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NATIONAL ARCHIVES A MEMORY HOLE

24 July 2021

Independent Senator Rex Patrick today condemned the failure of the National Archives of Australia (NAA) to make any significant progress in clearing its massive, decade-long, backlog of applications for access to historical government files.  

“Research on Australia’s political, diplomatic, military and economic history is being stymied by the National Archives’ inability to declassify sensitive government files for public release”, Senator Patrick said.   

“While the Archives recently received emergency funding to address its failure to ensure the preservation of historical records, the Archives is still to address the mountain of records awaiting access clearance before they can be made available to researchers.”

“In a recent answer to a question asked by me at Senate Estimates in May, the Archives has now revealed that they have a backlog of applications for access to some 20,178 files that are at least a year overdue.”  

“More than half of these applications were submitted between 5 and 10 years ago.”  

“256 applications for access that were submitted more than a decade ago have still not been decided.”

“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.”

“Nearly a decade after his appointment, National Archives Director-General David Fricker has conspicuously failed to deliver on a core responsibility of his agency - providing timely public access to past government decision-making.”  

“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.”

“That said, it is not all the Director-General’s fault.  At the end of the day it is the Prime Minister and Cabinet who decide the resources available to NAA."

"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.”

“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.  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.”  

In the case of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation records 177 access requests are outstanding after more than a year, including 89 requests that were submitted five or more years ago.  

More than 3,000 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade files are outstanding, including 2,369 that were requested five or more years ago.  115 DFAT files are still awaiting access clearance after a decade or more.  

Access clearance rates reported in Mr David Tunes 2019 functional and efficiency review of NAA operations show that no progress has been made over the past three years in reducing NAA’s access clearance backlog. In 2018 and 2019 more than 20,000 files were outstanding. 

NAA stopped publishing statistics of the access clearance backlog in its annual reports some years ago as the failure to fulfil statutory obligations became ever more embarrassing.