Plan for Archives NZ seen as threat to basis of healthy democracy

Accountability is a cornerstone of a working democracy - politicians and officials being held responsible for their actions.

However, for this accountability to be possible the nation's memory must be reliable, intact and available. There must be an impartial public record of decisions and the implementation of policies by the government that is safe from interference.

Before Christmas, the State Sector Management Bill is expected to return to the House for its second reading. Once this bill is passed, after February 1, preservation of the public record in New Zealand will have more in common with Third World states than Western-style democracies.

The Government's decision to disestablish Archives New Zealand as an independent agency results in its relegation to minor status within a branch of the diffuse Internal Affairs Department.

This effectively returns the institution, and its control functions, to the administrative insignificance experienced before 2001.

In 2001, in a move hailed locally and internationally as visionary, theLabour government created Archives NZ, an independent department of state charged with overseeing public recordkeeping, and holding and being responsible for the permanently valuable records of the state in perpetuity.

The breadth of the Archives NZ holdings is huge - literally and figuratively. It contains more than 100km of files, items as wide-ranging in their historical significance as the Treaty of Waitangi and the axle used in the Crewe murders (part of the archives because it was evidence in the commission of inquiry into the case).

Why should what is proposed be of concern to the average citizen? Although it is a core reason for preserving public archives, in reality the occasions when public figures are held to account through examination of their doings will be rare. What is important is the ability to do so.

The archives' collections also support current official decision-making through the preservation of precedents and past case files. As significant, however, is the facilitation of quests by individuals and community groups for evidence of rights, whether pension entitlements, immigration records, or researching Treaty claims.

Alongside those are secondary cultural, or heritage, functions. This is the repository to which people resort when writing histories of the nation and from which genealogists reconstruct family histories. In short, Archives NZ is the storehouse of memory from which national identity emerges.

Whatever the use, it is imperative the sanctity of the public record is preserved, that there be a guarantee it is beyond manipulation by interested parties.

That is why the nation's chief archivist, theoretically at least, is accorded legal powers to control public recordkeeping that are analogous to the financial controls of the auditor-general. However with this move, he or she will not have the status to effectively wield them.

Ministers and officials have repeatedly claimed that the "reform" proposed under the Public Sector Management Bill, mirrors administrative arrangements in comparable jurisdictions, indeed seeks to "future-proof" NZ Archives in a challenging world. This is simply not true - where is the evidence of a similar overseas model that is working satisfactorily?

THE downgrading was hatched in secrecy; there was deliberately no consultation with stakeholders before approval of the amalgamation by the Cabinet. When news of the proposal was leaked prematurely to the media, the state services commissioner ordered a witch-hunt. Why? Ironically, greater official transparency is now offered as a justification for the move.

The previous oversight of what was then called National Archives by Internal Affairs was not universally maligned, indeed there were several sympathetic chief executives. But the statutory independence of the chief archivist when management of Archives NZ is subsumed under another position will always be open to damaging interference. And under Internal Affairs, public archives were improperly destroyed or otherwise disposed of.

The risks to the public record posed by a return to Internal Affairs are too great. Much has been made of the potential synergies of lumping Archives NZ (and the National Library) into a new technology-oriented Internal Affairs branch, the objective being a common electronic platform for government information services.

Though the amalgamation of the National Library and Public Archives of Canada is frequently cited, there is seeming ignorance that the experiment has been less than fully successful. The IT needs of the institutions have been proven to be quite different.

What makes the present amalgamation all the more bizarre is that the autonomy of the institutions is being revoked simply to accommodate a tool, especially as even a rudimentary cost- benefit analysis would have established that no more than a small fraction of Archives NZ's extensive holdings are ever likely to be digitised.

In the past decade, and especially since passage of the Public Records Act 2005, Archives NZ has at last been able to truly fulfil its role as the memory of government, to insist state agencies properly maintain and preserve their records. Much has been achieved, with even the State Services Commission conceding that Archives NZ has been an effective and well functioning organisation.

Why change this and place effective public recordkeeping in jeopardy?

Ray Grover was chief archivist from 1981-1991 and Kathryn Patterson was chief archivist from 1991-1998.

The Dominion Post