Can’t Do: The Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, 1999–2012
They don’t call him ‘Can-Do’ Newman without reason. Yesterday afternoon, a mere ten days after his landslide win in the recent state election, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman announced that his department would scrap the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. The program, which had run for thirteen years from 1999 to 2011, would be discontinued in order to save $244,475 and sundry operational costs. The swiftness and severity of the move was stunning, but the substance of the decision is by no means surprising. Newman and the Liberal National Party ran on a platform of fiscal prudence, eliminating government waste, and easing cost-of-living pressures on ‘ordinary Queenslanders’. His campaign quite explicitly focused on the concerns of middle-class, white, heterosexual Queenslanders over and above ‘special interest groups’. In such a climate, swingeing cuts to arts programs are to be expected. But nobody expected Newman to make such a dramatic gesture as entirely eliminating one of Queensland’s highest-profile arts programs. In so doing, Queensland has now become the only Australian state without a Premier’s Literary Award or its equivalent.
The Premier’s Literary Award may have been first arts program on the chopping block in order to settle an old score. Last year, the then-LNP arts spokesperson Scott Emerson publicly questioned the merit of the awards after David Hicks’ memoir Guantanamo: My Journey was shortlisted for the non-fiction prize. Then-Premier Anna Bligh responded by vigorously defending the awards and suggesting that Emerson was “reducing himself to a book burner”. That the awards were instituted by Bligh’s political mentor, Peter Beattie, can’t have helped their standing within the LNP, either. The awards have been tainted by their association with Labor; for Newman to cut them now sends a strong message that future arts policy in Queensland will not respect old arrangements.
In many ways this is a mess of Labor’s own making. Newman’s ability to unilaterally excise this program stems from two factors: that Queensland has only one house of parliament, and that it uses optional preferential voting (OPV). Queensland’s upper house, the Legislative Council, was abolished in 1922 under Labor’s Edward Theodore, leaving Queensland as the sole Australian state with a unicameral parliament. The current system of OPV, in which an elector does not have to number all of their preferences, was introduced by Labor under Wayne Goss. Each of these Labor-lead reforms has given Newman more power than his counterparts in other states. The OPV system and the practice of ‘plumping’ magnified the swing against Labor, so that despite the fact that the LNP received slightly less than 50% of the primary vote it won a whopping 86% of the seats in the Legislative Assembly. And in the absence of the Legislative Council, the work of legislative oversight is conducted by parliamentary committees, which require at least 30 members of parliament to be in opposition to be fully representative. A combination of these two quirks of Queensland’s political system has delivered Newman unprecedented executive power. As Anne Summers noted yesterday, Newman is not alone in wanting to overhaul his state’s Premier’s Literary Awards—New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell announced a comprehensive review of his state’s awards at the end of last year, and they currently appear to be in limbo. But New South Wales’s bicameral system and the remnants of the Labor party there would have made a move such as Newman’s vastly more difficult. Queensland’s political structure, by contrast, leaves those who disagree with Newman’s decision with very few avenues to pursue.
It’s safe to say, then, that unless Newman has a road to Damascus moment we will not see any Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards for quite a few years, if ever. At this point it’s worth pausing to consider what Australian literature has lost with the abolition of the awards. To glance over a list of previous winners of the marquee prize—the award for fiction—doesn’t convey the uniqueness of the awards: the lists are dominated by what might be politely termed ‘safe bets’ of strong but uncontroversial writers. J. M. Coetzee, perhaps the most garlanded writer currently operating in Australia, has won the fiction award twice (in 2004 for Elizabeth Costello and in 2010 for Summertime), while heavyweights Peter Carey, Helen Garner, Richard Flanagan and Tim Winton are all represented. Queensland’s own authors have been historically underrepresented in this category, with only four winners in the history of the prize (Thea Astley in 2000, Venero Armanno in 2002, Janette Turner Hospital in 2003, and Alexis Wright in 2007) having a close association with the state. Why, then, is the prize so valued by Queenslanders that yesterday’s announcement sent seismic shudders throughout social media?
