National Archives of Australia

Issue 12 December 2013

A genealogy of the Commonwealth: Administrative Arrangement Orders

Think of the Archives as the family historian of the Commonwealth and you’ll understand why we track the administrative changes and progression of Australian Government agencies. This article gives an overview of the why and the how of those changes, and what enables them to occur.

Whenever a government makes a change to a department – the name and what it does – the decisions are published in what are commonly called the AAOs, or Administrative Arrangement Orders. Much anticipated after an election or a ministerial reshuffle, AAOs reflect the changing priorities of government, the dance of the departments since Federation. As the custodian of Commonwealth records, the Archives analyses the changes and, like the family matriarch, can tell us who’s who.

The first AAOs of sorts were made in 1901 and are found in the Barton papers: Australia’s eight foundation ministries were Prime Minister and External Affairs, Attorney-General’s, Home Affairs, Treasurer, Trade and Customs, Defence and Postmaster-General. The Home Secretary’s omnibus department handled a grab bag of matters including Astronomical, People of Special Races, Federal Capital and Acquisition of Railways with State Consent.

Edmund Barton, 1901. The first AAOs were compiled in 1901 and can be found in Barton's papers. NAA: A5954, 1299/2 PHOTO PL375/1

Edmund Barton, 1901. The first AAOs were compiled in 1901 and can be found in Barton’s papers. NAA: A5954, 1299

How the AAOs relate to the Archives

In 112 years, the Commonwealth has gazetted almost 200 AAOs, a clear indication of successive governments’ changing priorities and departments, and their willingness or political motivation to shift focus.

With each administrative rearrangement departments transfer their business records to the agencies taking over those functions and the Archives busily extends the family tree. This amended family tree then shows who is now responsible for what, including the records inherited in the process. Tracking these changes is vital for the ongoing management of government records by the Archives, to preserve and make these national resources available to the public.

This family tree is known as the Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) system, and because Australian Government administration is highly agile in its capacity for change, the Archives’ control and classification system has to be flexible to capture those changes. The CRS was built to preserve the provenance of records by keeping track of when they were created, by which agency and – when the functions of an agency change hands – where the records move to, as well as to manage those records in and across various locations.

Background to the CRS

Designed by legendary archivist Peter J Scott, working in the then Commonwealth Archives Office in the 1960s, the system works on the principle of creating and maintaining separate but linked descriptions of records, their creators and other entities, incorporating the changes in those linkages over time.

It is now the basis for all state government records office systems in Australia and has greatly influenced the international standard that governs recordkeeping metadata, the all-important data that give us ‘information about the information’.

Rise and fall of agencies

The AAOs chart the rise of issues in Australia’s political or social consciousness. Significant historical themes appear as the names of agencies. In 1971, Indigenous affairs and the green movement first made an appearance as the Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts. Environment went on to partner with an extraordinary array of portfolios: heritage, home affairs, science, territories, tourism, sport, sustainability, water and populations.

The AAOs also bear witness to federal governments entering state ‘turf’: Health became an agency in 1921 and the Department of Education and Science emerged in 1966.

Number of AAOs

From Federation to the opening of the Harbour Bridge, there were a mere dozen administrative changes. The stability of Menzies’ 1949–66 government is measured in 24 AAOs but by the 1970s there was an explosion in administrative changes, with 52 in that decade, 13 alone in constitutionally tumultuous 1975. The September 2013 administrative changes following the federal election appear to be the most extensive for at least 15 years.

Scanning the records of the AAOs themselves is a lens through which to view the history of recordkeeping in the Commonwealth. We move through Barton’s handwritten notes to the florid fonts of early gazettes, from scanned, hole-punched documents in typewriter Courier to the ‘digitally born’ documents, which start their existence as digital records.

Defunct agencies

What happens when agencies and their functions cease to exist? The records of the Department of Rationing and the Bicentennial Authority have outlived the agencies that created them and who knows how to find the Controller of Enemy Property records? Thanks to the CRS system, the National Archives will.

 

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