Bob Carr has imposed himself on Sydney’s festival of words. Taking to the podium last night to announce the winners of his literary awards, he exhorted the crowd with these words: “So I say: ‘life has become better, comrades; life has become merrier’. Go into the night, go into the bright sunlit plains of the future. Goodnight from Comrade Stalin.”

While embracing the identity of the 20th century’s second biggest despot will boost his image is debatable, you’ve got to hand Carr points for chutzpah. This was the Premier’s Literary Awards, and the night was all about the Premier.

Carr is proud of his literacy programs, which apparently are boosting reading levels in schools from Cabramatta to Broken Hill. Couching them in Stalinist terms is either mad, crazy brave, or just pure humbug.

“It’s nice to impose your views in the nicest Stalinist fashion,” he told the crowd. “The point is this: year six students at Broken Hill primary school having an intense debate about books. My mate Joe Stalin would have approved.”

Whether hubris, tongue-in-cheek, or just plain silly, at least Carr is matching his bombastic rhetoric with taxpayers’ money: $167,000 was given away last night.

Keynote speaker Amanda Lohrey was a no-show. The writer was reported to have slipped on a banana peel and injured her back – but she may have heard she was up against Carr. In the end, her brief speech was read by former Hawke Cabinet minister Susan Ryan. Watching on were Gough and Magaret Whitlam, Frank Sartor, Bob and Leila Debus and a host of Labor luvvies.

The political theme continued when the winners were announced: SIEV X conspiracy theorist Tony Kevin won the ‘Community Relations Commission award’ ($15,000); Katherine Thompson won the $15,000 best play award for Harbour, celebrating the MUA’s fight against Patrick Stevedoring and prompting Carr to muse: “I’ve made a submission that her next play be about…(pause for dramatic effect) JAMES HARDIE!” Write that, Katherine, and the cheque’s in the mail.

There was a solid indigenous representation, with Sam Wagan Watson winning the Kenneth Slessor Prize ($15,000) and book of the year ($2000) for Smoke Encrypted Whispers; and Ruby Langford Ginibi picking up a $5000 special award. Ruby and her Koori mates entertained the crowds in parliament’s lobby with drinking songs late into the night.

The whole event resembled a branch meeting of the Balmain ALP – except that everyone was having too much fun. But amid the throng of PR flaks, Labor luvvies, academic freeloaders, friends of Dorothy, some real folk managed to get in. Erica Lean came all the way with her family from Dulwich Hill, out west. Some mistake, surely? “My auntie met someone on the train who gave her tickets.”

For the full list of last night’s winners, go here.