South Australian Independent Senator Rex Patrick has reprimanded the National Archives of Australia (NAA) for its failure to make any significant efforts to clear its massive, decades-old backlog of government file access applications.
In a media release, Patrick claims that a representative of the archives admitted at a Senate Estimates meeting in May 2021 that the backlog of applications that are at least a year overdue had climbed past 20,178, with more than half of these applications submitted between five and ten years ago.
Patrick claims the NAA’s failure to process the applications breaches the Archives Act 1983, which requires that access applications be processed within 90 days.
These failures are the fault of National Archives Director-General David Fricker, according to Patrick. He claims that the NAA leader failed to deliver the agency’s ‘core responsibility of providing timely public access to historical government documents due to his implementation of budget cuts, staff reductions and the shirking of statutory requirements.
Liability for the failure is not entirely on the Archive’s chief. Patrick also points to federal government leaders who “decide the resources available to NAA.”
In early July, Attorney-General Senator Michaelia Cash announced that the government plans to fix the backlog as part of a $67.7 million funding package. The funding will also cover the digitisation and preservation of at-risk records and investments in cybersecurity.
If the government fails to address the backlog, it could significantly impact Australian historical, diplomatic, and economic research. Patrick claims that some researchers died before their access requests were processed.
“Numerous research projects have been abandoned because of the failure of the archives to provide timely access. Chronic delays effectively block postgraduate research on many subjects.”