Legislative Council: Wednesday, April 10, 2024


South Australian Museum

The Hon. N.J. CENTOFANTI (Leader of the Opposition) (16:57): I move:

That the Statutory Authorities Review Committee inquire into and report on the South Australian Museum, with particular reference to:

1. Its proposed restructure of research and collections;

2. Its infrastructure and proposed strategic plan;

3. Its funding from government and non-government sources; and

4. Any related matters.

There is no question that the South Australian Museum holds a cherished place in the hearts of tens if not hundreds of thousands of South Australians. I am sure we have all attended as children, and we hope that in future years the collections will be there for our children and our grandchildren.

The Museum carries out critical scientific functions for our state, including high-level research for its collections—tissue samples, minerals and geology, flora and fauna, and more. The Museum carries out irreplaceable work in the field of reconciliation, including the critically important and culturally sensitive work of repatriating remains and restoring languages. Museum staff form important partnerships with communities around South Australia and institutions both locally and around the world.

Similarly important is the Museum's role in terms of collecting, in terms of preserving and, as appropriate, presenting its collections, gathered over more than 150 years. Its galleries have inspired us to contemplate the ancient, the extraordinary and the unusual, and we have learned about our world's natural history and human stories alike.

Therefore, when the current leadership of the Museum, apparently with the support and endorsement of the Malinauskas Labor government, announced plans for a significant restructure of the Museum, South Australians rightfully took notice and may have been alarmed at what they have seen within those plans.

It should be noted that budget cuts imposed on the Museum by the Malinauskas Labor government in its first budget, at the time of significant increases in costs, would have had a damaging ongoing impact on the ability of the Museum to undertake all its key functions and no doubt may have contributed to the announcement of the board for the desire, or perhaps the need, to restructure.

This restructure will include changes to the built form of the Museum and removal of existing galleries and exhibition spaces, to be replaced with a newly reimagined approach telling the stories of South Australia. It also includes a significant staffing restructure, with research roles being replaced by positions more aligned with a curatorial approach.

It is worth noting that 27 existing roles are to be replaced by 22 new roles, with the majority being at a lower pay level. This move has, as recently as yesterday, been criticised by former Museum chairman Robert Champion de Crespigny, who warned that axing world-class researchers would make this state, and I quote, 'a laughing stock of the scientific world'.

The Museum has responsibility in its legislative functions to conduct research. The research into its key collections informs displays and also enables the Museum's non-public facing collections to be utilised in specialised scientific research that is relevant to our state. The Museum has historically conducted large volumes of research, led by Museum researchers and in collaboration with universities, that is sponsored by the ARC and other national grants. In some years, the South Australian Museum has famously outperformed all other museums in Australia, and some universities, at attracting such grants.

The new strategic plan proposes to embed this reduction in the volume of work conducted by Museum specialist researchers. The minister argued, and I quote, 'The Museum needs to focus on its core functions.' Historically, the Museum's leadership has assumed such research to be a core function as per the legislation. It has been pointed out by Tim Flannery and others that the level of expertise amongst researchers who have had the responsibility for key parts of our Museum's collections will be impossible to replace and, if lost to more junior curatorial positions being created, will be impossible to restore.

What is remarkable is that South Australian Museum leaders continue to defend these proposed changes, despite the opposition from leading scientists, an upcoming protest and a parliamentary grilling during a meeting of the Budget and Finance Committee.

Given the Museum leadership's continued defence of the changes despite significant stakeholder and public concern over the proposed restructure, the opposition brings this motion to the chamber to ensure an inquiry into this important institution, with a particular focus on its proposed restructure of research and collections, its infrastructure and proposed strategic plan, and its funding from non-government and government resources.

Given the South Australian Museum is indeed a statutory authority, we believe that the Statutory Authorities Review Committee is the fit and proper place for this inquiry to occur. We feel this inquiry is not only necessary but also essential to ensure that the Museum's research capabilities and institutional knowledge are protected for generations to enjoy into the future. I hope all colleagues in this place will support this important motion and inquiry.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. M. El Dannawi.