Thursday, 25 February 2021
National Collecting Institutions Legislation Amendment Bill 2020; Second Reading
We all know that the Liberal and National parties have a very poor record of supporting the arts and our nation's collecting institutions. Remember the furore that occurred in the 1970s when the Whitlam government purchased Jackson Pollock's artwork, Blue Poles? Remember the roar that came from the conservative side of politics and many conservative media commentators about it being a waste of money? Of course, it was one of Australia's best investments in the artistic space. It's a very, very important part of our cultural history, and it's there for all to see in the National Gallery of Australia.
The institutions that are subject to this bill, the National Collecting Institutions Legislation Amendment Bill 2020, have seen cuts under the coalition government that stretch back to the 2015 budget, resulting in job losses and a reduction of services. Most recently, the National Gallery of Australia announced 30 to 40 job losses. We all know that this government never really takes the arts seriously. It's been far too slow to respond to the queries from those in the arts industry, particularly their fears about the end of JobKeeper in a few weeks. Whether it's the independent cinemas or local arts organisations, they're facing a tough time when JobKeeper ends.
This legislation is important. It makes a number of changes to the governance of six of our national collecting institutions—the Australian National Maritime Museum, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the National Museum of Australia and the National Portrait Gallery. The stated aim of this bill is to standardise the operating conditions of these six institutions. The key changes are as follows. For the first time, the governing bodies of the National Library and the National Gallery will be subject to ministerial written direction. The financial thresholds which trigger ministerial approval for the acquisition of works, land and other assets will be removed from the legislation and put into regulation, but we understand that those regulations will be disallowable. The investment mandates of the institutions will be made more flexible. There is a concern about that. Many see the investment-mandate changes as an opportunity for the coalition government to further reduce funding for these important institutions. I don't think it's unreasonable to say that it's probably the wish of the government that these organisations look more at investment as a means of generating income, rather than government support. Specific to the National Gallery, the bill removes the requirement for the national collection to be exclusively housed in the ACT. That's probably a positive development, particularly when we're talking about Indigenous artworks and cultural items. Properly, on the basis of consultation with Indigenous communities, these should be housed and displayed on country so that members of those communities can learn about and understand the significance of those important artworks.
This bill also allows those national collecting institutions to dispose of material without the need for ministerial approval, where an item is valued below a specific threshold. To date, there have been different thresholds across those collecting institutions, and this bill will introduce a consistent threshold of $2 million, except in the case of the National Gallery of Australia, where the threshold will be $10 million. An issue has been raised with this particular element of the bill, and I think it's a reasonable one. It's been raised by First Nations representatives, who submitted to the Senate inquiry that it's very important that, before asset disposal occurs, there is consultation with Indigenous communities and elders about the significance of those assets.
In her submission to the Senate inquiry, Elizabeth Pearson commented on the notion of a financial threshold for Indigenous cultural artefacts. She argued:
The value of Indigenous cultural heritage to Traditional Owners simply cannot be accurately measured or conveyed through monetary value thresholds.
It is important that statutory provisions relating to the disposal of NCI artefacts are culturally competent and provide appropriate recognition of and consultation with First Nations Peoples in considering disposing of items of Indigenous cultural heritage.
Ms Pearson also argued that the bill should contain provisions that require the national collecting institutions to consult with First Nations peoples when an NCI proposes to dispose of an Indigenous object in its collection. It's a point that I agree with and that Labor agrees with. There must be consultation with elders and with Indigenous community groups prior to the disposal of important cultural artefacts. I note that, in the evidence that he gave to the Senate inquiry, Mat Trinca from the National Museum said that the museum does have in place policies and procedures that are to be followed in instances of disposal of important cultural artefacts such as those. I would hope that all of these institutions would take a similar approach.
