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Tory takeover of Abbott's $600,000 literary prize

There is unrest in literary circles after the Abbott government selected conservative luminaries Gerard Henderson and Peter Coleman to judge the $600,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

After months of delay the government quietly released the judging panel on Friday night. It’s a clean sweep; not one of last year’s judges has been kept on. Instead, as foreshadowed by Crikey in March, the government has selected some right-leaning judges whose views are often in accord with the Coalition.

A key role has gone to Henderson, a conservative commentator, executive director of the Sydney Institute and author of the idiosyncratic weekly bulletin Media Watch Dogwhich is written with the assistance of Henderson’s dog Nancy (pictured below).

Another key role has been given to Peter Coleman, a former Liberal MP, former editor of Quadrant and current writer for The Spectator (and father-in-law of Peter Costello). Both men will judge the PMLA non-fiction sections.

Publishing identity Louise Adler heads up the judging of the PMLA fiction and poetry sections. Adler was the publisher for Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines and spoke glowingly of him in The Age today.

These are the richest literary awards in Australia, with a $100,000 prize pool (tax-free) for each of six categories. Abbott will make the final decision on who wins the 2014 awards, although previous PMs have been mostly — but not always — hands-off. Judges have to read up to 150 books.

Former PMLA judge Colin Steele says he hopes the awards will not become ideological under the 2014 panel. “It does reflect in some ways possibly a political bent,” he told Crikey. “There are a couple of people who have clearly expressed right-wing views.”

Australian non-fiction awards have at times been caught up in the so-called “history wars”, in which authors like Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle have butted heads on the treatment of indigenous people. Reynolds released a book last year, Forgotten War, which would be eligible for the PMLA. Given the following descriptionof the book, it will be interesting to see if Henderson and Coleman shortlist it for the non-fiction section:

“Australia is dotted with memorials to soldiers who fought in wars overseas. Why are there no official memorials or commemorations of the wars that were fought on Australian soil between Aborigines and white colonists? … This powerful book makes it clear that there can be no reconciliation without acknowledging the wars fought on our own soil.”

Steele hopes the prizes will not be politicised. “It would be so evident that if they picked a title that was seen as reflecting one side specifically,” he said. While some readers are most interested in Australian history in relation to involvement in World Wars, particularly the Anzacs, Steele hopes the judges will take a broader view: “If you’ve got a cutting-edge book which was on some topic that was not in the genre of war history, like queer studies, one would hope they would look at it on their merits.”

He also raised concerns about the age of the non-fiction panel. Crikey has calculated the average age to be 77 (Coleman is 85). “I thought I was old,” Steele told Daily Review sister site Crikey.

There is plenty of talk today in literary circles about how the panel was unveiled. Some former judges were sounded out to judge again late last year, then heard nothing more of it. On Friday night Abbott and Arts Minister George Brandis attended the Australian Book Industry Awards dinner at Doltone House in Sydney’s Pyrmont. Minutes before the proceedings began, embarrassed bureaucrats rang former judges on their mobiles to tell them their services were no longer required. While it had been expected Brandis would announce the new judges at the dinner, he did not. The information was quietly posted on the PMLA website. There was a suggestion of a frosty welcome for Abbott and Brandis at the dinner in the wake of budget cuts to the arts.

Former PMLA judge Robert Sessions says previous panellists have been treated rudely. “Most people feel the same way; they think that the current [i.e. outgoing] batch of judges have been treated very badly.”

And he says the panel’s selection is clear: “The choice of judges is so obvious … [People] fully expected a line-up of this kind to be announced. I don’t think anyone’s surprised by the political alignment of the new panels.” However, Sessions says the Coalition government is entitled to select its own judges.

Another former judge, who did not wish to be named, raises concerns at the lack of continuity with the panel. The person says renewal is welcome, but entirely changing the panel might be a problem. The former judge describes Henderson and Coleman as a “pretty outspoken conservative pair”, and raises concerns that Reynolds’ book may not get a look-in.

Crikey has attempted to contact Reynolds. Entries for the 2014 awards have closed, and there is no shortlist. It’s not known if Reynolds’ book has been entered.

Crikey also contacted Henderson to ask if he would like to comment on the concerns about the panel reflecting a conservative bent. His response was one word: “No.”

The annual awards are usually handed out in June to August, but this year’s are more likely to come around November.

The appointment of some Coalition-aligned judges to the PMLA panel is not an isolated instance. The Abbott government has found jobs for other sympathetic figures, appointing the Institute of Public Affairs’ Tim Wilson to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and new jobs for former Liberal frontbenchers Alexander Downer (the next high commissioner in London), Nick Minchin (the next consul general to New York) and Sophie Mirabella (to the board of a government-owned naval firm). The Business Council of Australia’s Tony Shepherd, seen as sympathetic to the Coalition, headed up the Commission of Audit. It’s standard practice for a new government to find jobs for sympathetic figures, and Labor has a record of it, too.

This article was originally published at Crikey. Main image: Tony Abbott in 2010 is presented with a book titled ‘So You Want To Be Prime Minister?’ by teacher Lorinda Bruce during a visit to the Nunawading Christian College in Melbourne.

