Senate debates

Thursday, 4 February 2016


Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Amendment Bill 2015; Second Reading

12:48 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | Hansard source

The AIATSIS Council and members have been predominantly Indigenous since then. I will say more later about why the changes the bill introduces are a necessary reform, but since I want to remind senators of the indispensable work that AIATSIS does I will just take us through some of those points.

In the 52 years since the work began, the institute has amassed a collection of Indigenous cultural materials that is unique in the world. It contains more than a million items, which together document every aspect of the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: their history; their material culture, knowledge and beliefs; and the languages, songs and dances. The collection includes more than 100 artworks and artefacts, 13,000 manuscripts, 4,000 videos, 830 films and 40,000 hours of audio recordings. There are more than 600,000 photographs—90 per cent of them unique—which together provide a comprehensive photographic record of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from 1880 to the present.

No price can be set on the value of the AIATSIS collection. It is not only a crucial primary resource for anyone conducting research and anthropology, archaeology, human biology or linguistics it is also, and even more importantly, a means by which Indigenous Australians themselves can become acquainted with the sources of their culture, so much of which has been lost as a result of the 200-year European occupation of this land.

That part of AIATSIS's role is perhaps most notable in the content of the language collection, which contains recordings of 250 languages and almost 750 dialects. The language collection is listed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Register, together with artefacts such as the Magna Carta and the Gutenberg Bible. Preserving and expanding the collection is by far the most important thing that AIATSIS does, and the need to concentrate more on those aspects of its work has led to the present bill.

Until now, AIATSIS has also had a major role in funding research and publication as well as acquiring more items for the collection. In 2014-15 research by the institute's staff appeared in 51 publications and the staff presented at 107 conferences and seminars. Research work using the AIATSIS collection will not stop, of course, but there are now many people conducting research and other, increasingly important sources of funding, such as the Australian Research Council, for that research. It has been apparent for some time that AIATSIS should change its focus to emphasise care of the collection. In 2008, the Cutler review of the national innovation system recommended:

The role of institutions such as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) should be broadened and strengthened in recognition of the special importance of preserving Indigenous collections and the unique value of Indigenous traditional knowledge and practices within Australia’s innovation system.

In 2012 the Behrendt Review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people final report recommended:

That the Australian Government continue to support the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to digitise and thus preserve its collection for future generations and particularly for use in higher education, and encourage the development of a national approach to data digitisation … to ensure that Indigenous knowledge be digitised appropriately and preserved.

In the same year, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs also recommended in its report Our land our languages: language learning in Indigenous communities that AIATSIS be given increased resources to carry out digitisation and storage of Indigenous language materials.

Finally, an independent review of AIATSIS itself was commissioned by the Department of Education in 2013 in response to the Behrendt review. That review recommended that, while AIATSIS's role as the 'key national and collecting research agency' be maintained, the institute's own research should be specifically informed by the collection. Further, the review recommended that 'the government should work with the ARC, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and AIATSIS to make major grant streams more accessible to community-based research'.

The recommendations of all these reviews have resulted in the bill now before the Senate. It makes clear that curating the collection is the core mandate of AIATSIS. The bill has been drafted in consultation with AIATSIS and has the support of the chair of the institute's council, Professor Mick Dodson, and council members. The bill trims the functions of AIATSIS set out in the act from eight to five. It removes specific requirements for AIATSIS itself to undertake research and publication but gives it a leadership role in promoting research and in curating the collection, which is growing at a rate of approximately 1,400 items a year.

In line with the change of emphasis, the research advisory committee is removed from the legislation and there are changes to the institute's governance structure. The changes will ensure that there is a continuing Indigenous majority on the AIATSIS council. At least two of the four elected members must be Indigenous, and in appointing members the minister must ensure that there are always at least five Indigenous councillors, at least one of whom must be a Torres Strait Islander. There are also some smaller changes reflecting the aim of giving AIATSIS a more streamlined management. The principal will in future be a chief executive officer.

Thus, reforms do not respond to any failure by AIATSIS; on the contrary, they are a recognition of the enormous achievement of this very important cultural institution. They are an acknowledgement that it is now time for AIATSIS to become more specialised as the research work it fostered is increasingly taken up elsewhere. The nation is finally moving towards including recognition of Indigenous peoples in the Constitution. When that goal is achieved, it will reflect the contribution of many people and institutions. The work of AIATSIS as a custodian of Indigenous cultural memory and identity will be far from the least amongst those contributions. Labor is therefore pleased to support this bill, which will allow AIATSIS to consolidate its previous work and prepare for what lies ahead.


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