Ake, Ake, Ake!

We need to give greater protection to the public assets of heritage value.

A rumour around Wellington in early 1994 was that there was a Treasury paper advocating selling off part of the holdings of the Alexander Turnbull Library, which contains manuscripts, books and artefacts reflecting New Zealand’s cultural, intellectual and historical heritage. The paper’s narrow view was that the Library’s collection should focus on New Zealand and Pacific only and that material from other countries or eras was not a part of the country’s heritage. The ATL has some remarkable taonga of international significance including one of the best corpora of the works of John Milton in the world. Presumably it was intended to be among that to be privatised.

I tried to get hold of the paper but without luck. I was going overseas on a short trip and, frustrated someone else would get hold of the story first, I wrote a column for the Listener about Milton entitled ‘The Legacy of a Poet: Milton! Thou Should Be Living in This Hour’. The column finished with ‘The Milton books in the Heritage Collection of Wellington’s Alexander Turnbull Library are ... soon to be displayed in the exhibition That Serpent Milton, which opens on August 5 [1994].’

The exhibition was curated by retired Turnbull Chief Librarian, Jim Traue, who had the executive summary of the Treasury paper. On reading the column, Jim promptly leaked it to the Listener, which in those days was a crusading magazine of record. It was given to journalist Anthony Hubbard, who cared deeply about such things. His fiery article had the Minister of Finance immediately putting a stop to any such proposed privatisations – even one of our dullest politicians was not as barbarian as the Treasury official. (The official’s cultural indifference would not be shared by all his Treasury colleagues.)

(As an aside, back from overseas I was sitting next to Anthony when he rang the Treasury official who written the paper and asked for a copy of the report without disclosing he had the summary. The official denied it existed. There is a way around the Official Information Act.)

Today many of such heritage artefacts are legally protected from predatory privatisations. Even so, one may wonder what was then going on. I opened the column with ‘Economists were once thought to be among the liberal and progressive sections of the intelligentsia. Today they are thought of as curmudgeonly philistines.’ It is easy to say that the official – even the Treasury at the time – was a philistine. But there was a deeper issue,

It was a nineteenth-century economist and philosopher who gave me a steer. John Stuart Mill argued it was better to be an unhappy philosopher than a happy pig, thereby undermining the utilitarianism on which so much economics is implicitly founded.

Thus all transactions and assets are not of equal value, despite that the market appear to say they are. In the Crown balance sheet different asset are lumped together. So heritage assets are in with paper clips and prisons (both valuable in their own way, but hardly comparable to what is in the ATL).

I concluded that we need to move past the happy-pig approach to government policy and recognise that some assets are more valued than others – more valuable than what is recorded in the ‘books’ – and need to be managed differently.

This suggests the need for a new institutional form which recognises the special characteristics of those government entities which are responsible for the stewardship of our heritage assets, to be called an Autonomous Kaitiaki Entity, or AKE. (The acronym is deliberate – ‘ake’ is the Maori word for ‘forever’.) The primary distinction from the other categories of government agencies is that the activities of an AKE are dominated by assets with which it is entrusted to hold forever,

At the very least AKEs would cover the following:

            Heritage New Zealand: Pouhere Taonga;

            Museum of New Zealand: Te Papa Tongarewa;

            National Library (which includes the Alexander Turnbull Library);

            Nga Taonga: the New Zealand Archive of Film, Television and Sound.

Additionally, some agencies including in local government, the education system and such like, may want to designate some divisions as AKE.

The Department of Conservation should consider whether it, or some of its assets, should have AKE status for its holdings of land and other environmental assets expected to be maintained in perpetuity.

Should Archives New Zealand be an AKE? It is true that it holds public records in perpetuity, but the Chief Archivist has a central constitutional role in the holding of the executive to account and therefore should be an Officer of Parliament. Milton was right at the heart of the parallel seventeenth-century disputes around holding the Crown to account. Even so, the independent Chief Archivist should consider the relevance of AKE status to Archives New Zealand.

It would be easy to say that we do not need AKEs or that we already have them in effect. That misses the point. Gilling’s law says that if we dont properly score the game we play it badly. As long as we fail to give separate attention to our heritage assets and do not clearly distinguish them from the other assets we will mismanage them. A squib is that economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing – accountants too.

So let us make the notion of AKEs – I do mean sustainably forever – explicit in government management.

PS. Rereading the 1994 Milton column you will now recognise that the understory of the Treasury paper. There is another almost forgotten understory. A quarter of a century ago I was drawing attention to the same turmoil and repression in public life that was there in Milton’s time.

My detailed submission to a Ministerial group reviewing the future of Archives New Zealand, the National Library and Nga Taonga: the New Zealand Archive of Film, Television and Sound is here.