Do You Value Independent Arts Journalism & Would You Like To Help Us Produce More? Find Out More

'Bad odour'? Abbott's literary awards delay sparks suspicions

There is growing disquiet around the judging of this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, with some former judges asking if the Abbott government is tweaking the panel to be more Coalition-friendly.

The annual awards give out $600,000 in prize money across six categories. The plan was to announce the 2014 winners in July or August this year — entries closed last month — but the government is yet to finalise who the judges will be, months after they usually start reading.

Crikey understands the hold-up is in Arts Minister George Brandis’ office.

The awards were the brainchild of former PM Kevin Rudd. Up to 12 writers, publishing experts and academics are appointed to one of three judging panels. They are usually given the books — often about 150 — in December or January (that might sound like a lot of books, but after all, such a collection would easily fit on Brandis’ famous $15,000 taxpayer-funded bookcase, which sits in his ministerial office). The judges have about three months to read them and then hold successive meetings to thrash out longlists, shortlists and winners.

Some people have been sounded out to be judges, but nothing has been confirmed, and they’ve received no books. Some former judges are concerned at how committed the Abbott government is to the awards, recalling that Queensland Premier Campbell Newman scrapped the state’s literary gongs in 2012 when he won office.

“It has a bad odour around it, what’s the problem?” one former judge, who has been informally asked to judge again, told Crikey. “They should get on with it.”

The former judge says the Coalition government might be “checking out” the former Labor-appointed judges; “they are suspicious of anyone from the chattering classes”.

Another former judge suspected “the current government aren’t prepared to tick off on a panel appointed by the previous government … There is every reason to be a little bit suspicious after all this time.”

Both said the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards office had told them the hold-up was in Brandis’ office.

Those concerned don’t think the government will scrap the awards this year — PM Tony Abbott formally committed to the process on Christmas Eve — but they want to know what’s going on. A third former judge told Crikey it was “very encouraging” the government was continuing the awards, but it was time to start reading. A fourth former judge laughed and said: “Freud did say the paranoid is not entirely wrong.”

This is the email several people received just after last year’s federal election, asking them to judge in 2014:

From: Richards, Stephen
Sent: Tuesday, 17 September 2013 3:47 PM
To: [redacted] Cc: PM Literary Awards;
Subject: 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards [SEC=UNCLASSIFIED]

Dear [redacted]

I am writing to seek your advice on whether you would be interested and available in being a judge for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for the 2014 Awards.

Some Australian literary awards have had a political dimension, particularly when prizes go to non-fiction books that touch on sensitive topics. For example, it’s conceivable the Abbott government might not embrace giving awards to historian Henry Reynolds, who writes frankly on the dispossession of Aboriginal Australians and has been involved in the “culture wars”. Reynolds won the non-fiction category at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards this year.

However, the PMLA has not been caught up in the culture wars, so the Abbott government might not see the need to tweak the judges. Last year’s PMLA fiction winner was Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, while the non-fiction winners were former Australian journalist George Megalogenis’ The Australian Moment and Ross McMullin’s Farewell, Dear People, about Australian soldiers in World War I. The latter two would fit right into John Howard’s bookcase.

But suspicions of political interference in the PMLA are being fed by the Coalition’s recent record. The Abbott government has appointed sympathetic faces to plum jobs (not unusual for a new government). The Institute of Public Affairs Australia’s Tim Wilson was appointed to the Australian Human Rights Commission; former Liberal frontbenchers Alexander Downer (the next high commissioner in London) and Nick Minchin (the next consul general to New York) have prospered; and the Business Council of Australia’s Tony Shepherd, seen as a Coalition sympathiser, is heading up the Commission of Audit.

Crikey asked the Arts Ministry, which is Brandis’ department, when the PMLA judges would be announced and what the department’s response was to claims of political interference. We did not hear back within our deadline, 25 hours after we made the enquiry. All we got was this standard response:  “The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards judging panels are reviewed each year and are decided by the Minister for the Arts and Prime Minister.”

The PMLA categories are fiction, poetry, non-fiction, Australian history, young adult fiction and children’s fiction. Winners get $80,000 tax free, and shortlisted books get $5000. The judges are paid about $4000, and the panels do change somewhat each year. Technically the PM makes the final decision on the winners, although the judging panel’s recommendations are usually adopted. It appears there has been at least one case where the government overruled the panel’s decision.

33 responses to “'Bad odour'? Abbott's literary awards delay sparks suspicions

  1. What about Mr Abbott,s propriety in question time inviting “madame speaker” to’ “tell those opposite they,re dreaming”! Well! Hardly an appropriate request to the “APOLITICAL” speaker of the house,but no one objected to this blatant we,re in the same gang offcut,direction! So no one will be surprised at the collection of “same gang” dudes who eventually get the gig on the Arts panel.

  2. What a hate fest. If the standard of literacy is anything like standard of these posts no wonder few Australian authors can sell a book or make a living.

  3. Does the often repeated Mr Abbott remark “The Australian voter is much too smart to fall for that!” accompanied by his sly smirk,tell you anything about those in the electorate who voted for him? They might be happy to see appointed Mr A.Bolt,& that “put her in a hessian bag & throw her into the sea” dude from NSW radio;Mr Kennett,who was minister for the Arts in victoria in his own govt;any one of Rupert,s sons & there we have it! EEEASY! Archie

  4. So Abbott is now pissing off all the good writers? Never mind none of them will ever work for News Limited.

  5. The Awards were started by Kevin Rudd so as far as Tone the Bone Head is concerned they are “Invalid” He does not and will not endorse anything that was brought about by the Labour Govt after John Howard lost office so he will just fuck them around until everyone loses interest. He does not care that he is punishing upcoming writers only that the Abbott LNP wreaking ball keeps on rolling laying to waste anything good. I’m sure he would prefer that the $600,000- goes to the ex W.A. ministerial benevolent fund or something such like.

