President's Report

History Council of WA president

This autumn our key focus has been advocating on issues of concern to members. These have included the possible sale of Landgate, the Eastern Guruma and the protection of Ngajanha Marnta (or Spear Hill), Western Australian Births, Deaths and Marriages Records, and fees at the new WA Museum



Possible Sale of Landgate

It has been reported in the media that the Government is considering the possible sale of Landgate. On behalf of the History Council and with the assistance of Neil Foley and Jim Cameron, I have written to the Treasurer expressing our concern about the impact of any such sale on the huge collection of important historical records of which Landgate is the custodian. A number of issues are raised by this matter.

  •  Historical importance of land records

The land records held by Landgate are of major importance in terms of the history of this state. it holds irreplaceable State archives of historic titles, maps, charts, field books, survey plans and a wide range of other historic records dating back to European colonisation. These records are widely used by academic and professional historians and are also indispensable for genealogists, as well as those in the business of land and real estate development.

Records detailing changes in land tenure, for example, are essential to understand the development of the city, suburbs, country towns and properties throughout the state, as well as agriculture and mining. These historic records held by Landgate document the shaping of the Western Australian landscape from the beginnings of its European occupation through the activities of explorers and surveyors and changes in government policies regarding land tenure, as well as the control of the land surface through police and local government districts and constantly changing electoral boundaries. All mining activity until the creation of the Mines Department in the 1890s was documented and regulated by the Lands Department along with forestry and fishing.

The History Council is concerned that, if these records are sold into private hands, they will not be adequately protected and preserved.

  • Landgate records and state archives

The ‘Historical Records’ section of Landgate’s webpage shows that a large number of State Archives are held by Landgate. These records should be held by the State Records Office (SRO).

This has implications for search costs. Whilst some of the records held by Landgate have been transferred to SRO and are freely available for the public to use for research purposes, a significant proportion, despite their classification as State Archives, are not available for research in the SRO. Rather, to access these records, a researcher has to pay a fee to Landgate.

This is contrary to the intent of the State Records Act 2000 and records keeping practice around the world that public archives should be made available for viewing for free by members of the public.

Eastern Guruma and the protection of Ngajanha Marnta (or Spear Hill)
Thanks to the hard work of a working party led by Cindy Solonec and comprised of Robin Barrington, Andrea Gaynor, Peter Gifford and myself, the History Council has made an important submission in support of the Eastern Guruma people under section 10 of the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 for the protection of Ngajanha Marnta (or Spear Hill), south of Tom Price.
We are concerned that 23,000 year-old sites will be desecrated and destroyed with the permission of the Western Australian government. As members of Australia’s first peoples the Eastern Guruma’s belief systems date back thousands of years. The archaeological records of these beliefs and practices are part of Western Australia’s history and must be protected. We have expressed concern that, according to the Eastern Guruma, the Fortescue Mining Group (FMG) have not consulted properly with the people and their report outlining the need to protect Ngajanha Marnta has been ignored. 
The Eastern Guruma people are seeking protection from desecration of an area known as Ngajanha Marnta, in the east Pilbara. At least fifty sites below the hill that are culturally significant and sensitive are in danger of being destroyed. On the hill itself, which is a registered site, is unique spear wood that is harvested for ceremonial purposes—a wood that is not found anywhere else. The only access to the spear wood is from the western side of the hill, where FMG propose to build a railway line.

The State Government under s.18 of the Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 has given approval to FMG to build a railway line through an area that hosts the sites. These sites, that are religiously connected to Ngajanha Marnta, are in the valley below in close proximity to the hill. 

FMG intends to build a rail corridor from their new mine ‘Frederick’ at Eliwana Mine development to their existing railway line that runs between their Solomon mine and Port Hedland. The railway will be approximately 120 km and will have supporting infrastructure that includes haul roads and associated geotechnical investigations. The proposed rail line is along the actual pathway that Eastern Guruma people have followed for thousands of years, and it would be destroyed.
The History Council supports the Eastern Guruma in seeking protection of the area by asking that the Federal Minister overturn the state’s decision. Through Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC) the Eastern Guruma have asked that FMG realign their proposed railway to protect the Ngajanha Maarnta sites and detour around the valley. A realignment plan would affect about 3 kilometres of the railway. They believe that there need be no losers in this mining venture, which they support.

Births, Deaths and Marriages Records
We were very pleased to learn from the 2018-19 WA State Government budget papers that:

‘The Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages is preparing amendments to the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1998. These amendments will improve change of name processes and strengthen identification and enrolment processes, maximising Western Australia’s contribution to the national identity management and security agenda.’

 ( p.347)

We note that the Department of Justice’s Annual Report for 2016-17 states that the key performance indicator for the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages is to ensure that Western Australian birth, death and marriage certificates are accurate and accessible (p.111). But the key effectiveness indicators (percentage of certificates of birth, death or marriage issued within two days; extent to which births, deaths and marriages source information is recorded error free) do not address many of the issues which concern historians and other researchers; particularly limitations on public access to historical information and the redaction of information on certificates.

  • Limitations on public access on the historical registers of births, deaths and marriages. 

