What should be preserved in national memory? What ought to be allowed to perish and disappear from consciousness?
These questions should be preoccupying the Australian community and legislators right now as the National Archives of Australia appeals for crowdfunding, having been denied $67.7m in the recent federal budget to carry out urgent digitisation of at-risk collection material.
They should. But despite some $30,000 in public donations in response to the unedifying spectacle of the NAA going publicly cap-in-hand, I fear there is every danger the political class will continue to dismiss this issue as the boutique preoccupation of historians and writers. Which it is not.
The national archives is mandated to collect, preserve and if necessary copy records generated by the commonwealth government. It is a broad and daunting ambit, given the amount of material the government creates in its day-to-day business.
But the preservation of the records of how a government does business – and how its decisions impact the lives of citizens – is intrinsic to transparent governance and the service of democracy. The wilful destruction of government records elsewhere has often been a sign of creeping despotism.
When you think of government records, imagine more than paper. For example, the archives hold copies of old ABC television programs, audio recordings of Indigenous witnesses to the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, extensive military service records, Asio surveillance footage and non-digitised recordings of famous Australian political speeches. Some of these are under threat due to the archives’ physical and financial incapacity to digitise.
Other items at risk include film of early Australian Antarctic expeditions, audio of the high court native title tribunal and prime minister John Curtin’s wartime speeches. Successive federal governments of both persuasions are responsible for the parlous state of the national archives, and national cultural institutions more generally. They have overseen savage budget cuts (“efficiency dividends” in the more anodyne parlance of Sir Humphrey) to most of them. At the same time, however, they have spent massively to preserve, recall and retell one part of Australian history – that of certain parts of its war service.
Consider this. From 2014 until late 2018 federal and state and territory governments, on conservative estimates, spent some $350m and $150m respectively on commemorating Australian participation in the first world war. This included almost $100m on the needless Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux, on the European western front, where dead Australian servicemen were already respectfully commemorated with countless cemeteries and monuments.
Looked at from another perspective, Australia spent the equivalent of some $8,000–$9,000 commemorating each of its personnel killed in the war. This compares with far lower spending by the United Kingdom ($110m, or $109 on each of its 1.01m dead) or New Zealand ($31m, or $1,713 on each of its 18,100 personnel killed).
Then there is the federal government’s decision to profligately spend $500m to expand the Australian War Memorial so it might display more machines of combat. The federal government never seriously questioned the expansion proposal while Labor, meanwhile, was effectively sucker-punched into supporting it – perhaps because to oppose the unnecessary expansion of the great altar of Anzac is, in Australia, about the highest form of cultural heresy.
As historian and novelist Peter Cochrane has argued, “Drape ‘Anzac’ over an argument and, like a magic cloak, the argument is sacrosanct.” Touché.
It is difficult to accept that the erosion of the national archives – and the financial cuts to the other national institutions – is indicative of anything but an ever-greater militarisation of Australian history and culture.
Of course, $67.7m (the amount a government inquiry identified as requisite to effectively avert a historical disaster at the national archives) is small change in the scheme of government spending – even on memorialisation of things other than Anzac.
Covid-19 undermined planned celebrations last year for the 25th anniversary of James Cook’s east coast continental arrival. But it seems plans to spend some $50m on upgrading the memorial site of his landing at Kurnell are continuing. That’s a lot on one historical episode, as complex and divisive as it is – especially when you consider the NAA is seeking less than $18m more to preserve hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of records of Australian life. There are countless cultural riches that now face imminent extinction.
It is ironic in that context that as part of its remit the national archives have already dedicated considerable resources to digitising and electronically displaying Australian war service records. People all over the world can log on to the NAA website to research their forefathers’ war service records – a practice that reached fever-pitch during the Great War centenary.
Just as there are far more to families than the soldiers who belonged to them, a nation is greater and more complex than its battlefield service. Although the frequency with which our leaders evoke as some singular continuous forge of national character Australia’s commitment to foreign wars from South Africa to Afghanistan, does make you wonder.
The archives can never hope to crowd-save its national treasure.
But as a means of publicly highlighting the cultural vacuity of a government that wants to keep the national narrative simply focused on the present rather than the past (unless it happens to be Anzac, James Cook or Arthur Phillip) it might work quite well.
Conversely, the obdurate will sometimes react by becoming even more so when confronted with their own embarrassing callowness.