Not a single tear should be shed for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award.
Founded in 1999 by the Beattie government, the Award came to a swift end shortly after the election of Campbell Newman. Axing the award — which covered about 15 categories including an award for an unpublished manuscript, a science writer award, an award for best film script, and the David Unaipon Award for best unpublished Indigenous writer — will save the Queensland Government about $250,000.
The literary world’s reaction to the news has been fierce. On Meanjin, Chad Parkhill wrote: "The cost in terms of Queensland’s cultural reputation is impossible to calculate, yet already inevitable comparisons between Newman and Joh Bjelke-Petersen been aired."
Regarding the loss of the Unaipon Award, novelist Sam Watson told the ABC:
"In Queensland we have such a rich culture of storytelling. I don’t think Campbell Newman has got the mandate to close down the awards and to sever a very important artistic artery that will feed future generations of Australian and children globally with the richness of Queensland stories."
But the harshest criticism was vented by Overland editor Jeff Sparrow:
"The abolition of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards represents a harbinger of things to come. Not just in that state, though you’d have to say that Campell Newman’s decision to cut a major book award bang in the middle of the National Year of Reading does not bode well for arts funding in Australia’s north."
"No, one rather suspects that we’re also getting a preview of the priorities of Tony Abbott, Prime Minister."
Before we get out the sackcloth and rub ashes in our hair, are the wails of the eloquent doomsayers and pithy apocalyptists credible? All signs point to no.
When Peter Carey (born in Victoria) won the Award in 2001, he’d been a resident of New York for some 11 years. When Tim Winton (born in Western Australia) won the Award in 2005, he also won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for the same book. When Richard Flanagan (born in Tasmania) won in 2009, he’d also picked up the Western Australia Premier’s Award the previous year.
There’s a theme emerging here: in what way, in what sense, in what universe was the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award in the interest of Queenslanders?
The state-based literary awards are vanity projects for premiers. It is their annual opportunity to hobnob with the literati and get a photo with a person who wrote an unreadably good book. The award harks back to an imaginary age where leaders would be cultured and refined arbiters of taste.
Can anybody — with a straight face and a head full of working brains — honestly say that if it weren’t for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award, we wouldn’t have such Australian masterpieces as Fredy Neptune or The Volcano? Was winning the opportunity to meet Anna Bligh face-to-face the reason so many non-Queenslanders took quill to parchment to scratch out their novella? Did the fine people of Queensland rush out to bookstores immediately after the nominations were announced in order to discuss the merits of the eventual winner?
Fundamentally, the various premiers’ awards are irrelevant and the coordinators of the awards seem to know it. Last year’s decision to nominate David Hicks’ book, Guantanamo: My Journey, was a fairly transparent attempt to stir controversy in the face of waning relevance. I’ve heard McDonald’s jingles with more literary merit.
What seems to be missing from the commentary so far is that there are more significant funding opportunities for the arts in Queensland than the award: the end of the award does not mean the end of arts funding in Queensland. Arts Queensland, a division within the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, runs a swag of statutory bodies and state-owned companies dedicated to supporting the art community. Instead of merely shaking the hands of people who might otherwise have never visited the Sunshine State, Arts Queensland provides meaningful ways to nurture and develop cultural endeavours in Queensland.
But even if we ignore Arts Queensland and the huge number of projects they support through grants, there is still an amazingly good reason to axe the Premier’s Award: money.
Brisbane-based novelist, Nick Earls, wrote:
"Insiders tell me there’s nothing more influential on the ratings folk at Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s than reducing your debt by 0.00028 per cent through axing awards for writing. That’s how valuable the axing of the Premier’s Literary Awards is to the state’s finances. It’s a saving of $250,000 at the same time as the LNP is telling us the state is $85b in debt (and I didn’t even factor their extra $4b of new spending into my calculation)."
"It’s the difference between going $20,000 into debt to buy a car and instead being really smart about your finances and only having to borrow $19,999.94."
This misses the point. You don’t make savings in a budget by cutting only a few massive programs; trimming smaller programs means you don’t make larger cuts into major items. There are going to be severe cuts to the Queensland budget whether Queenslanders like it or not. It’s an extra $250,000 the Newman government doesn’t have to find from services, from education, or from police. It doesn’t even have to be as significant as those. Given the choice between cutting $250,000 on a prize awarded to non-Queenslanders (who might not even live in Australia) and cutting $250,000 on a program which, say, provides grants to emerging artists, surely Queenslanders would prefer the former.
I am all in favour of programs which support cultural development in Australia, but the Premier’s Literary Award is neither effective nor impactful. So long as the Queensland Government continues to support more efficient modes of facilitating cultural programs through Arts Queensland, nobody should care that a relatively insignificant vanity project was snuffed.
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