The boss of the National Archives has conceded it is likely the institution has breached its Act through the unauthorised loss of important records, after a landmark report found "fundamental, structural reform" and significantly more funding was needed to fulfil its mandate.
Sustained budget cuts have presented a "a key challenge" to the Archives, respected former public servant David Tune said in a 109-page report, released on Friday after being delivered to the government 15 months ago.
Mr Tune's report said the Archives "could potentially be in breach of Part 5 Section 24 of the Act due to unauthorised loss of records".
According to David Fricker, director-general of the institution, it was likely that potential had been realised, with records likely lost both through degradation and also that newer digital records were failing to be captured.
"My estimate is, yes, there will be records that should have been preserved under our regime that will not now be preserved through neglect or a lack of good record keeping, but I don't have an accurate estimate of that," he said.
"I'm not really in a strong position to provide the Australian government or the Australian people with a guarantee that that we have preserved the records that should have been kept and that there has been no unauthorised destruction of records."
Mr Fricker said while no comprehensive audit of lost records had taken place, it was his evaluation of the risks the organisation was carrying, the volume and diversity of information, technology and data across the Commonwealth that made it likely records were being lost.
"The longer it takes us at the National Archives to establish a modern fit for purpose digital archive, then I'm almost certain there will be some records out there that we would have preserved, but are now beyond our reach."
Tune gives blueprint for reform
The frank assessment of the situation facing the Archives by its boss comes after the Tune Review described the challenges as "substantial".
"It would be possible to take an incremental approach to each of them and deal with them individually," Mr Tune said.
"This review, however, considers that a more fundamental, structural reform process is needed."
Among dozens of findings, Mr Tune said the Archives "has struggled to fulfil its mandate and to invest in the systems it needs in the digital age to meet this mandate".
Resources would be needed to invest in cyber security measures, modern technologies and digital preservation technology. Government agencies were also not keeping up with their record-keeping responsibilities, Mr Tune found, and proposed a "a new integrated, whole of government model for information management and record-keeping and for the storage, digitisation and preservation of government records across government".
Mr Fricker said it wasn't possible to pinpoint just how much funding would be needed to implement the reforms recommended in Mr Tune's review, but he was aware of the many other pressures on the government's finances.
"For that reason, we have as you would expect, already started to prioritise the areas within this report that we might be able to get on with, without having a major budgetary impact, and that's a subject of discussion with us and the minister at the moment."
15 month wait as urgency grows
Mr Tune submitted the review to the government in January last year, after being commissioned in April 2019. The review came after the director-general and advisory council raised the alarm with the Attorney-General in 2018, saying there was an urgent need for funding to save audio-visual records at risk of being lost before being digitised, and a new Act to cover the archives in the digital world.
In releasing the review, Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General Amanda Stoker said there was a "significant task ahead to make sure [the Archives] is protected and preserved".
"It is a process that must not be rushed," she said.
Pointing out some changes that didn't require legislative change or extra funding had already been started, Mr Fricker said there was a growing sense of urgency around the changes needed.
"With every with every month that passes by, across government we're creating more data, more digital records, that need to be appraised, selected and preserved," he said.
"And at the same time, the collection that is already in our custody, especially the more perishable aspects of the collection, like magnetic tape, the urgency to get started on the preservation treatment of that material becomes more urgent."
The government had already started on some aspects of the recommendations raised, including modernising legislation and consulting with other government departments, and work would begin on other aspects, Senator Stoker said.
"As identified, some records are approaching a stage where their future storage needs to be addressed," she said.
"This is a complex process with significant costs, and we are working with the National Archives and a range of experts and stakeholders on developing a program to address this issue."
No concrete commitments on funding or specific actions were made by the government.
Only public due to FOI
Independent Senator Rex Patrick says the only reason the review was made public on Friday was because he forced the Archives to release it to him under Freedom of Information Laws.
"It is unfortunate that it was necessary to have resort to a FOI application to secure the release of a major report on the principal institution responsible for safeguarding and making available to the public the historical records of the Australian Government," Senator Patrick said.
"Mr Tune's report should have been published as soon as it was submitted to the government."
Senator Patrick said it was worrying to read Mr Tune's assessment that deterioration of records requires immediate action to prevent records being lost.
"The National Archives is charged with responsibility for safeguarding what are national treasures; documents that tell our nation's history - from big political decisions down to the service records of individual Defence Force personnel or the immigration files of the millions of people who have come from overseas to make Australia their home. The vast and fragile photographic collections of the National Archives are a unique and irreplaceable part of our nation's visual history."
The Senator compared the lack of funding to the Archives to the significant investment in the redevelopment of the War Memorial and called for a major injection of funds in the upcoming budget.
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