Steele, Colin: How The Sex Lives of Australians upset a PM and the PM’s Literary Awards

Steele, Colin

How The Sex Lives of Australians upset a PM and the PM’s Literary Awards‘, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 June 2016 updated

Update 23 June 2016: Patrick Allington in The Conversation discusses the issues.

The author of this article was a History and Non-Fiction judge for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards from 2010 to 2013. He writes about how Prime Minister Howard intervened in the 2006 Prime Minister’s History Prize process to ensure that Les Carlyon’s The Great War shared the prize, how Prime Minister Rudd intervened in the 2013 Awards to overturn Frank Bongiorno’s The Sex Lives of Australians in favour of Ross McMullin’s Farewell, Dear People as winner of the History Prize – a spokesperson for Rudd denied this claim – and how Prime Minister Abbott ensured that Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North shared the Fiction Prize in 2014.

The article has extensive quotes from Bongiorno, who was down $75 000 tax-free as a result of the 2013 change of tack, and from others who have been involved in the literary prize process.

No one can now be sure that when an award is announced, whether the winner was determined on merit [says Bongiorno], or whether the process has been filtered by some test of political expediency applied by a prime minister who presumably won’t have read the book. Both sides of politics have played at this meddling, and it’s destroying the credibility of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. The money is taxpayers’ – half a million dollars of it – and they deserve better. So do authors, publishers, booksellers and universities.

Update 14 June 2016: the points in the following paragraphs were picked up by Susan Wyndham in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Regarding political expediency, it is worth noting that, in each case, the book boosted by prime ministerial intervention had a war theme. There was also the 2014 History Prize, where Joan Beaumont’s World War I-themed book, Broken Nation, was joined on the podium by Hal Colebatch’s Australia’s Secret War, about industrial action during World War II. Beaumont’s book, however, was not triumphalist about its war – it was like McMullin’s in this respect, though McMullin’s book is more sentimental – whereas Colebatch’s was stridently critical of trade unions during its war. Prime Minister Abbott had intervened again.

The calculus can obviously be quite complex when there is political intervention but the attitude to war books is interesting. While books like Beaumont’s and McMullin’s would stand out in any company, one wonders whether having a war theme gives a book a track of its own – somewhat akin to the way the Australian War Memorial seems to get special deals from government (compared with other cultural institutions) when it comes to budget funding and cuts. A war book like Colebatch’s that also has a whack at militant unions must have special attractions for one side of politics.

Perhaps it is just the number of books with a war theme that makes it inevitable that some will appear on short lists. Exploring the catalogue of the National Library of Australia and counting just personal narratives of the Great War, Carolyn Holbrook found 51 such books published in the 1960s had blown out to 215 in the noughties.(1) There would have been plenty more since. On the other hand, the proportion of war books that easily earn the tag of ‘dross’ seems somewhat greater than for books in general and the hurdles that war books for children have to clear to win prizes seem rather low.

Colin Steele has more on the prize process here and there is a summary here. Joan Beaumont and Frank Bongiorno are distinguished supporters of Honest History, as are many other winners of literature and journalism prizes.

(1) Carolyn Holbrook, ‘Nationalism and war memory in Australia’, Michael JK Walsh & Andrekos Varnava, ed., Australia and the Great War: Identity, Memory and Mythology, MUP Academic, Carlton, 2016,  Kindle location 4787.

David Stephens

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