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.