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When the NFSA became a statutory authority in 2008, its minister appointed an initial governing board which exemplified the academic and professional backgrounds, as well as the connections to the NFSA’s stakeholder base, that were essential to the leadership of the institution.  With the churn of board appointments by different ministers over time, however, the maintenance of this skills matrix was lost from view. This has long been a matter of concern for the Friends and other supporters, as has the continued shrinkage of the NFSA’s resource base.

With the federal election approaching, the Friends felt it was time to sound out supporters from potentially sympathetic election candidates as a possible path to change. During March and April the Friends surveyed the major parties and several independent candidates – both sitting and prospective – seeking their policy stances on the NFSA’s resource allocation, access fees and the process for appointment to the NFSA’s Board. The results of that survey, and the questionnaire on which it was based, can be read here.  NFSA survey 

The deteriorating resource base of memory institutions is not a new issue, nor is the related and long standing matter of politicised appointments to public sector boards and committees. Both have now become the concern of several media commentators, and with the change of government, as well as the attention of major think tanks, the issue of objectivity in appointments has come more clearly into focus. It now seems likely to be on the parliamentary agenda sooner rather than later.

Following the election in 21 May, Hon. Tony Burke was appointed as the incoming Arts Minister (and therefore the Minister responsible for the NFSA). Writing in The Australian on 18 June, Gideon Haigh mapped out a grim picture of the condition of our national memory institutions, including the NFSA Neglected heritage how could it happen. Karl Quinn followed up on 1 July in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, Lazy and indulgent  , quoting Burke as recognizing the gravity of the issues, having already met with “every collecting institution” already, and encouraging them to make direct submissions to the Creative Australia cultural policy review that would frame Labor’s approach to regulation and support of the arts. Some changes, such as quotas, could be made without great cost to the government, he said, but others would need to be fought for in upcoming budget discussions.

In June,  the Centre for Public Integrity had released Public appointments framework , a briefing paper on the need for merit-based processes. This was followed on 18 July by the Grattan Institute’s report on the objectivity of public sector board appointments, New politics public appointments . The report analyses the level of politicization of the current boards of major cultural institutions, including the NFSA (page 17 of the report) and advocates replacing the traditional system of ministerial appointments with an independent, arm’s length mechanism, as is the case in New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom.  

On the same day, newly elected independent MP Dr Sophie Scamps announced that she will be introducing a Private Member’s Bill  to establish “an independent and merit based process to select candidates for government  boards, committees and departmental appointments”. See here.

The Friends have written to Minister Burke, picking up these issues and proposing a means of applying a skills matrix to future appointments to the NFSA Board. Letter here.