The brass buttons are hardly attached to Major Campbell Newman’s new uniform as Premier after a stunningly successful campaign to take virtually all political territory and obliterate the opposition, when he draws his sword and cuts down the literary awards in his own name. The new Premier, who spent 13 years in the army reaching the rank of Major, Royal Australian Engineers, and with the nickname “Noddy”, has drawn blood in the sunshine state.
His LNP ministry hardly had time for tea and tiny cakes with Governor Penny Wensley before a government press release announced the kill. Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards will not proceed this year, giving Queenslanders cost-of-living relief.
The ink wasn’t dry on Arts Minister Ros Bates commission when she was landed with the corpse — reports say she found out about the decision from a Courier Mail reporter.
Top Australian writers Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Helen Garner or Richard Flanagan, all previous winners, would no longer be invited to bring their books and ideas to Queensland for judgment and award, emerging poets and playwrights would not compete for a prize and recognition that would kickstart their career.
New leaders and new governments are defined by their first actions.
Newman created a troika of himself, Deputy Premier Jeff Sweeney and Treasurer Tim Nicholls to run Queensland until he could marshal his vast army of mostly new MPs into ministerial roles, junior minister jobs and make work for backbenchers. Indeed, show them around the unicameral Parliament they now dominate and in which he has never sat. Under the troika, Newman appointed former Liberal federal treasurer Peter Costello to chair an audit of the state finances. He was bitten by a dog at a thank you barbecue for uniformed campaign cadets in his new seat of Ashgrove. Next, he cut down the literary awards.
You might say there’s a connection here. Queensland is in the red, has lost its coveted AAA credit rating under the Labor government and Newman is hell bent on getting it back. That’s a new government’s right. This is about aiming to return the budget to surplus and revitalise front-line services — so on the front line in Queensland, books are a weapon in the war on debt.
But even before former Federal Treasurer Peter Costello could take the red pen to the $47 billion state budget — slash, slash to literature, the sword into books. And for all the damage it will cause, it’s hardly a fiscal wound — $244,475 cut from a $47 billion state budget. This is a fiscal graze with a cultural message.
The massive LNP vote has given the new government a democratic pass to make change, though there was no mention of the literary cull in any pre-polling campaign material or speeches. The Major has a mandate and he makes “no apologies” for this decision.
When Peter Beattie started the Queensland Premier’s Literary awards in 1999, 20 years after NSW, they were part of a stable of awards to promote the new Smart State, celebrating books and writing was part of the education and innovation makeover for the state, it was also a nod to the new Queensland. Anna Bligh, as arts minister and premier, expanded the literary awards to 14 categories, including indigenous writing.
Now under the Major they are no more. I wonder how safe the Queensland Climate Change Awards are. So what’s next in the cultural cull?
The Arts Queensland public servants who have been mapping the state’s writing ecology for the past year should be afraid, very afraid.
*Journalist and author Mary Delahunty was Victoria’s longest-serving Arts Minister and is CEO of Writing Australia