Our letter to the Premier of Victoria, Jacinta Allen:

Dear Premier

The Accountability Round Table is concerned by recent reports that the Estate Agents, Residential Tenancies and Other Acts Amendment (Funding) Bill 2024 would abolish the Public Records Advisory Council (PRAC). 

Accountability Round Table strongly supports safeguards for protection and retention of State Records and the government information that provides the foundation for the investigative work of the State integrity oversight bodies, OVIC, VAGO, IBAC and the Ombudsman’s office. 

We also support reform of the status of the Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV), in particular, to give it statutory authority equal to the other Victorian integrity bodies its work supports. This would bring it into line with the status of the equivalent Federal body, the National Archives of Australia under the Archives Act 1983. We believe that, with a statutory Public Records Office, together the five organisations, can provide a strong integrity system for Victoria. 

Any State Government effort to restructure and securely fund PROV is welcome, especially to enable better management and protection of digital records in addition to the preservation of original paper records.  Better systems of management should also protect the office and its records from partisan interference or alteration of records. 

To quote Peter Frost (former VAGO CEO and Deputy Auditor-General, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office); 

“The keeping of comprehensive, accurate records is a key constituent element of good governance. Without it, government and bureaucracies will be free to rewrite history.” 

We are therefore puzzled as to the reasons given for abolishing the Public Records Advisory Council in advance of other tangible plans for reform.  We do not understand how abolishing the PRAC advances the goal of a strong Victorian integrity system supported by a well-functioning Public Records Office. 

The publically available reasons for abolition are vague. 

The Age Editorial of 10/04/2024 refers to a government spokesperson justifying the abolition “by claiming it needed to introduce a new ‘fit-for-purpose system to meet the challenges of rapid technological advances’.”, with no mention of new consultative processes. 

On the other hand, Hansard reports that Harriet Shing, (Minister for Housing) defended this action by referring to a future overhaul of consultative mechanisms yet to be undertaken, during her second (Legislative Council) reading of the Estate Agents, Residential Tenancies and Other Acts Amendment (Funding) Bill 2024 on 21 March 2024.  

“…. the Bill will abolish the Estate Agents Council and the Public Records Advisory Council while the Government works towards establishing more informal, flexible and ongoing consultative mechanisms to inform policy and practice in the regulation of the real estate industry and in managing public records requirements.”

The two explanations are significantly different justifications, and neither individually, nor together, provide sufficient rationale or reformed replacement architecture for what appears to be a premature axing of the PROC. 

Further, the documents from which the original notion of abolition of the PRAC derives, are not yet public, despite an FOI request being made for them by Accountability Round Table, in December 2023.

The Public Records Act 1973, section 5, sets out two valuable functions of the PRAC; that it shall: 

“… promote co-operation between the Public Record Office and public offices”, and “may report and make recommendations to the Minister on any matter relating to the administration of this Act.”

In these days of stretched public services, and problematic outsourcing of advice to governments, the role of a voluntary arms length advisory body to assist in promoting co-operation between itself and other agencies and in providing informed advice to government on the work of its record keeping, would seem highly worth retaining even if that function is implemented through a reformed body.

There is no clear explanation directly linking the abolition of the Council to further Victorian Pubic Records Office reforms which would; 

  • enhance the work of the PROV to provide the information on which the Victorian integrity system relies;
  • strengthen its role in that system by making it a statutory body;
  •  assist with consultation and fostering co-operation with other agencies;
  • or to demonstrate how reforms will protect records from political interference;

That absence risks entrenching in the public mind the impression that Government is evasive of transparency, whether or not this is the Government’s intention. 

It would be helpful to ourselves and to the Victorian public in general, if you could give us a clearer indication of what your government intends for the future better management of State records.  

In the interim, why not withdraw the abolition of the Public Records Advisory Council until a fully developed alternative restructure is in place? 

Yours faithfully,

Lyn Allison 

Chair, Accountability Round Table

E. lynallison4@gmail.com 

W. accountabilityrt.org

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