To my mind, the answer is that few other state literary awards are so dedicated to nurturing and encouraging emerging writers. Queensland stood with South Australia as one of only two states to offer an award for an unpublished manuscript with a publication contract built into the prize. Even in this field of two, Queensland’s award stood out because it was more established (first awarded in 1999 as opposed to 2002) and the winning manuscripts were published by a house with a long history of incubating Australian literary talent (the University of Queensland Press). Although founded in 1988 by UQP, the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished manuscript by an Indigenous writer has been a part of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards since 2004 – making Queensland the only state with an award specifically for Indigenous writing. These two awards together have launched a large number of literary careers: those of Nike Sulway (then writing under the name n. a. bourke), Nerida Newton, Kimberley Starr, Patrick Holland, Tara June Winch, and Karen Foxlee. Shortlisted competitors have used that fact as a springboard to publication: most famously Alasdair Duncan, whose novel Sushi Central was shortlisted for the award in 2002, but also more recently Nikki McWatters with her memoir One Way or Another: the Story of a Girl Who Loved Rock Stars. It is entirely possible to argue that the cream always rises and that literary talent will win through without awards such as these, but to do so would be to ignore the difficulties of getting a manuscript published in a field where slush piles are becoming an anachronism and an aspiring author often needs an agent and a manuscript appraisal before a publisher will even consider looking at their manuscript. And, as Tara June Winch’s reflections on the Unaipon Award in the Griffith Review demonstrate, awards such as these offer encouragement to talented writers who may not yet have the confidence to peddle their wares in the open marketplace of unsolicited submissions.
It’s hard to put a fiscal value on these benefits, but given that the breadth of Queensland’s awards was unparalleled amongst state literary awards—it gave prizes across 14 separate categories compared to NSW’s 13, Western Australia’s 10, South Australia’s eight, Victoria’s seven, and Tasmania’s three—it seems to have performed very well for a minimal investment. $244,475 is a strikingly small amount in a state budget that runs to $4.6 billion deficit. The cost in terms of Queensland’s cultural reputation is impossible to calculate, yet already inevitable comparisons between Newman and Joh Bjelke-Petersen have been aired. In the meantime, writers are already seeking to rebuild. The Unaipon seems most likely to survive, as it previously existed independently of the other awards. Queensland authors Matt Condon and Krissy Kneen have announced their intention to run independent awards structured along much the same lines as the old awards, albeit without the state’s imprimatur. UQP’s general manager, Greg Bain, has pledged his support for the new awards and reaffirmed UQP’s commitment to publishing the recipients of the Unaipon and Emerging Queensland Writer awards. Just how successful these new awards will be in a hostile political climate and without access to the state’s resources remains to be seen.
- Alien Onion
- Ampersand Duck
- Andrew McDonald
- A Pair of Ragged Claws
- Arts Victoria
- Australia Council for the Arts
- Bookshow blog
- City of Tongues
- darkly wise, rudely great
- David Astle
- Dorothy Johnston
- Elmo Keep Does Stuff
- The Ember
- Going Down Swinging
- Griffith Review
- Killings blog
- Lorraine Crescent
- Lynden Barber
- Mandy Ord
- Marcus Westbury
- Melbourne University Publishing
- Mel Campbell
- The Monthly
- Musings of an Inappropriate Woman
- Oslo Davis
- Paul Callaghan
- Read, Think, Write
- Right Now
- Sleepers Publishing
- Sorrow at Sills Bend
- The Stella Prize
- Tom Cho
- Wheeler Centre
04 Apr 12 at 11:37
Newman and the Liberal National Party ran on a platform of fiscal prudence, eliminating government waste, and easing cost-of-living pressures on ‘ordinary Queenslanders’. His campaign quite explicitly focused on the concerns of middle-class, white, heterosexual Queenslanders over and above ‘special interest groups’.
Quite an extraordinary implication built into these sentences – that non-‘middle-class-white-heterosexual-Queenslanders’ have no interest in fiscal prudence, the elimination of government waste, or the easing of cost of living pressures....
04 Apr 12 at 11:57
I think you’re reading a little more into my words than is warranted there, TimT. Of course non-middle class, non-white, and non-heterosexual voters have an interest in their government being fiscally prudent and concerned with cost-of-living pressures. The way the debate is framed is important, however, because it lets us know what kind of lifestyles are to be protected from cost-of-living pressures and which ones aren’t. As an example, much hay was made in the election campaign about Anna Bligh’s decision to roll back Queensland’s fuel subsidy and the cost of car registration. Although Newman has not committed to reinstating the subsidy, the fact that these were such talking points demonstrates that the people whose cost-of-living concerns matter are those who drive vehicles, not those who rely on public transport. Similarly, the fact that Newman deflected any questions about his party’s opposition to same-sex civil unions by talking about the priorities of ‘ordinary’ Queenslanders sent a strong message to gay, lesbian and bisexual Queenslanders that the LNP does not consider them ‘ordinary’ but as a dreaded ‘special interest group’. The heated rhetoric in the comments section of the Courier-Mail’s website about chardonnay-swilling bludgers with their snouts in the trough demonstrates that authors, too, are seen as a ‘special interest group’ who are not ‘ordinary Queenslanders’....
