Holding on to the Past: Governing National Archives

Listener: 30 September, 1995.

Keywords: Governance;

The prime minister must have groaned when controversy erupted over the reforming of the National Archives, which holds most of the nation’s important records. It is the sort of row which his government does not need. The antagonized includes archivists, genealogists, historians, constitutional lawyers, Maori with land claims, and retired soldiers. The proposals have alienated them, yet the gains, if any, from the reforms will be small.

We are promised there will be efficiency improvements. More than one reader will yawn. We were promised major efficiency gains from the health reforms – most of us will be dead before they happen. In any case the archive reform is hardly coherent. It has a funder-provider split, separating the Chief Archivist from running the National Archives. Yet both report to the Secretary of Internal Affairs. Duck shoving between this troika of responsibility, means a reduction in accountability. A resolution could have a Commissioner for Archives reporting to parliament (like the Commissioner for the Environment). That would involve changing the Archives Act, but the government has been reluctant to address this piece of legislation, created forty odd years ago in a pre-computer age.

The refusal to deal with the legislative issues is not the only complaint by the protestors, although their outrage is increased by yet another example of administrative change within existing legislation without adequate (or, in this case, any) consultation. What the protestors most fear is the ultimate destination of the reforms is a reduction in public funding, a scrapping of some records, and privatisation. There have been sufficient earlier examples which use the terms of “accountability” and “efficiency”, to warn even the mildly suspicious. The first stage is the cutting back of funding in the name of “efficiency gains”. Then the private sector offers to do the job better, by weeding out “unimportant” records, selling others off but keeping the image (as a hologram?), and imposing user charges.

Do we need national archives at all? They are not only a matter of antiquarian interest, by those who want to find out what happened to Great-grandma Gill. They are also integral to our constitutional processes, holding politicians and bureaucrats to account by the record of their deeds. Perhaps that is why the two groups have shown so little enthusiasm for updating the Act. That is why I suggested there should be a Commissioner for Archives reporting to parliament.

The lesson that the prime minister needs to draw is not just that there are those who would fiercely defend institutions integral to the running of the modern nation state and of our national identity. The government has embarked upon a policy which will keep generating such flare ups. Each year the National government wants to cut public spending around 1½ percent. There is no way that efficiency gains of this magnitude can be found, especially given rising population and other pressures. So along comes the seductive Treasury argument that they have they have a means of generating substantial efficiency gains by forcing all government institutions into their idealized framework – one which ultimately leads to privatization. I have never seen a study which remotely justifies the claim that such reforms work, but there is a grim obsession to impose them everywhere. Those that brought you the health reforms and the proposal to privatize the “non-New Zealand” holdings of the Alexander Turnbull Library, have moved on to National Archives. Next stop schools?

Underlying is the deeper error that all of government can be run by pretending that the Crown (i.e. the government) is a business. The absurdity descends to valuing all the assets of the Crown as if they were business assets. Apparently the Treaty of Waitangi is valued at £8 million. That surely only has any meaning if the Crown can contemplate selling off the Treaty to – apparently from the valuation – some Brit. Surely the figure is meaningless for the Treaty, for many of the other documents in our national archives, for the most of the collections in the national libraries, museums, and art galleries, for the government’s historic buildings, for the national parks, and so on. The Crown is the trustee for such heritage assets, not the owner. Their treatment in the Public Accounts is a lie. The practice set down in the Public Finance Act undermines the integrity of the act.

The prime minister can treat the whole escapade as one of damage control. (The obvious step would be to delay the reforms until the Archives Act was updated following public consultation.) But he might also think about the broader issues of the inevitable consequences of the policies of his government and the Treasury (they can be different) generating political outbursts with little economic gain.

National will go into the election of “Trust us. We can govern.” This incident, like many others, suggests nobody trusts a government which keeps using the terms “accountability” and “efficiency”, while pursuing constitutional irresponsibility and commercial privatisation. If the people who care about such things are successful, your great-grandchild Gill will be able to read all about it in the National Archives.