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National Archives hold secrets buried for 80 years

It could be Australia's oldest state secret - a handful of yellowing papers locked for more than 80 years in a highly secure vault at the National Archives in Canberra. The documents are about Australia's annexation of the Australian Antarctic Territory following Sir Douglas Mawson's expedition to the frozen continent in 1929-31.

One, dated March 27, 1932, is a memorandum from the Commonwealth solicitor-general and secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, Sir George Knowles, to the minister for external affairs, Sir John Latham. Another document, dated December 6, 1932, is a cabinet submission by Latham circulated to the ministers in the government of prime minister Joseph Lyons.

Marked ''secret'', the authors of the correspondence are long dead. Knowles died in 1947 while Latham died in 1964, half a century ago.

However the passage of time has not diminished the concerns of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which, after an academic researcher requested access to a file on Australian Antarctic policy at the National Archives, took five years to decide whether or not to release the papers.

DFAT advised the archives that more than 30 pages, all of them more than 60 years old and including parts of the 1932 correspondence by Knowles and Latham, would have to be redacted on national security grounds before access could be granted. Many pages were completely removed from the file while others were replaced by photocopies with sections blacked out.

DFAT says the 82-year-old memoranda are ''still regarded as sensitive'' because they ''canvassed matters relating to Australian sovereignty over its territory and adjoining waters and some of these issues still have currency''.

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Five years is a long time to wait to get access to a very old government file, then to find that significant parts are blacked out for reasons of national security.

The lengthy delay in this case is part of a much larger problem in which the National Archives recently revealed it had amassed a backlog of more than 20,000 files requested by the public under Australia's national archives legislation but not processed for public release.

Although the Archives Act requires that applications for access to government files be processed within 90 days, many access requests have been left unprocessed for years. In some cases researchers have been waiting more than 10 years for files to be released.

Internal National Archives documents concede that the agency is simply ''not meeting its statutory obligation to release records to the public within 90 days''. This failure has become acute as demand from the public for access to government records for family history, academic and other studies has grown steadily over the past five years.

The reasons given by the archives for the backlog include insufficient staff and the failure of other ''key agencies'' to allocate sufficient resources to advise on national security sensitivities more promptly.

Around 1500 files are currently awaiting assessment by DFAT while another 200 are with the Defence Department. There are also large backlogs with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. The average waiting time is ''several years''. Some applications for ASIO files are still untouched after four years. Last year Defence finally released some files that a researcher had applied for 12 years earlier. Researchers have abandoned projects because declassification decisions are simply not forthcoming. Some long-overdue files have simply disappeared - conveniently ''lost''.

Privately archives staff say the national security agencies view public researchers with ''disinterest bordering on contempt'' and simply won't allocate the resources required to enable the archives to meet its legislative obligations.

When files are released after much delay, ASIO and Foreign Affairs and Trade are now redacting information that 10 years ago would have been routinely released, and in some cases has indeed already been released. There are cases where ASIO has successively declassified three and four copies of the same document, each version more heavily redacted than the last. Inexplicably some issues apparently become ever more sensitive with the passage of time.

Two weeks ago, Attorney-General George Brandis, who is also responsible for National Archives, took the unusual step of intervening in a case before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in an effort to block the release of Australian diplomatic reports and intelligence assessments relating to Indonesian military operations and war crimes in East Timor in the early 1980s. The government argues that release of documents would reveal details of Australian-Indonesian intelligence co-operation three decades ago and harm current relations between Canberra and Jakarta.

Meanwhile, in an effort to clear the National Archives' access examination backlog, Director-General of Archives David Fricker has written to researchers asking them to withdraw overdue applications for access, apparently in the hope that having waited for so long they have simply lost interest. The archives has also established Project BIG (for ''Backlog Is Gone''), to expedite the processing of records with the result that some 3400 overdue files have been released since November last year. However most of these are what can only be regarded as low hanging fruit, mainly records created prior to 1946 on non-sensitive subjects such as beer excise legislation in 1901, meal allowances for Post Office telegraphists in 1912, and Victorian torpedo boat trials in 1886.

A former deputy director-general of ASIO, Fricker has staked his reputation on clearing the entire backlog within six months from last November, saying that it is ''currently one of the archives' highest priorities''. However with 82.8 per cent or 16,600 overdue files still outstanding, a special access examination ''taskforce'' of four junior officers, and foreign affairs, defence and the intelligence agencies yet to make much progress on clearing files with possible national security sensitivities, this may prove somewhat ambitious.

Meantime, however, the archives could at least release the original copies of the 1932 Antarctic papers written by Sir George Knowles and Sir John Latham. Had DFAT's extremely risk adverse bureaucrats bothered to check they would have found that other copies of the same correspondence were declassified and released in full more than 30 years ago. The information deemed to be harmful to Australia's international relations and Antarctic claims is readily available in digitised copies on the National Archives website. The sky hasn't fallen in as a consequence. Sometimes old secrets just aren't worth worrying about.

Disclaimer: The writer is an applicant for access to a large number of files at the National Archives. Some applications are overdue by more than five years. One application is nine years overdue. Some applications for ASIO files have been referred to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.