  6. The Prime Minister may believe that because the awards are named after his office he has the right to insure the awards are given to books he admires rather than books he detests. It’s not clear to me how we would go about explaining to him that he was wrong.

    1. In an interesting aside, the minister / PM does actually retain the right to decide who wins. They usually accept the judging panel’s decision, but I believe there is a recent case where they did not (under Labor, last year). I am looking into this further.

  7. That a more ‘coalition friendly’ set of judges implies not always that they are biased towards the Government, but rather less biased against it, which may make the panel neutral.
    Oh Dear!

    1. It’s not actually ‘more neutral’ to not point out that a big steaming pile of **** stinks like ****. The word you’re looking for there is ‘Honest’.

      In a truly ‘neutral’ country Team Gospel Truth Tones would have been laughed out of politics long before getting the chance to get on the government benches. The Adults are Back in Charge? More like The Clowns Have Taken Over the Circus.

  8. Dangerous things, books. People might get ideas or at least start thinking. A tory government can’t be havin’ with that.

  9. Come on buddy! What the hell do you expect Toe/knee to do when confronted by creative writers? Go for the (Andrew) Bolt-hole! That’s what.

  10. Knowing George Brandis he will likely round up the usual suspects for coalition friendly judges, literary giants like hacks from the Murdoch Press, philosophical brains from the Sydney Institute and other far right wing think tanks and if we’re really lucky maybe even Andrew Bolt.

  11. Cathy, the implication in your slotting Ross McMullin’s ‘Farewell, Dear People’ into John Howard’s bookcase is unwarranted.

    1. Sorry Shane. I actually just meant that the focus of McMullin’s book is a sympathetic portrayal of some of the young Australian men who died in World War 1, a subject John Howard has expressed interest in. It’s certainly not the kind of book a Coalition government would object to giving an award to

  12. This prime minster has already shown his true colours: dishonesty, bias and the intention of skinning ordinary Australians and giving it all to the rich.

    It does not surprise me that Abbott will rat out any Labor person as despite Labor having given Liberal Party members diplomatic jobs when it was in power Abbott has not reciprocated. The fact that the man;s paranoia extends to ‘judging’ tells you a little about what we are dealing with.

    The Australian public should be starting to wake up about now and will realise how stupid they were to be conned by the media before the last election. They will undoubtedly not make the same mistake on the next occasion.

    Australia has always been a fair nation where ordinary people had a Fair Go, but Abbott is trying his best to turn this nation into a US style ‘democracy’ fully owned by the wealthy where poor folk are their slaves. And the business owned media is complicit.

    Good article. Sorry about the rant. Australians need to wake up and this is yet another snippet of what is being done to the nation.

  13. The Abbott government ‘is tweaking the panel to be more Coalition-friendly…’ Really? And we are shocked by this? This is a government that systematically abuses governance and crushes transparency. Why would literary awards be any different than anything else they are messing with? I doubt if the PM awards will even go ahead. And if they do they will be scrapped next year for a book burning event.

      1. Oh neutral? Like the ABC, and see where that’s has gotten them. Those of your ilk believe that anyone who’s not a raving right-wing supporter is “anti” you. I’m just not sure what you’re doing here? Your beliefs are more inline with The Daily Rupert…

  14. I would rather see the Awards cancelled – as Newman did with the Queensland Awards, leaving my home-state the only one without a Premier’s recognition of the importance of writing/culture/thought – than have some toady accept a tainted Award.
    How low can we sink? As Xavier Herbert would say: ‘Poor fellow my country indeed!’

    1. You seem to get “running the country” mixed up with increasing votes with $multi-million “handouts”

      Not to worry. There are thousands just like you.

      1. Unlike you who gets “running the country” mixed up with increasing donations to you campaign fund by handing out $multi-billion in “rebates” and “incentives” and “legitimate tax deductions” to the “entitled” class.

        Sadly there are millions like you…

      2. You seem to get $600,000 mixed up with multi-million dollar “handouts”.
        Not to worry, there are thousands like you…the PM and the treasurer for example.

  15. Has Abbot actually read a book other than the Bible or John Howard’s biography?
    He should do what the Queensland state premier did, and just scrap the whole literary
    award thing. Reading only encourages the bikies.

    1. I’m not a fan of the guy, but he did an Arts degree, trained as a journalist and for the Bulletin before and after doing his Oxford post-grad, so I suspect literature is one thing he knows reasonable well.

      There’s no shortage of things to attack Abbot on, we don’t need to resort to straw-manning it.

      And the relevant polly in this case is Brandis, not Abbot; it might be called the ‘Prime Minister’s’ Awards, but it isn’t run through the PM’s office.

  16. Well, they’re going to have trouble finding a writer with any real talent that supports the LNP’s agenda, that’s for sure. Probably best to scrap it, really. Who wants the likes of Brandis endorsing your work?

      1. You mean, like, mining companies? Or agricultural producers? Or manufacturers? Or the political classes? Or those who crash the system without paying tax (which is an opportunity cost rifling of the public purse) like Apple?

        Or were you referring only to teachers, or the police, or firefighters, or the military, or hospital staff or… ?

        You just mean people who disagree with you, don’t you?


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Newsletter Signup