The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

Be­cause we ran our Books of the Year last week this is the first chance I’ve had to make some com­ments about the Prime Min­is­ter’s Lit­er­ary Awards, which were an­nounced in Sydney on De­cem­ber 14. I’m in­clined to like Mal­colm Turn­bull but his per­for­mance at the awards left a lot to be de­sired. In­deed it was em­blem­atic of the half-ar­sed­ness — par­don the French but it’s the mot juste in this case — with which the awards have been treated in re­cent years. It was good that Turn­bull turned up, but his speech was the strangest yet by a PM at this event, and that’s say­ing some­thing. He was in­tro­duced by Louise Adler, head of Mel­bourne Univer­sity Pub­lish­ing and chair­woman of the fic­tion and poetry judg­ing panel, and seemed to take ex­cep­tion to her light-hearted de­scrip­tion of the venue in in­ner-Sydney Red­fern as “grungy”. “It is hard to com­pete with mar­vel­lous Mel­bourne but we do our best,’’ he said, be­fore launch­ing into a ram­bling dis­cus­sion of the two east­ern cities, which was odd given he must have known he was about to hand the $80,000 fic­tion prize to a writer from Fre­man­tle, Joan Lon­don, for a novel set in Perth, The Golden Age. When he fi­nally worked his way around to lit­er­a­ture, the first book he men­tioned was one by his wife, Lucy. He then dis­missed Adler’s call — and bravo to her for hav­ing the guts to raise the is­sue — to re­think plans to scrap the par­al­lel im­por­ta­tion re­stric­tions that pro­tect Aus­tralian writ­ers and pub­lish­ers. “Even if ter­ri­to­rial copyright were to crum­ble”, he said, Aus­tralian writ­ers would “stand on their mer­its” and their works would “sing across the world and across the ages”. That just sounds glib. The PM handed out two of the six awards, for fic­tion and poetry (which went to Ge­off Lehmann for Po­ems 1957-2013) and then de­parted, leav­ing Arts Min­is­ter Mitch Fi­field in charge and the writ­ers vy­ing for the non­fic­tion, history, young adult fic­tion and chil­dren’s fic­tion prizes to re­flect on their stand­ing in the prime min­is­te­rial mind. For the record, Ross Coulthart’s Charles Bean, a bi­og­ra­phy of the war his­to­rian, and David Horner’s history of ASIO, The Spy Catch­ers, shared the history prize, Dar­leen Bungey ( John Olsen: An Artist’s Life) and Michael Wild­ing ( Wild Bleak Bo­hemia) shared the non­fic­tion prize, Claire Zorn won the YA prize for The Pro­tected and David Met­zen­then and il­lus­tra­tor Michael Camil­leri took home the chil­dren’s fic­tion prize for One Minute’s Si­lence.

But it was what hap­pened the next day that really left a sour taste. The gov­ern­ment used the mid-year eco­nomic re­view to kill off the fledg­ling Book Coun­cil of Aus­tralia, an ad­vi­sory group de­vised by for­mer PM Tony Ab­bott and his arts min­is­ter Ge­orge Bran­dis. Of it­self, this may not be a ter­ri­ble de­ci­sion, but for the gov­ern­ment to re­tain the $6 mil­lion gouged from the Aus­tralia Coun­cil to fund the still­born Book Coun­cil is poor form. Say I bor­rowed $5 from you be­cause I had no cash on me and wanted to buy a sand­wich but then de­cided I didn’t want a sand­wich af­ter all. Well, I’d give you your $5 back. It may not be a lot of money in the con­text of the $52m the gov­ern­ment plans to save from the arts bud­get over the next four years, but that $6m would go a long way in the writ­ing world and the de­ci­sion not to re­turn it, along with the ex­pected abo­li­tion of ter­ri­to­rial copyright, is caus­ing dis­may and anger in a com­mu­nity that had hoped to find an ally in the ur­bane Turn­bull. Adler, who was to head the Book Coun­cil, was suc­cinct: “The Turn­bull gov­ern­ment’s re­spect for our lit­er­ary cul­ture seems to be less than whole­hearted.” Ex­pect to see a lot of ac­tivism from au­thors and pub­lish­ers in the new year. Quote of the year: Lots of con­tenders, but I’m go­ing with Harper Lee’s note in March to a re­porter who wrote to her seek­ing an in­ter­view about her novel Go Set a Watch­man. “Go away.”

Happy new year to all.

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