Review of the Archives Act 1983

The ALRC began its review of the Archives Act in August 1996 – the first major review of the Archives Act 1983 (Cth), which was drafted at a time when Commonwealth government records were predominantly in paper format.

The ALRC found that the quality of recordkeeping by Commonwealth agencies varied widely and was often inadequate.

Traditional recordkeeping methods are now facing enormous challenges from the rapid development of electronic communication and recordkeeping systems. These technological advances raise fundamental issues about which records should be created and how they can be preserved and made easily accessible.

The advent of electronic information will bring great benefits if adequate provision is made for recordkeeping. However, if recordkeeping is neglected and fragmented between incompatible electronic and paper-based systems, the situation will worsen.

Key recommendations

  • The Archives Act should be replaced by a new Archives and Records Act. The principal objectives of the new legislation would be to ensure Commonwealth records are adequately evaluated, then either kept or destroyed at the appropriate time.
  • The new legislation would ensure a balance between protection of sensitive records, individual privacy and public availability of Commonwealth records, encouraging the greatest possible use archival material as a vital element in the history of the nation.
  • The National Archives of Australia should be replaced by a new independent statutory authority. The new authority would retain the name National Archives of Australia, but its independence and standing would be significantly enhanced. It would have two roles:
    • to protect all Commonwealth records of archival value; and

    • a supervisory role for all Commonwealth recordkeeping, with emphasis on the issue of standards and guidelines to ensure the adequate creation, maintenance and disposal of all records.

  • There should be mandatory uniform standards for all stages of Commonwealth recordkeeping from creation to disposal or archiving.
  • Storage and preservation standards should ensure that the accessibility and functionality of electronic records are preserved.
  • Many basic features of the public access regime should remain, including a statutory right of public access to all Commonwealth records which are 30 years old, subject only to appealable exemptions. However, public access provisions should be strengthened to enhance access to all records, including those less than thirty years old.

The full list of recommendations is contained in Appendix C of the ALRC Report 85.


Australian Archives changed its name to the National Archives of Australia (NAA) in February 1998. This was after the release of the ALRC’s draft recommendations paper, which advocated the name change, but before the release of the final report.

In March 2000 the NAA launched a new strategy for government recordkeeping. The strategy includes government-wide standards and guidelines, supported by training and advice to be administered by the National Archives. This strategy is consistent with the enhanced role recommended by the Commission in ALRC 85.

The Archives Amendment Act 2008 (Cth) implemented a number of recommendations in ALRC 85, including:

  • the insertion of an objects clause (Recommendation 1) (although not in the same terms as the ALRC recommendation);
  • amendment of the definition of ‘record’ to include ‘recorded information in any form’ (so to include elctronic formats) (Recommendation 24);
  • amendment to confirm that the NAA is an ‘executive agency’ rather than one that sits within a Department. The ALRC recommended that the NAA should be an independent statutory corporation (Recommendation 8);
  • amendments that introduce the concept of ‘in the care of Archives’. Central to the concept is the recognition that NAA will not always be the best repository for particular resources, for example, the NAA may not have the appropriate hardware to stroe certain kinds of software. However, even where arrangements are made with a person to have custody of a record, the NAA must still be able to meet its obligations under the Archives Act (including access decisions). A number of recommendations in ALRC 85 supported this regime. For example, Recommendation 87 stated that Archives legislation should permit the NAA to authorise a Commonwealth institution, a non-Commonwealth institution or an individual to have custody of records of archival value subject to appropriate conditions. Recommendation 75 stated that the NAA should have the power to require agencies to retain custody of records of archival value if, in the opinion of the NAA, this is necessary to ensure their preservation and accessibility.
  • royal commissions records are to be transferred to the care of NAA, but can be in the custody of another person. Recommendation 28 stated that royal commission records are Commonwealth records for the purposes of the Act, and that the Minister responsible for the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth) exercises the controlling agency function for them.