The leaders of Canberra’s struggling national cultural institutions may have thought relief was in sight when the bipartisan report Telling Australia’s Story was handed down 15 months ago but little has changed, apart from a half a billion dollar pledge to the Australian War Memorial to pay for its ambitious redevelopment plans.
While that favoured institution has benefited from government largesse, others such as the National Gallery continue to have to cut staff or, like the National Archives, cannot perform their roles properly due to a lack of resources, particularly in the digitisation of material.
This has prompted the Labor Member for Bean, David Smith, who as a Senator participated in the parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s national institutions, to write to the Prime Minister urging him to respond to the report’s recommendations.
Mr Smith says this includes a critical finding on the disproportionate impact of the efficiency dividend on the national institutions which, with the average staffing levels cap and the inefficient use of temporary labour-hire arrangements, is having a negative impact on critical skills and staff retention.
The letter also highlights that the National Archives may lose more than 100,000 hours of magnetic tape records because of a lack of resources.
”It should never be the case that a nation such as Australia is wilfully deciding to discard some of its history,” Mr Smith said in a statement.
“There is an absolute need for an immediate, coherent whole-of-government approach to digitisation of analogue audio-visual items across all the collections by 2025.”
Mr Smith also told the Prime Minister that the National Gallery was expected to lose 10 per cent of its workforce and the National Library had modified its collecting strategy to remove Japan, Korea, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar from its list of priority countries for its world-class Asia Collection.
Other national institutions did not have permanent homes or premises that suit their requirements and there was a pressing need to coordinate and develop a shared collection storage facility, he told the Prime Minister.
He stressed in the letter that the 2019 report was built on some 83 submissions, several public hearings with witnesses from every major cultural institution and first-hand visits by committee members to many of the institutions.
Mr Smith told the Prime Minister that the Committee chair Liberal Ben Morton noted in his foreword to the report that there was support across the political spectrum for the report’s conclusions and recommendations.
”Unfortunately, 15 months on from the tabling of the report the Government is yet to respond to its recommendations,” Mr Smith wrote.
“Given the challenges face by our national institutions, this is very disappointing.”
Mr Smith told the PM that many in the ACT community were frustrated with Government Ministers talking about ‘plans’ but not actually delivering the resources to develop, fund, and implement a sustainable future for these ”wonderful national resources that tell our Australian Story”.
”There is no doubt that it is time to invest in both the people as well as the physical collections and infrastructure of the national institutions,” Mr Smith said.