One of Kevin Rudd’s first acts in government was to announce one of the richest literary prizes in the world, a nice tax-free $100,000 for works of fiction and non-fiction. Not surprisingly it was warmly welcomed by writers and publishers.

But little has been heard of another generous prize that Mr Rudd inherited from his predecessor, the Prime Minister’s Australian History Prize. A creation of John Howard and part of his obsession with “correct” views of Australian history, the prize immediately ran into controversy. Under the new Rudd regime, the history battles are continuing.

One of the judges, conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey, clearly not reading from the Howard historical hymn book, said he was upset with the handling of the inaugural $100,000 award. It was a clear reference to the former Prime Minister himself, who against the majority decision of the judging team insisted that his selection, Les Carlyon’s The Great War should share the prize with the judge’s choice, Peter Cochrane’s weighty and worthy Colonial Ambition.

Author Gideon Haigh, who reviewed the Carlyon book for The Monthly magazine, said the decision “smacked of a PM over-eager to distribute the spoils of victory in the culture wars”.

With the coming of the Ruddster, the judging panel was cleared out and replaced by a new group more attuned to the changing times. The new chair of the judging panel is former University of WA Vice-Chancellor, emeritus Professor Deryck Schreuder. An experienced administrator, Professor Schreuder is currently chair of the ominously named Australian Universities Quality Agency. The perfect wonk credentials for a Rudd appointee. Professor Schreuder was born in South Africa, was a high school teacher in Zambia and a Rhodes Scholar before first coming to Australia in 1976.

Even all the Professor’s administrative skills however have not been able to get the judging panel working cohesively. Delayed by the change of Government, nominations for works first published in 2007 closed more than year ago. A short-list is still to be produced … or perhaps the PM is insisting on reading every entry personally? The initial prize received more than 150 entries.

Word from within the panel suggests it is split between conservatives who are pushing for another weighty academic tome, and moderns who want to throw away convention and nominate a non-book entry. (The Prize is open to TV and New Media as well.) Among the judges is Dr Michelle Arrow, a specialist in popular culture who also presented the failed ABC TV history experiment, Rewind. Meanwhile another panel member Dr John Hirst, is sitting in judgement of entries from the former government agency, Film Australia, even though he was a board member of that now defunct organization. Mr Rudd has sent the judges back for a rethink. Some estimates suggest it may take two years to award the long over-due 2007 prize- if ever.

When it comes to Australian History, some things never change.

Peter Fray

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