for Australian Security Intelligence Organisation files, the archives revealed.

The figures have been released just weeks after the government announced the archives would receive $67.7 million in urgent funding to address backlogs and digitise records, and more than one year after a review warned of a ‘substantial backlog of access requests’.

The review, conducted by former Department of Finance secretary David Tune, found that the National Archives had a backlog of almost 22,000 applications at October 31, 2019.

“In some cases, this involves Australian intelligence community (AIC) agencies which have taken several years to make a determination on access,” he noted.

“Of the almost 22,000 backlog applications, around 21,000 were beyond the 90 business days limits in the [Archives Act 1983]. Of these about 15,000 are for items that require referral to AIC agencies for advice on continuing sensitivities.”

Patrick warned that the failure to address the backlog of access requests was hindering important research on Australia’s political, diplomatic, military and economic history.

“These chronic delays have had a severe impact on historical research and the understanding of our nation’s past. I understand that in some cases researchers have died while waiting years for access to records,” he said.

“Numerous research projects have been abandoned because of the failure of the archives to provide timely access. Chronic delays effectively block postgraduate research on many subjects.”

Read more: Insecure funding and lack of preparedness for digital transformation hindering Australia’s archives agencies, review finds


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