Turning the inside out
journal contributionposted on 24.10.2016 by Tim Sherratt
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Keynote presented at Forging Links, the Annual Conference of the Australian Society of Archivists, Parramatta, 19 October 2016.
In 1957 the Commonwealth Migration Officer sought ASIO's advice on an application from Leong Sam, a Chinese fruit dealer who had been living in Australia since 1901. Leong Sam had applied for a Certificate Exempting from the Dictation Test (CEDT) to allow him to travel to Hong Kong. ASIO noted that he had attended a Chinese film night organised by a member of the Communist Party of Australia, but raised no objection.
This brief bureaucratic exchange reminds us of three things. First the White Australia Policy was still in operation in the late 1950s, regulating the movements of non-white residents. Secondly, that long before the digital age and concerns of record linkage, the lives of Australians were monitored through multiple, intersecting systems of surveillance. And third, that recordkeeping is central to the practices of state surveillance.
Despite the secrecy surrounding our intelligence agencies I know about Leong Sam because someone asked if ASIO had a file on an associate, Yik Lim Leong. That file was examined and released to the public with 87 of its 143 pages redacted. The file was then digitised and made available online through RecordSearch, the National Archives of Australia's database. Through the workings of legislation, archival practice and technology it was made available for 'access'.
In this talk I want to explore the entanglements of access and surveillance, focusing on the bureaucratic remnants of the White Australia Policy and the narrow archival window we have on the past workings of ASIO. In particular, I want to play around with digital technologies to see if we can turn the archives inside out -- to reverse the gaze of state surveillance to focus on the practices though which it was maintained, recorded and revealed. I want to understand access as a struggle, not a gift.