For someone who promised to lead an ‘adult’ government, Tony Abbott is giving every indication that the Lodge is presently occupied by a student politician on steroids. Whether it is the two Abbott-inspired royal commissions and other acts of political retribution dished out to the Coalition’s opponents, the appointment of assorted mates to diplomatic posts, employing a ‘freedom commissioner’ on a salary of over $300,000 a year without even the pretence of due process, or Abbott’s personal reinstatement of knight and dames honours, this is a prime minister who seemingly believes in government by trolling - like an internet user who intentionally angers someone to provoke a response.
Little wonder then that the Abbott government announced that it had decided to stack the non-fiction and history panel tasked with judging the Prime Minister’s $600,000 worth of literary prizes for 2014 (including the prestigious Australian history gong) with venerable conservatives. Dr Gerard Henderson will be its new chair. Not a single member of the 2013 panel remains.
There will be many who specifically question Henderson’s qualifications. He is, of course, a published author of Australian history, including an account of the Liberal Party. Formerly John Howard’s chief of staff in Opposition during the 1980s, he has over two decades experience as a print and television commentator, is currently executive director of the Sydney Institute, and writes a weekly column for the Australian.
Henderson’s recent commentary, however, mostly consists of ad hominem, highly personal attacks on anyone whose politics veers to the left of Genghis Khan. In particular, his eccentric weekly ‘Media Watch Dog’ blog is a bully-pulpit used to vilify and harass individuals, from so-called ‘taxpayer-funded’ academics to ‘sandal wearing’ journalists employed by the ABC and Fairfax. Yet many of those he has vituperatively criticised will potentially offer up their works for consideration by Henderson’s panel.
And therein lies the rub. It is difficult to believe that Henderson will be able to act as an impartial judge on perhaps dozens of books, for example a future offering by public intellectuals Robert Manne and David Marr, two of his most frequent targets. Your humble correspondent is also slated to release two solo-authored works of Australian history next year. Henderson aside, I don’t seriously expect be in the running for the prize. However, given that I too have been a target of MWD’s aggressive pedantry and interminable requests for ‘correspondence’, could Henderson fairly assess my works?
My experience also seems to suggest that Henderson’s ability to review works of history or non-fiction is rather limited. In a spiteful blog entry which criticised the book version of my doctoral thesis, Henderson wrote that I was supervised by a ‘Mark Quartly’ and examined by ‘Mark Heard’. I have never met nor do I know the former. The latter, despite an exhaustive search of Australian university faculties, doesn’t appear to exist either. The nation’s pre-eminent literary prizes can scarcely afford such basic factual errors from its chair.
More relevant is Henderson’s long-running jihad against Melbourne publisher Morry Schwartz and his stable of publications (The Monthly, Saturday Paper and Quarterly Essay). The question must be asked: will Henderson be able to objectively judge a book submitted for one of the prizes by an author from Schwartz’s ‘Black Inc’ imprint?
Henderson’s appointment is not the only concerning inclusion. In a previous incarnation, former Quadrant editor and Liberal party politician Peter Coleman made a sizeable contribution to the intellectual life of this country. These days his shtick is writing a boorish column for the Australian version of conservative Spectator magazine. In March, he referenced a Bill Leak cartoon on the Section 18C controversy which depicted an ‘Aborigine, an Arab and a Jew’ lording it over white patrons of a public bar. Coleman made the extraordinary claim that opponents of a revision to the Racial Discrimination Act were ‘hypersensitive and humourless minorities’ opposed to the ‘vast majority who enjoy free speech, including humour, as their birthright.’ Again, it is reasonable to ask whether Coleman is capable of judging entries from people of said background.
There are issues other than political bias and decorum. The lack of continuity with the 2013 panel present problems of corporate knowledge and consistency. At the risk of being accused of ageism, the composition of the new panel is also troubling. Two octogenarians and three sixty somethings combine to produce an average age of 76. The youngest member turns 66 this year. As Frank Bongiorno notes, the panel members are each ‘individually distinguished in the world of books and ideas’, yet the overall constitution is a ‘novel and effective way of avoiding the supposed curse of baby-boomer cultural domination.’ Bongiorno, shortlisted for the PM’s Australian History prize in 2013, suggests that ‘important issues of representativeness and perspective’ are involved, as there would be if a ‘bunch of 20- and 30-somethings’ instead dominated.
Given these concerns, it isn’t beyond the realm of probability to imagine that some authors and publishers might refrain from submitting entries. This would be a tragedy for writers, academics and the publishing industry more generally.
‘Can you bear it?’ is the catch-phrase of Henderson’s blog. I don’t presume to speak for all Australian writers and historians but I’d wager that in relation to the panel appointments many would answer with a resounding ‘no’. Given that the Abbott government seems intent on prosecuting a juvenile series of culture wars in the midst of the serious policy challenges Australia presently faces, a great many citizens other than sandal-wearing writers might be making an equally critical judgement of such partisan shenanigans.
Nick Dyrenfurth is an adjunct Research Fellow at the National Centre for Australian Studies in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University and the Federal Secretary of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. The author of several works of Australian politics and history, his latest book, Mateship: A Very Australian History will be published next year. A version of this article was originally published in the Age and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.
Dyrenfurt, Nick, 'Total-Abbottarianism', Evatt Journal, Vol. 13, No. 4, June 2014.<https://evatt.org.au/total-abbottarianism>