PM’s Prize for Australian History 2015

The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for 2015 have been announced, including the PM’s Prize for Australian History. The history prize was shared (as in 2014) this time between Ross Coulthart for his Charles Bean and David Horner for The Spy Catchers, Volume I of the official history of ASIO. One of the judges, Ross Fitzgerald, comments, wearing his commentator’s rather than his judge’s hat.

The judges (Ida Lichter, Peter Coleman and Ross Fitzgerald) made these remarks about Coulthart’s book:

The book offers a highly readable re-evaluation of Charles Bean as official war correspondent with Australian Imperial Force troops during World War One, as major post-war historian, and the dedicated founder of the Australian War Memorial. Truthful reports from the front should have included the suicidal commands and subsequent carnage of Australian troops, for example at The Nek. However, such accounts were in conflict with support for the Australian war effort and morale back home. Bean’s predicament, his regrets concerning self-censorship, and his later sweeping revisions are central to this biography, as are his time-bound bigotries. CEW Bean’s moral journey challenged the mythology that helped forge national identity. His wartime dilemmas hold lessons for embedded journalists today.

The judges said this about Horner’s book:

This finely researched first volume of its official history, explains in detail why and how ASIO was formed. It also illuminates what was arguably ASIO’s greatest accomplishment—the defection of the Soviet diplomat and KGB agent Vladimir Petrov and his wife Evdokia in April 1954.

Throughout his fascinating narrative, Horner details many activities of our nation’s spy catchers that have never been published. Well written and clearly constructed, the book is primarily about the people who staffed ASIO. They were, Horner states, “normal, honourable, everyday Australians”. But as the book demonstrates, those men and women who worked, often obsessionally, to protect our national (and sometimes international) security, were far from being “normal” or “everyday”.

Coulthart’s book was reviewed by Mark Dapin, Jeffrey Grey and Ian McPhedran. Honest History did not review the book though our editor read it and was impressed, noting it would have featured in his top ‘war books’ for the year and that, in presenting a conflicted Bean, Coulthart described ‘a more complex figure than the plaster saint beloved of the Australian War Memorial’.

Ernst Willheim did a forensic analysis of Horner for Manning Clark House and Honest History.

One of the frightening things about the operation of security agencies such as ASIO [says Willheim] is that they seem to be able to decide what organisations and what people are potentially subversive. Under Spry [Director-General of ASIO 1950-69] that seemed to extend to a vast array of progressive organisations, a vast number of progressive people. Horner’s conclusion is chilling: ASIO came to believe that any political movement or societal group that challenged a conservative view of society was potentially subversive (an activity aimed at overthrowing the elected government).

Five other reviews of Horner are linked from our reference post.

15 December 2015