I must say, in respect of the National Museum and certain displays and exhibitions they have had, that there has been in the past a tradition of consultation with First Nations elders and communities. There's an exhibition in the museum at the moment about Captain Cook's Endeavour voyage. The exhibition is called Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians. The exhibition charts Cook's 126 days up the east coast of Australia when he arrived here, and the particular significance of this exhibition is the consultation that has occurred with First Nations people and its view of the Cook expedition from the shore. In much of history and much that's taught to Australians, the view is always from the journals of Cook and his expedition, with very little of the view from the shore. That's why this is an important exhibition. I know there was consultation with the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, in the area I represent, and elders and representatives of that community in putting this exhibition together.
I think it is important to recognise that when Cook set foot on Kurnell in 1770 at Kamay, or Botany Bay as it's now known, to claim the east coast of Australia in the name of King George, it began the process of First Australians being dispossessed of their land, robbed of their culture and cut off from their language. When Cook's expedition left our shore, it took with it the sovereignty of the First Australians over the land they had nurtured and inhabited for tens of thousands of years. It also took many spears, shields and other cultural items and pieces that tell an important story about our nation's true history. These are deeply cherished and significant cultural relics that connect today's First Australians with their ancestors and traditions. Yet in 2021 these items are still predominantly housed in displays in museums throughout Europe.
It's my view and the view of many on the Labor side and indeed the view of many First Nations peoples that those cultural artefacts belong on country. They belong with the descendants of those who created them. They belong in Australia. A major symbol of this dispossession is an artefact known as the Gweagal shield and a series of spears that are actually on display at the moment in the Australian Museum as part of this Cook expedition. When that expedition left our shores, those items were stolen and taken from the Gweagal people who inhabited the shores of Botany Bay. The shield and those spears, which are on loan at the moment to the National Museum, are housed in British museums in a collection of some 6,000 Australian items, many of them questionably acquired. Most of them aren't even on display, and those that are on display are down the back and are not prominently displayed, particularly those in the British Museum.
The museum has refused repeated requests from descendants of the Kamay men and women for the return of these artefacts. There are a few cases where the requests have been agreed for other artefacts, but the practice is the exception. In 2015 the British Museum loaned the Gweagal shield and other artefacts to the National Museum of Australia for its Encounters exhibition but only after the federal government—the Labor government at the time—passed legislation, the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act, rendering these items that were loaned back to Australia legally immune from Indigenous claims. I know that that was necessary to ensure that the British Museum would loan those artefacts to Australia for display here, but it shouldn't have had to happen. It simply should not have had to happen.
These are very, very important artefacts that tell the truth about Australian history, and, as a gesture of truth telling, as a gesture of recognition and as a gesture of reconciliation, these artefacts should be returned to their original owners, the First Nations peoples whose ancestors created them. These artefacts should be returned to country so that the descendants of those from whom they were taken can learn about their history and their culture and pass on this important heritage to their children—not only Indigenous children but other Australian children as well, so that we may learn more about the significance to Australia of history pre Cook. That may help us—and I believe it certainly will help us—to overcome this barrier that has existed in Australia, particularly on the conservative side of politics, to amending our constitution to finally recognise the First Australians and listening to what they have had to say to us for the past decade about what they would like to see and how they would like to see government work with First Nations communities through a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament.
If we can have these cultural artefacts returned and learn from First Nations people and their ancestors, to whom these remains and artefacts are important, maybe we can overcome some of the barrier that has existed not only on the conservative side of politics but in this parliament more generally and overcome the inability to put up a referendum and ask the Australian people whether or not they believe it's important that a voice to parliament is enshrined in our constitution and that we finally recognise that truth telling is important. There is precedent for this, and I ask the British government to take note that, this week, 2,000 Indigenous stone artefacts have been repatriated to Australia by the Israeli Museum with the support of the Israeli government. I thank the Israeli government for doing that. It's an important gesture and it will be important to truth telling in our nation. It proves to the British government and the British Museum that we can do the same, and that they should do the same and work with the Australian government and bodies like AIATSIS, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, who have been specifically mandated and allocated a budget to work with other foreign governments, organisations and museums to negotiate the return of these cultural artefacts.
This bill is important because it highlights the fact that our national collecting institutions are important in telling the stories of Australia and, most importantly, in telling the stories of the First Nations people. These institutions have a role to play in returning artefacts such as those I've mentioned so that those stories can be told.