4th October 1999
A JOINT PUBLIC STATEMENT BY THE AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY OF ARCHIVISTS (ASA) AND THE RECORDS MANAGEMENT ASSOCIATION OF AUSTRALIA (RMAA)
In the days immediately following the recent Victorian government election there have been a number of press reports alleging that the Caretaker Government has been undertaking the wholesale shredding of government documents. The ASA and the RMAA present this public statement within the context of what has been reported in the daily press.
THE INTEGRITY OF THE PUBLIC RECORD
The operation of a free and democratic society depends upon the maintenance of the integrity of the public record. Public records are a key source of information about government actions and decisions. They provide essential evidence of the exercise of public trust by public officials. This in turn helps ensure public accountability and protection of the rights of citizens.
In recent years there have been a number of instances of serious disregard for the integrity of public records in Australia. Some examples include those highlighted by the 'W.A. Inc.' Royal Commission, the 1994 destruction of Special Branch records in New South Wales and the so-called 'Heiner Affair' in Queensland. This trend is a matter of profound concern to the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA) and the Records Management Association of Australia (RMAA) and should also be of the gravest concern to society as a whole.
Archivists and Records Managers, as impartial and independent professionals, play a vital role in defending the integrity of public records. Cases of indiscriminate destruction such as have been alleged in Victoria, highlight the fact that recordkeeping professionals should play a significant role to play in decisions about the destruction of records.
The greatest threat to the integrity of the public record is the unwarranted destruction of important documents. The ASA and the RMAA strongly assert that records should only be destroyed when a professional decision has been reached that the financial costs of reserving and maintaining access to the records are not justified by their estimated ongoing utility, value and significance. In other words, records should only be destroyed when they are no longer required for the purposes of individual, corporate or societal accountability and reference. The process of disposal and destruction of public records should be orderly. It should be guided by established administrative procedures that in turn are based upon internationally recognised recordkeeping principles.
THE PRESENT ALLEGATIONS
It is unclear from the press reporting what records have actually been shredded. It is noted that some records in Ministerial Offices may not fall under the provisions of the Public Records Act 1973, or standards issued under that Act, and may be destroyed without any recourse to the State's public records legislation. It is vital, however, that the determination of what is and is not a public record is guided and authorised by legally empowered recordkeeping professionals, in this case the Victorian Keeper of Public Records and his staff. Governments, in particular Ministers, are accountable to the community at large and so have a moral responsibility to ensure that records of their decisions should not only be created but are subject to proper scrutiny before any destruction. That scrutiny, as already stated, should be guided by established administrative procedures that in turn are based upon internationally recognised recordkeeping principles.
In this case there is Victorian public records legislation that requires approval before "public records" can be destroyed. If the records are not "public records", there is an Australian Standard AS 4390 on Records Management which should also be taken into consideration. As the professional bodies representing Archivists and Records Managers, the ASA and the RMAA believe that professional recordkeepers should be involved in this process to ensure accurate appraisal and sentencing of records before wholesale destruction is allowed to occur.
The ASA has adopted a general position paper on the destruction of records. The position paper, which is available at the following URL:
underpins all of the comments in this statement. For further information please contact the ASA President, Adrian Cunningham on 02 6212-3988 (02/6247-7258 after hours)