04 Apr 12 at 12:36
I think you miss the important point though – that fiscal restraint will benefit all Queenslanders in the long run, whatever particular demographic they come from....
04 Apr 12 at 16:03
I am shocked and outraged that the Literary awards have been axed. Fiscal restraint is not about saving pennies, especially when the smallest SUCCESSFUL initiatives are having the greatest effect. I remember visiting Queensland when it was a police state 20 years ago. I fear you Queenslanders are heading backwards again....
04 Apr 12 at 16:05
The $244,475 cut hardly seems worthy of claims of fiscal restraint or deserving of a media announcement for that matter. Was it not simply a strategic political gesture?...
04 Apr 12 at 16:11
Can Do won an overwhelming majority of votes because Queenslanders wants fiscal responsibility. We were sick of the economic waste, mismanagement & jobs for the boys conducted by Labor. I could never understand why Queensland taxpayers awarded any Australians who entered this competition, even if they were not from Qld. e.g. Tim Winton. I would have understood if it was exclusively for Queenslanders. Congrtulations Campbell. This is part of regaining our AAA credit rating, even if only a small part....
04 Apr 12 at 16:14
Dose seem to be a nail in the coffin of queensland literacy. and yet it leaves the field wide open for a private foundation or university to sail into the gap. i wonder about an award for writers with a queensland focus, be it by dint of birth, residence or subject matter. if i were a rich woman …...
04 Apr 12 at 17:58
I was a QLD public servant for 11 years before moving state and I have personally witnessed in correct book keeping around the purchase of software licensing cost far, far in excess of $250k. I have watched individual IT contractors cost the state more than that in a financial year and then have their work cast aside at the end of the engagement. If they were actually serious about the well being of the state and its people and being fiscally responsible surely they would start with a bigger ticket item. that is laying aside the long term costs to the state of so openly providing tacit approval to the already strong culture of anti-intellectualism in QLD which I suspect, but cannot prove, will be great. if you want to save money how about not starting another massively expensive and extensive Machinery of Government change? Not saying reform isn’t needed but these MoGs cost vast amounts of money and in the case of many are never fully completed. The “rebranding” required for the departments, changing signage, stationary and advertising etc. alone costs far more than keeping thsee awards running. This is a cheap, nasty move and we will all pay for it in the long run but I certainly see it as just a beginning. The incoming Premier making his mark, most executives do similar things on ascending, but I fully expect a series of similar attacks on other easy targets in the coming months. That’s right, months! There is easy support and legitimacy with his base to be gained by further alienating the 50% of Queenslanders who did not vote for this government and the cost to him is nothing as clearly he did not need those votes to gain an astonishing level of state power. I am at a loss....
04 Apr 12 at 18:43
Tim T, your bland overview avoids the key question here, namely why, out of any number of fiscal cutbacks that could have been announced, is this one first, out on its own, apropos of nothing? No concurrent, urgent cuts to sports funding, for example. That is what makes it a dedicated attack on intellect, literary culture and literacy in general....
04 Apr 12 at 21:24
LNP, a little less than 50% of votes cast, yet won 86% of the seats! Mmmm, informative. Queensland is peculiar electorally and making extrapolations to Federal elections may indeed be in danger of some skewing, methinks. As for scrapping this small but important support of literature in the state, very small minded indeed....
04 Apr 12 at 22:59
“swinging does not have an "e” in the middle. A wordsmith should also know how to spell!!!...
05 Apr 12 at 1:19
@Anthony Hollway: It pays to check your dictionary, too; “swingeing” is an adjective meaning “severe.”...
05 Apr 12 at 8:47
In response to Rod L and Anonymous, I should clarify that the LNP did much better on a two-party-preferred basis than on primary votes, so there’s no question about the legitimacy of Newman’s government. Another way to put it is that Labor performed terribly on primary votes, coming in at around 28%. It’s clear that Labor’s shellacking at the recent election reflects the wishes of Queensland’s electorate; however, the unique system of OPV means that Queensland’s elections are more of a winner-takes-all proposition than other state elections....
05 Apr 12 at 9:37
All totalitarian regimes control the press and “burn the books”. Newman clearly does not want any flowering of thought in his state. This is what life was life 25 years ago under Bjelke-Peterson. Queenslanders! What have you done? Queensland is again the butt of jokes in the southern states. We’re back to being a beach and a quarry!...
05 Apr 12 at 10:35
Surely then the Premier will get rid of the Queensland Premier’s Design Awards. http://www.arts.qld.gov.au/arts/qpda.html...