In the early days of researching and writing about Australian citizenship, I was shocked to discover archives on the infamous "Egon Kisch Affair" had almost been destroyed through an outsourcing blunder about which records to keep. Thankfully that didn't happen and we all can access (now even online) the fascinating governmental record about Egon Kisch, the Czechoslovakian communist, anti-war and anti-fascism activist who was denied entry to Australia by the Commonwealth. He famously jumped from a ship and broke his leg when landing on Australian soil. First represented in court by my great aunt and first woman barrister in Victoria, Joan Rosanove, Kisch's case later progressed through the courts. The High Court ultimately rejected the Commonwealth's actions as unlawful, highlighting the illegality of the dictation test. Due to the documentary record about Kisch's arrival, the implementation of the White Australia Policy is transparent for all to view through the National Archives - even from the comfort of their home.
As in the Kisch case, we seem to be always on the cusp of losing records fundamental to our history, as a brilliantly conducted public campaign calling for a better deal for the National Archives of Australia has so recently outlined. Since 2015 the NAA has suffered an annual appropriation decrease of nearly $9 million and shed approximately a fifth of its staff. More of that campaign shortly.
The importance of archives continues to be central to my work in all areas of public law, public participation and citizenship. This includes my Australian Research council funded work with Associate Professor Ann Genovese and Dr Trish Luker examining the place of the Federal Court as an archive. Focusing on superior courts of record, due to their institutional mandate to maintain a conclusive "testimony of all that has taken place", they tell a rich story of the nation. Moreover, as a matter of common and constitutional law, courts of record can unmake and re-decide decisions that are otherwise determinative, impacting on the power of the state over all of us. Superior courts of record are guided by the principle of "open court", which encourages the public to witness the court's functions to promote the rule of law so that justice can be seen to be done. Matters of jurisdiction carry deeper public law issues underlying the institutional role of federal superior courts of record that are civic, and their character and outcomes reflects on our whole democratic framework. Continuing to be able to witness and see what is done in the courts also applies historically; we need to continue to have access to the records to be able to see what was done too.
Those who agitated have protected against the further disintegration of our democratic foundations.
The institutional role of all national institutions impacts on the quality and strength of our democracy. Maintaining and preserving those institutions, including the National Archives, has been in the spotlight in recent months, highlighting the need for a concerted movement to better respect and value the National Archives and most importantly to fund it properly.
The Tune Inquiry into Canberra's National Institutions presented in February 2019 concluded that for the Archives to "stay contemporary in the digital age" it would require substantial investment and stressed the urgency of a seven-year program for the digitisation of at-risk records, at the additional cost of $67 million albeit spread over seven years
For more than two years the call went unheeded until a public campaign-sharpened by an open letter of 150 prominent writers, journalists, academics, historians, public intellectuals and former MPs - stung the government into meeting the call - indeed over four years not the seven years asked. It wasn't so difficult but it became so hard and almost too late. For those records out of sight and not squeaking so loudly there is no such oil only oblivion.
But the success of the campaign showed what can be done. It affirmed the role of an active citizenry energised by a belief that the foundations of our institutions reflect the foundations of our democracy. Those who agitated have protected against the erosion of Australian governmental history and the further disintegration of our democratic foundations.
Archives are central not only to government stories and personal interactions with government - but to any institutional story. Separate archives have been set up to acknowledge histories outside the traditional national archives, and indeed the Australian Women's archives project is a key and vulnerable archival enterprise seeking to preserve records of women's contributions in the public and private spheres for future review and analysis. If a campaign similar to that just waged around the national archives were conducted around the Australian Women's archives project, it would enrich the understanding of all Australians about the contributions of so many women to Australian life and their indispensable role in nation building in its fullest sense, and around key moments in history that influence us all, both in and outside governmental structures.
Indeed today, Tuesday July 6, 2021, is a notable day in the telling of an institutional story about women's education and schools and the role of a particular woman, Joan Montgomery OBE AM whose impact on generations of women here and abroad is significant. In many ways the book - The Vetting of Wisdom: Joan Montgomery and The Fight for PLC - being launched on Joan's 96th birthday, tells the story that set up my own engagement and interest in the exercise of public power. It dates back to the 1980s, when first as a teenager and then later as law student in Melbourne, I witnessed power trump reason. As PLC's principal from 1969-1985 Joan Montgomery, my school principal, educated generations of women imbued with the values of civic engagement and public responsibility. Many have made important and varied contributions to Australia and the world more broadly. Her influence on them, and the many teachers under her who went on themselves to be principals, speaks to the ripple effect of all individuals in society, whether exercising power and influence in government or other institutional frameworks.
To give you something of the book in brief, The Vetting of Wisdom is the gripping tale of a revered principal, acclaimed nationwide as the leading girls' school educator of her day, being assailed by a Presbyterian Church minority hell-bent on her dismissal and returning PLC to "bible-centred" education. The blow-by-blow account is a drama of big personalities, legal manoeuvring, parliamentary intervention, fiery council debates, outraged parents, packed public meetings, storms of mail and an incredulous press. Joan Montgomery was eventually replaced with PLC's first male principal in 47 years.
Highlighting the critical point, however, I would not have been able to write that story - and have it available to reflect on some 40 years later - if not for all the archival documentation kept from that period. Each of the actors advocating on Joan's behalf gave me their personal archives, rich in the day-to-day documentation that chartered their respective roles in the battle. And the antagonists, to be fair, also valued the record and had their store of documentation and recollection that they felt it important to preserve and share. These sources enabled me to piece together the puzzle of what made Joan Montgomery such an inspiring role model to generations of women, and what led her detractors to think otherwise. Her impact on me and the knowledge from her experience that power can be exercised in ways that are not just, continues in all the work I do, whether acting for individuals whose citizenship is contested, teaching students about the legal foundations to our legal system, advising on gender public policy, or indeed, joining an open letter to ensure that the National Archives of Australia is properly funded. Being an active citizen in all those ways ensures that we pass on the baton of democracy and a liberal democratic system committed to knowing its past.
- Professor Kim Rubenstein is the Co-Director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra. Her book, The Vetting of Wisdom: Joan Montgomery and the Fight for PLC is available through https://www.insidelives.org/