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

Conservative commentators and a former Liberal MP have been picked to judge the country’s richest literary awards. And not everyone’s happy with it.

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 Dog, which 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 description of 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 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.

30
  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Abbott is delivering on his threat, to deliver “adulterated government”?

  • 2
    Electric Lardyland
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Interesting choice that: getting people who prefer their facts to be fiction, to judge the non-fiction category.

  • 3
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I predict Plimer and “Uncle Bob” Carter will release a new book on turning the rivers inland and it’ll win in a clean-sweep.

  • 4
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Funny you should mention that #3. Plimer’s latest book comes out Friday

    http://www.connorcourt.com/catalog1/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=285#.U4K-s_mSw1I

    … so not eligible (books must come out by Dec 31, 2013)

  • 5
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    lol - and the premise is hilarious when you cross-reference, say, Thailand: “Thailand’s deteriorating economy is driven significantly by its fossil fuel dependence” - Nafeez Ahmed, Guardian.

  • 6
    Interrobanging On
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    It was a little curious why the PMLA was left standing in the carnage of much of what was good or interesting.

    The probability it is seen as a tool in their culture wars gives the decision some sense. Stack the judges and get some ‘good’ books out there.

    The imperative to reward entitled Liberal Mates is strong too - this is a good opportunity.

    Or maybe Hockey is up for the fiction award for the ‘budget emergency’, so they are keeping it on for him?

  • 7
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    It was either that or burning some?

  • 8
    Bort
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    It’s in line with policies that have coal mining execs working out environmental policies. No surprises government we were promised and I’m not surprised.

  • 9
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Good point Interrobanging On - the govt could have canned these awards, as Campbell Newman did with the Qld Premier’s literary awards. The former PMLA judges I spoke to were all quite pleased that the awards were continuing, even if some had concerns about the judges. And no, the govt doesn’t seemed to have shrunk the prize pool, as some forecast.

  • 10
    Scott
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Really, is this what we are getting upset about now.

    Oh no! The PM has decided to change the judges for his departments literary rewards! The Horror!

    And when Rudd stacked the panel wih left wingers initially, did anyone really complain?

  • 11
    Don
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    not so much the ALP appointing cronies in last two govt. in fact, they should have done a lot more stable cleaning like bloody Vanstone for example, instead, they not only didn’t get rid of the deadwood and such, but actually frequently appointed ex-LNP pollies to key posts.

  • 12
    Zeke
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Scott@10

    Given that Rudd is a Conservative right wing politician, why would he stack the panel with left wingers?

    Perhaps “left winger” doesn’t mean what you think it means.

    The divide between left and right is probably right in the middle of the Greens party. Labor and Liberal all fall quite far to the right of the divide.

    Just because someone doesn’t hold the complete looney tunes tea party views of Tony Abbott, doesn’t make them a left winger.

  • 13
    Don
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    @scott. I think there are three points. one, another example of Abbott’s blatant stacking here as elsewhere. two, the money is substantial so it should done with proper due diligence and propriety and experience, and three, it makes a vital difference to the authors’ reputation and future prospects and earnings, so again the need for proper due diligence and propriety and experience

  • 14
    MAC TEZ
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Short memory Scott ? Torie fans and the MSM screamed long and loud in absolute outrage at almost every single action/word/thought bubble produced by both the Rudd & Gillard governments. Anything and everything was seemingly worthy of getting VERY upset about then.

  • 15
    Don
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    @scott @zeke. despite the on-going efforts by the media et al to demonise the term ‘left wing’, to me it has a fairly simple meaning and connation - someone who cares more about people than profits. I could give other similar such descriptions but I think pretty much sums it up

  • 16
    AR
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Of one thing we may be certain, it will never be an adulated government. One feels that even its members must feel dirty about what it is doing.

  • 17
    Liamj
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    Rightwing playbook on how to destroy any institution: infiltrate, polarise, discredit, defund.

  • 18
    Electric Lardyland
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    …then once it’s defunded, discredited and dysfunctional, they claim their view that private enterprise always does a better job, has been proven, and therefore we need to privatise.

  • 19
    The Pav
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    I think that since Tony Abbott’s victory he has forgotten Mark 8:36

  • 20
    AR
    Posted Monday, 26 May 2014 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Pav - the nearest the PM comes to a soul is on the bottom of his shoes.

  • 21
    John Turner
    Posted Tuesday, 27 May 2014 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    A few weeks ago some people (inc Crikey?) were questioning whether the PMLAs would survive. Well, they have, albeit with a new judging panel, one of whom you excoriate for being Peter Costello’s father in law. So in our brave new PC world the (presumed) sins of the son in law are visited upon the father in law?

  • 22
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Tuesday, 27 May 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    #17 and #18, it will be interesting to see if the PMLA are funded again for 2015, or have the funding pool reduced. There has been some chopping and changing of the awards, in terms of the categories on offer; the govt could cut it back from the current 6 categories. One to watch.

  • 23
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 27 May 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Peter Coleman ….. Tony Abbott …… Pauline Hanson ….. One Nation?

  • 24
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 27 May 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Peter Coleman …. Tony Abbott …. Pauline Hanson … One Nation?

  • 25
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 27 May 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    The Moderator Two-step?

  • 26
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Tuesday, 27 May 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure I follow klewso. Abbott helped prosecute Hanson and put her in prison. Not exactly an ally!

  • 27
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 27 May 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Who was behind raising the funds necessary to pursue that course?

  • 28
    Russ Hunter
    Posted Tuesday, 27 May 2014 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Smelly; stinks, in fact. Why does this government have to stink all the time?

    Sycophants need to be kept in their place.

  • 29
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 28 May 2014 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    …. then which party adapted her/their policies to garner electoral support?

  • 30
    Rena Zurawel
    Posted Wednesday, 28 May 2014 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s the money that attracts people - not the real care for literary values.
    It happens all the time.

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