National Archives need support to preserve our unique history

Jan 20, 2022 | News & Media, Read

The Sydney Morning Herald recently published an opinion piece by Ramsay Centre Chairman, the Hon John Howard OM AC, outlining why he believes the National Archives deserve our continued support. To access the article via the Sydney Morning Herald website click here

John  Howard

In July last year, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced additional funding of almost $70 million for the National Archives of Australia. This was very welcome news, and followed an extensive public campaign in support of more money for the National Archives.

This in turn had followed a review by a respected public servant, David Tune, who found that without a substantial increase in funding, the quality of the collection held by the National Archives was at risk.

There are many campaigns for additional government financial support. Not all of them are meritorious and as deserving of the response the Treasurer provided on this particular occasion.

The National Archives of Australia truly fits the definition of a national treasure. The material contained in the archives is integral to an accurate understanding of our history as a nation.

What many found impressive about the campaign for extra funding for the archives was the breadth of support that campaign attracted. A diverse section of the Australian community came together in urging the government to preserve what is so important in the proper telling of our national story.

The administration of the National Archives is fiercely independent. It displays no sectional or political bias. It is scrupulous in its goal of preserving our past records. It is the mission of the archives to store and protect the raw material. It is for others to draw on that material in reaching historical conclusions.

The debate about the so-called “Palace Letters” illustrated the professionalism of the archives. Its then director, David Fricker, defended the integrity of the correspondence between the former governor-general, Sir John Kerr, and the Palace.

Under his leadership, the archives did not publicly assert that the letters should be either kept confidential or released. The archives accepted the prevailing legal view that the letters in question were not government property. It was left to the courts ultimately to decide what should occur. Initially, the Federal Court found in favour of confidentiality, only to see the High Court overturn that decision. The letters were then publicly released.

David Fricker has retired as director-general of the archives, concluding an outstanding public service career which, among other things, included a time as deputy to the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

He also oversaw a unique agreement between the National Archives and the University of NSW, under which archival material from my time as prime minister has been transferred to the University of NSW (in Canberra), which administers the Howard Library in Old Parliament House.

The federal Education Minister, Alan Tudge, is fighting, in my opinion, a long overdue campaign to inject into the history curricula within our schools a better understanding of our nation’s past achievements. It continues to astonish me how few Australians are conscious of how far ahead of other nations Australia was in extending the boundaries of democracy.

The secret ballot was an Australian contribution. It was in fact called for many years “the Australian ballot”. The full franchise for women was achieved in South Australia ahead of any other country. It was not until a decade or more after the end of World War I that women in the United States and the United Kingdom enjoyed to the full the voting rights exercised by the female population in Australia.

The drawing of electoral boundaries in Australia is both more transparent and based on proper considerations of population movements and community of interests compared with many other nations, including the US.

Fair-minded Australians demand a school history curriculum based on a proper analysis of what occurred in the past, with due acknowledgment of the singular achievements of this country as well as an open canvassing of the blemishes in our history. There are only a handful of countries that can claim to have been continuously democratic for the past 100 years. Australia is one of them.

A proper appreciation of these historical facts, in which all Australians should take great pride, can only be soundly based with well-preserved, properly curated archives. For that and many other reasons the National Archives of Australia deserve our continuing support.

John Howard is a former prime minister of Australia.