The History Council has long advocated, mainly thanks to the work of Neil Foley, that these records are state archives and should be treated as such. Copies should be open to the general public for viewing and research free of cost in the State Records Office once they reach an appropriate age.  The History Council’s advocacy position is that the Government should:

  •  amend the Births, Deaths and Marriages Act 1998 so that access to the births, deaths and marriage Registers of this State are brought in line with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 1992 and the State Records Act 2000;
  • provide access to family history information in accordance with the State Records Act 2000, if not already in place.

 We are very pleased that the Registrar now offers free online historic index searching of births (1841-1932), deaths (1841-1971) and marriages (1841to 1936). But this only provides basic information such as name, registration district, number and date.

If you place an order for a certificate, a fee ($35 or $49 if less 75 years old) is required, an identification or certification is required and access conditions apply if a birth occurred less than 100 years ago, death less than 30 years ago, and marriage less than 75 years ago. An uncertified copy for family history purposes costs $20.

  • Redaction of words and information

For a time, images of historic certificates were provided on line by the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.  However, these no longer appear to be available.

In a recent incident, an online search provided an image of a handwritten death certificate of a person who died in 1915. It included the information that they were Aboriginal.  When the descendant received the certified copy of the certificate they had ordered and paid for, the word ‘Aboriginal’ had been redacted.  It had been whited out.
This incident has recently received considerable publicity on ABC News  and is soon to be aired by the BBC World Service., 17 May 2018  The matter has also attracted a great deal of interest, surprise, anger and dismay on several Facebook sites, including the History Council of Western Australia’s Facebook site.
The Registrar’s action was made possible by the provisions of Section 57(2) of the Western Australian Births Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1998:

     S57(2) If, in the Registrar's opinion, a word or expression appearing on an entry in the Register is, or may be regarded as, offensive, the Registrar may issue a certificate under subsection (1) (a) without including the word or expression.

Although all Australian state and territory Births Deaths and Marriages Registration Acts provide the Registrar with power to correct the register, none, except the Western Australian and the Northern Territory Acts, provide the Registrar with the power to redact a word or expression on an entry if deemed ‘offensive’.

It is a matter of grave concern that the WA Act permits the Registrar to make changes to a certificate if, in their opinion, a word is ‘offensive’.  Such a decision is simply a ‘matter of opinion’.

The main concern of our members and historians across Australia is the redaction of information relating to Aboriginality as in the recent incident cited above. There is nothing offensive about the word ‘Aboriginal’. Indeed, though once hidden, it is a source of pride for most people of Aboriginal descent today.

The Registrar has also been redacting words like ‘Abo’, ‘black fella’, half-caste’, ‘native’. They are ‘offensive’ to many Aboriginal people, as they reflect past attitudes that belittled and demeaned Aboriginal people. But these were words regularly used to describe Aboriginal people in the past and are still used by some people today. 

By redacting words and expressions, the Registrar is tampering with history—making ‘fake histories’. One could go so far as to suggest that he is white-washing black history. This is out of step with current attitudes.  It is also unnecessary because information about Aboriginal ancestry is available from other sources, e.g. Church of England marriage certificates and letters by Aboriginal people to and from Native Welfare requesting permission to marry.  Though this information is more complex to research, it is publicly available.
The Registrar’s attitude to Aboriginal ancestry seems similar to past attitudes about convict ancestry. Between 1948 and 1958, under the Australian Joint Copying Project the British Government microfilmed their Australian colonial records and these were given to State Governments.  However, despite the availability of these and convict records already held by the WA State Records Office permission to access these records was refused because they were considered too sensitive.  At that time to have a convict in your ancestry was considered shameful and, in Rica Erickson’s words, ‘best forgotten’. 

It was not until the mid-1970s, particularly with the approach of the Sesquicentenary of Western Australia’s foundation, when there was a burgeoning interest in genealogy, that the convict records were gradually made available. The Bond volume of the Dictionary of Western Australians was published in 1979 and is now online thanks to the work of the Friends of Battye Library.  Now to have a convict in one’s ancestry is a matter of great pride to many Australians because it links them to the early years of the British colonization and settlement of Australia.
This sense of connection to the land applies much more strongly to people of Aboriginal descent. Their connection to the land goes back many generations, with archaeological evidence showing that they have occupied Western Australia for at least 60,000 years.
On behalf of the History Council, I have written to the Attorney-General, with copies to the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, on these matters noting that the redrafting of the Act provides an ideal opportunity for changes to be made.  I know that many of our members share our concerns and urge them to take advantage of the great opportunity to generate change that the redrafting of the Act presents and make representations to the Attorney-General.

WA Museum and Entry Fees
We greatly regret the decision by the State Government to charge entry fees to the new Museum.  While we note that children will have free entry and that concession holders will have a fee reduction from $20 to $15, we are concerned that the fee will put many people off going to the museum. Visitor numbers to the Maritime Museum in Fremantle have fallen since fees were introduced and it is likely that the same will occur at the new museum once initial interest has subsided after its opening in 2020.  Imagine if the British Museum charged fees.