17 responses to “Tory takeover of Abbott's $600,000 literary prize

  1. It’s worth noting that Peter Colemen has a literary background. He has written about James McCauley among other Australian authors; and if having Peter Costello as a son-in-law counts, then so should having Ursula Dubosarsky, wonderful writer for young people, as a daughter. Louise Adler likewise has published many excellent books as well as Tony Abbott’s. Gerard Henderson to judge non-fiction, a man who regularly rewrites history out of either ignorance of ideology, that’s another story.

  2. Whether the judges are Left or Right, the winners will almost certainly be white. Unlike the UK, Australia’s literary circles rarely make room for the not-so-Anglo writer.

      1. Last year’s fiction winner was Michelle de Kretser. Grace Karskens is also a winner, as was Nam Le and Boori Monty Pryor.

        Not a perfect record, but not bad for a prize that started in 2008 with just two awards.

  3. One thing’s for sure, with Henderson on the panel it’s no brains trust.

    I note plenty of rich, white, old, conservative men decide what is worthy of literary credit. As well as what’s worthy in every other element of this government’s reign.

  4. Abbot can’t even get selecting a literary panel right. Gerard Henderson is far too old and monomaniacal for a start. What on earth is Abbot frightened of – I suppose we should be grateful Bolt wasn’t on it too.

  5. This parallels the Transfield sponsorship of the Biennale. You don’t let philistines run cultural events. Transfield was viewed as benign until they took over the running of the Manus Island concentration camp. They were kicked to the kerb after that. If my literary presentation was in contention for judging by this boorish lot, I’d be withdrawing in protest.

  6. A wonderful day for Australia’s literary world. For too long have we groaned under the weight if the leftanistas and turncoats that dominate our publishing landscape. This restores some balance and equilibrium, however I would have like to have seen Mr Windschuttle given a veto vote on the panel.

  7. As a writer, I am disturbed that a PM who confesses to having no time to read, has chosen such a non-literary panel to judge works for this award. In particular, Gerard Henderson has shown himself to be out of touch with modern Australian culture…oh woe!

  8. Methinks Abbott and co are doing us a favour.

    Every little outrage like this is affecting our thinking.

    I was forced to confront what politics meant to me during the Vietnam War period and so were a lot of others. The unrest and the issues caused anguish/divided families etc. The gradual drift to the right under Hawke/Keating accelerated cageyly by Howard was slow enough for the young to consider that politics was remote and boring.

    I suspect that unless people have a personal experience of hardship or at least exposure to the real hardship of others then most will not engage with politics.

    The increasingly, dehumanising experience of work where the boss rules coupled with economic policies harsh on the most vulnerable may make those who are disengaged feel threatened enough to try to figure out what is happening to their society and be susceptible to alternative ideas.

    To be sure, we an issue of such magnitude, climate change, to warrant an opinion. With enough people politically engaged we may end up with momentum to act responsibly.

  9. Methinks that Peter Coleman is also related by marriage to the (unlamented) John Howard, which strengthens his claims to unbiased judgement, n’est çe pas? ☺☺

  10. Governments of both persuasions have a tawdry history of appointing “mates” and “favourites” to prime posting, in particular “cushy” foreign affairs roles (during which the mates draw their parliamentary pensions as well as a salary – plenty of heavy lifting happening there). I have no doubt that our very own South Australian aristocratic buffoon Downer will believe the London posting was always to be his by birthright. I am yet to see what skills Mirabella possesses. Tim Wilson is a smart guy, but has publicly stated that the Human Rights Commission should be disbanded. What’s that all about? What I suspect is different with Abbott is that that when you get a sense of the guy and what appears to drive him, it becomes evident that his choices are likely driven by a deep-seated abhorrence of anything remotely Labour or more particularly, anything that is not bordering on right-wing extremism. Australia will I think come to rue the day that he was elected PM. This is not a person with any real warmth, humanity or even sufficient flexibility of intellect to lead Australia – the proof will likely be found in the difficulties he encounters trying to negotiate his unfair, deceptive and ultimately vacuous budget through the parliament..

    1. An excellent and accurate analysis … +1 from me.

      I absolutely agree that we will all as a nation eventually rue the day that Mr Abbott was elected as PM. I have found nothing, not a thing, about this guy that reflects positively. An empty, albeit very dangerous vessel. I didn’t ‘like’ Mr Howard much (due to LNP policies and my personal political stance), but I always considered him a very intelligent and worthy PM and citizen who saw a much bigger picture. Not so Mr Abbott, he is a dangerous narcissist who has surrounded himself with mean spirited fat cats, who as a group *could well/will leave this country and it’s global reputation in tatters.

      *(depending whether he is removed before he damages Australia for decades to come)


    2. It’s true both parties have form, but Labor broke the mould & showed decency in appointing Brendan Nelson & others I can’t recall now to various posts. Conversely, the spitefulness & pettiness of the Coalition’s axing of Steve Bracks as US ambassador on the eve of his departure was a new low in partisan political bastardry.

    3. You’re spot on, Wayne. As AllenK said, Australians already ‘rue the day’ and will never forget what Abbott and his government have done; the focus now is on removing him and his party in short shift.

      A somewhat sickening doubt about the legitimacy of our government was raised recently when I received a youtube link. If I’m permitted to link it here, I will, but if not, it can be searched in youtube under the title, “What the FUQ: Frequently Unanswered Questions of the ‘Australian Government'”:

      Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, this was something I found difficult to dismiss.


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