The Government must properly fund our national institutions

31 August 2020

Federation Chamber, House of Representatives

Private Members Business

Notices

MR D. P. B. SMITH: To move—That this House:

1. notes:

(a) in April 2019 the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories tabled a report on its inquiry into Canberra’s national institutions, titled Telling Australia’s Story—and why it is important;

(b) the report made 20 recommendations and was informed by some 83 submissions and several public hearings with witnesses from every major cultural institution;

(c) the report’s conclusions and recommendations were supported across the political spectrum;

(d) unfortunately, 16 months on from the tabling of the report the Government is yet to respond to its recommendations;

(e) Government inaction on these recommendations is having a detrimental effect on the operation of these national treasures, including but not limited to the:

  1. National Gallery, which is expected to lose about 10 per cent of their workforce;
  2. National Library, which has modified its collecting strategy to remove Japan, Korea, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar from its list of priority countries from its Asia Collection; and
  3. National Australian Archives, which is preparing to lose large sections of its 117,000 hours of magnetic tape archives unless additional resources for digitisation are provided; and

(f) these challenges outlined in the report are being further amplified by current COVID-19 restrictions;

2. recognises that Canberra’s cultural institutions play a critical role in telling our collective national story; and

3. calls on the Government to immediately table a substantive and detailed response to the report’s recommendations.

 

TRANSCRIPT

(check against delivery)

Deputy Speaker, In March 2018 the joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories announced an inquiry into Canberra’s national institutions. The inquiry not only held hearings and received a substantial number of submissions, but also provided an opportunity for committee members to participate in site visits to see first hand the challenges facing the institutions in managing their collections, providing access to them and ensuring they had appropriate staff with the skills required in largely expert roles.

I was a latecomer to the inquiry, joining the committee halfway through the year but had the opportunity to talk to archivists, curators, librarians, sound engineers and others doing their best in their work within and, in some cases, across institutions. It was obvious how thin the resourcing was as a result of ongoing funding cuts and the risk it created to these institutions if these issues weren’t addressed.

The National Gallery of Australia told the committee it was at a crossroads after years of efficiency dividends had a marked effect. Their submission noted:

“Funding reductions have put the core purposes of the NGA at risk, with questions around financial sustainability, caring for the collection and the planning of our loans programs under constant review. The NGA can no longer find more efficiencies – we will be forced to reduce some services and programs further, should future cuts occur.”  

The National Library of Australia’s submission said the caps on staff levels created significant challenges, the Australian War Memorial noted the unsustainable impact of the efficiency dividend and the National Archives noted that the impact of these measures were cumulative

The Committee finalised its report early in 2019 and it was tabled before the election in April 2019. 

The report was tabled without dissent and demonstrated support across the political spectrum for its conclusions and recommendations. As the Chair, Ben Morton MP noted, “A strong and vibrant collection of national institutions is critically important for the continued success of our democracy and nation. These institutions tell our Australian story, often quite different parts of that story, and it is “essential that we understand that story, learn from it and use it to build confidence and pride for the present and the future.”

The report made 20 recommendations including recommendations around the resourcing of the institutions that required urgent attention. These included:

  • a reassessment of the Average Staffing Level caps to reduce the skills-retention impacts the caps were having and the perverse cost impact of having to use inefficient and expensive labour hire arrangements.
  • adoption of measures to offset the disproportionate impact of the efficiency dividend on small agencies such as the national institutions.
  • understanding the challenge of digitization of analogue audio-visual items across the collections by 2025 and the need for a clear and coherent whole of government strategy across institutions to get this done.

And the report has just sat there since April 2019, gathering dust, without a Government response to any of the recommendations. The inaction, particularly around the resourcing of critical skills across the institutions has already had significant consequences.

In June this year the National Gallery of Australia announced that they could make up to 12% of their staff redundant. The NGA had already flagged the impact of the efficiency dividend.

In July this year the National Archives warned that they were preparing to lose large sections of its 117,000 hours of audio-visual magnetic tape archives because they did not have the resources to digitize the archive by 2025.

And in May this year, the National Library announced that it has removed key Asian countries from its list of collection priorities, it has closed its Asian Collections Room and cancelled subscriptions to hundreds of Asian periodicals.

As James Spigelman former Chief Justice of NSW and former NLA Chair put it:

“This is not a propitious time to proclaim to the world that Australians are not interested in India, Japan, Korea and all the nations of mainland Southeast Asia. That, however, is what the National Library of Australia has done by announcing it will stop its systematic collecting of materials about all these nations, because…financial restraints forced the library to prioritise.”

“This is a collection that serves Australia’s strategic interests, and never more than at present.”

“The blame should be correctly attributed. No one said that the library’s funding was being cut. Rather, year after year, it was subject to what was called the “efficiency dividend”. That this could be imposed every year for decades, without effect on the delivery of services, as implied in the language used, was and is delusional…This deceptive device has undermined our public decision-making for too long.”

At such a point in our nation’s story it’s critical that we support those institutions entrusted to tell our story and give us a better understanding of our place in the world. The Government needs to urgently respond to the report’s recommendations before more of our institutions’ work is lost or left to wither on the vine.

Ends.