Political historians say the nation's keeper of Commonwealth documents should not have to ask for public donations to help preserve at-risk records, describing its situation as "lamentable" and "astonishing".
They also warn the nation's understanding of its past is in jeopardy as a lack of government funding forces the National Archives into a desperate plea for financial help to save the records.
Paul Strangio and Nicholas Brown, two of the Archives' most recent historians for its annual release of cabinet documents, say the institution should not have to ask the public for donations in meeting its legislated requirements to preserve the nation's records.
Associate Professor Strangio said the move suggested the government had failed to give enough priority to preserving the memory of Australia's past - something he believed was essential to the nation's identity.
"It goes without saying that, as a statutory agency, the National Archives ought not to need to resort to begging for public donations to fulfil its mandate but rather should be adequately funded by the government of the day," he said.
Associate Professor Strangio said it was an "astonishing and lamentable state of affairs" that records could be lost through deterioration, possibly putting the Archives in breach of its own Act, as warned by former Finance Department secretary David Tune in recent findings.
"As the Tune Review found, this is a matter that should be treated with urgency given the reported deterioration and attendant risk of loss of many records," Associate Professor Strangio said.
Associate Professor Strangio said losing the at-risk records would jeopardise historical knowledge about Australia's past.
"It is a great shame to the nation if records can't be preserved and would make a mockery of the NAA's vision to be a world leading archive in the digital age," he said.
The budget this month included funding injections for multiple national collecting institutions needing repairs and financial support through Covid.
However it did not provide the $68 million recommended by the Tune Review to help the National Archives digitise the materials most at risk.
It prompted the institution to plea for public donations and paid memberships in a bid to help save its deteriorating collection.
Associate Professor Strangio's predecessor as the cabinet papers historian at the Archives, Nicholas Brown, said the institution had for years been underfunded.
"If even its independently-identified strategic priorities are underfunded, there is obviously a serious danger that its capacity to address its responsibilities and functions will further decline," Professor Brown said.
While there was nothing wrong with encouraging public financial support for national institutions, not all had the same capacity to attract donations or receive corporate backing, he said.
"And it is lamentable if the capacity of national institutions to selectively attempt to address their core statutory obligations is dependent on such support," Professor Brown said.
He warned the loss of at-risk records would be irreversible and undermine the nation's public debate.
"If we are to move beyond an increasing fetish for the day-to-day stoush of politics, to address real issues of accountability and trust in government, and to understand the resources available to address enduring policy challenges, we need to have reliable efficient access to the records of government," Professor Brown said.
"Once they're gone, they're gone - not only in terms of the questions we might want to address now, but in terms of any capacity for future researchers to even begin to frame new perspectives, offer alternative interpretations and stimulate public discussion."
Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General Amanda Stoker said the federal budget provided the National Archives $75.6 million in departmental appropriations to fulfil its functions under the Archives Act.
"It is a matter for the [Archives] director-general to determine how best to direct those resources within the agency," she said.
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