Odd rules can help shape a writing prize’s long-term character in wonderful ways. But that’s not the case with the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, set up by the Rudd government and first awarded in 2008. (In 2012, they also took in the PM’s Prize for Australian History, which John Howard had begun.)
The expanded awards — with separate categories for fiction, non-fiction, Australian history, poetry, YA and children’s books and a winner’s prize money of A$80,000 tax free — should be well-placed to be our pre-eminent national literary awards. Instead, they bob on the vast sea of daily politics, occasionally getting dumped by a breaker.
As Colin Steele, a former judge of the non-fiction award recently suggested, the issues facing the Awards include Prime Ministerial interventions in deciding winners, the appointment and treatment of judges, and the quality and focus of publicity and marketing.
I’d add that the name doesn’t help: almost anything — from the silly (The Oi Oi Oi’s?) to the prosaic (National Book Awards?) — would be preferable to the current one.
But the key flaw in the Awards’ guidelines is this:
The Prime Minister makes the final decision on the awarding of the Awards, taking into account the recommendations of the judges.
As Beth Driscoll put it in 2008,
To appreciate the true scandal of this potentiality, imagine the Queen actually choosing the Governor General!
Steele identifies three separate instances of prime ministerial intervention in the awards. In 2013, he writes, Kevin Rudd overruled the judges’ recommendation for the History Award, Frank Bongiorno’s The Sex Lives of Australians: A History (2012). The Award was then given to Ross McMullin’s collection of World War I personal histories, Farewell, Dear People: Biographies of Australia’s Lost Generation (2012).
In 2014, meanwhile, the fiction judges chose Steven Carroll’s A World of Other People (2013), a novel about TS Eliot and London during the blitz, as the winner. But then PM Tony Abbott intervened to make Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) a joint winner. Years earlier, in 2006 (before the wider PM’s Literary Awards existed), John Howard had intervened to make Les Carlyon’s The Great War (2006) a co-winner of the History Prize.
The lack of transparency around these awards is palpable. Should a Prime Minister intercede for purely literary reasons? Or are political reasons fine? Or “history war” reasons? Or local constituency reasons? Or personal reasons?
Can a PM reject a winner because of a cover image or an epigraph? Is a PM who wishes to intercede obliged to read all the shortlisted books? Can a PM “call in” a book that hasn’t made the shortlist or isn’t in competition?
In the meantime, judges engage in delicate debate and compromise amongst themselves, without knowing if they are actually choosing the winner. This is no clearly-defined two-tiered process – with one panel choosing a shortlist and another panel the winning book, as happens with the Pulitzer Prize. This is arbitrary.
Other complaints about the judging process have dogged the Awards. Senator George Brandis claimed in 2014 that the Labor-chosen panels lacked balance, as no judges were “conservative or even liberal democratic”. He suggested that that his government instead aimed for “balanced panels”, citing as examples Gerard Henderson as chair of the non-fiction and history panel (“conservative”) and Louise Adler as chair of the fiction and poetry panel (“a woman of the left”).
At around the same time as Brandis was complaining about past judges, Morry Schwartz and Chris Feik from Black Inc. protested the choice of Henderson as a judge:
Henderson has a history of incessant and obsessive criticism of leading Australian writers and commentators with whom he disagrees politically … His appointment politicises what has until now been an apolitical award based on merit.
I happen to disapprove of Gerard Henderson’s politics, to the limited extent that I understand them. But any isolated scrutiny of a single judge mainly demonstrates the susceptibility of the awards to the politics of the moment, including the more tedious elements of the culture wars.
In any writing competition, a judge arrives with personal, political and literary baggage, preoccupations and biases. But judges also, ideally, bring a commitment to identifying and rewarding excellence that transcends their personal politics and previous public statements.
In turn, the judges’ collective decisions should provoke productive and passionate disagreement on literary, cultural and political grounds. In other words, in calling for changes to the PM’s Literary Awards, I am not seeking a saccharine or apolitical outcome. A prize’s idiosyncrasies can help define it.
For example, the flawed but magnificent legacy of the Miles Franklin Literary Award stems in large part from Franklin’s inspired stipulation that the winning novel (or play, if no novel measures up) should not only be of the “highest literary merit” but “must present Australian Life in any of its phases”.
The stipulation within the PM’s Literary Awards that a Prime Minister has the final say about winners is equally defining: it compromises the Awards’ credibility, purpose and depth.
That stipulation must go, without delay. To function effectively, the Awards need entrenched breathing space from the government that funds them. They need an unambiguous mandate: what are these Awards for?
And they need transparency. In the context of questioning Henderson as judge, Schwartz and Feik called for a published list of all entries received. In the spirit of critically celebrating the breadth of Australian writing, the PM’s Literary Awards – indeed, all major Australian book prizes – should embrace this suggestion.
In the meantime, I, for one, look forward to the 2017 judges of the PM’s Literary Awards perhaps choosing Niki Savva’s The Road to Ruin: how Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government (2016) as the winner of the non-fiction award.
If this eventuates, what happens next may well depend on whether the Prime Minister is Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten … or perhaps even, by then, a reawakened Tony Abbott.