Mark Rubbo writes on the axed Queensland Premier’s Book Awards and why arts funding matters more than ever.
The new Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s announcement that he was scrapping the Queensland Premier’s Book Awards was disturbing and bizarre. Although a case could be made for ending the awards – one could argue that Australia is over-serviced with awards (there are about 74 separate awards) and also question the effectiveness of regional awards in promoting books and supporting writers.
But Newman’s decision, made just days after his crushing defeat of Queensland Labor and without any apparent warning or consultation, could only be interpreted as either inept or sinister. The amount of money saved was relatively small. Newman’s comments that the money could be better spent on roads or hospitals echoed the philistinism of an earlier era in Queensland politics. Equally worrisome were the comments by the Shadow Minister for the Arts, George Brandis on Lateline: ‘I say that those who have attacked Campbell Newman for that decision are being very silly.’
Newman and Brandis appeared to be saying that Australian writing is of little consequence and is at the bottom of the list as far as government priorities are concerned. One could presume that goes for the arts in general. Numerous studies have shown the social and economic benefits of strong arts industries and Brisbane in particular has proved this to be true with its cultural precinct by the Brisbane river, one of the most visited and used in Australia. Brisbane is home to the University of Queensland Press, original publishers of Peter Carey and Kate Grenville, and one of the trailblazers in establishing a vibrant Australian publishing culture.
A more sinister take on the decision might be that books are the harbinger of dangerous ideas and that supporting them doesn’t suit Newman’s political agenda. The short-listing of David Hicks’s memoir Guantanamo last year may have been a bit much for the ex-army engineer. While the likes of Senator Brandis may dismiss this speculation as ‘silly’, Newman’s singling out of books for his first cost-cutting measure with no explanation or rationale makes one wonder.
In NSW, Premier Bernie O’Farrell commissioned a review of his Awards after some grumbling about the awarding of last year’s prize to Malcolm Fraser. The review’s author, Gerard Henderson, had criticised both the Queensland and NSW awards for their recognition of Hicks and Fraser. In an article Henderson wrote that, ‘… Fraser’s repetitive memoirs are absolutely littered with factual errors’. Henderson’s review hasn’t been made public but Mr O’Farrell is emphatic that the review was ‘undertaken to determine how the awards could be enhanced …’ – and with no intention of shutting them down.
In Victoria, Premier Ted Baillieu has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Victorian awards, approving a major revamp of the awards that the previous Labor government had been sitting on. The Victorian Awards are now the most valuable in Australia, with the major prize being worth a total of $120,000. Premier Baillieu has also been an enthusiastic supporter of the Wheeler Centre which was an initiative of the Brumby government and doesn’t appear to be afraid of robust discussion and debate.
Mark Rubbo is the Managing Director of Readings