Not the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards

Arts lovers around Australia have now digested the news that brand new Queensland premier Campbell Newman has axed the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, as a cost-cutting measure.

The move, which comes during our National Year of Reading, will save the Queensland government just $244,000; the state’s debt is $85 billion.

‘The most important ramification of Newman’s decision is a symbolic one,’ says the Australian’s literary editor, Stephen Romei. ‘It says this is a government that doesn’t care about books, or writing, or reading. By extension, it says this is a government that thinks the average Queenslander feels the same. I know this is not true. Certainly, it’s a strange decision to make in Australia’s National Year of Reading.’

‘As a decision it comes with an enormous amount of baggage,’ says author Matthew Condon, editor of the Courier Mail’s weekend magazine, Q. ‘It comes with the memory of the cultural vacuum and, in turn, the national laughing-stock that vacuum had made of Queensland more than 25 years ago.’

‘Being an author who has been shortlisted for a premier’s award in the past, I know the most important thing is the kudos of the nomination,’ says fellow Queensland author Krissy Kneen. ‘The prize money is a bonus but it’s not what it’s all about.’

Grassroots awards

Matthew Condon and Krissy Kneen have teamed up, with the support of Brisbane independent bookshop Avid Reader and other industry stakeholders, to establish the Queensland Literary Awards.

‘We’re going to do this as a grassroots movement,’ said Kneen. ‘We are in the process of contacting all the current judges to make sure they are still keen to judge the awards on a voluntary basis.’

The awards will attempt to reward and recognise established and emerging writers across the 14 original categories which constituted previous Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, at a ceremony to be held later in 2012. The organisers hope winners can be announced on September 6, the first day of the Brisbane Writers Festival.

Avid Reader will be the centre for publishers and writers to send their awards submissions, which will close on 6 May.

Bookshop owner Fiona Stager told the Australian that the literary awards added ‘far greater value to Queensland’s collective culture than what they cost’.

Avid Reader has also actively supported the movement for The Stella Prize, a national prize to reward Australian women’s writing.

‘A blow in some sort of culture war’

‘In the 90s, when just about every state seemed to have [premier’s literary awards] and we didn’t, it was another contributor to the perception that we were a backwater that hadn’t shifted since the mid-20th century,’ writes Brisbane author Nick Earls on his blog. ‘Peter Beattie’s introduction of the awards in 1999 wasn’t some bizarre act of state largesse – it merely brought us in line with the rest of the country.’

Beattie himself says that the whole purpose of the awards was to try to create a ‘creative culture’ within Queensland.

‘It’s all part of building a culture where creative people are welcome and encouraged – creative industries are one of the fastest-growing parts of the world economy, and this isn’t just about the money, it’s about building up the sort of environment where scientists, game operators, these sorts of people, feel welcome.’

Amanda Lohrey, winner of the fiction prize last year for Reading Madame Bovary, told the Australian that the axing was ‘punitive’.

‘Given the very poor public relations and the damage to the Queensland brand, you would also have to wonder at a government who in the first week found it a priority. That seems to suggest that it is a blow in some sort of culture war. In one gesture they head back to the 50s.’

David Unaipon Award

One of the awards under the former umbrella of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards was the David Unaipon Award for the Best Indigenous Manuscript, the only prize of its kind.

‘It’s important that people understand that the Unaipon award was devised by UQP,’ said University of Queensland Press chief executive officer Greg Bain. ‘In the early 2000s it was brought under the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards which give it a lot more prominence but it’s actually not theirs to axe,’ he said.

Previous winners of the Unaipon Award include Doris Pilkington, for Caprice, the prequel to The Rabbit-Proof Fence, Larissa Behrendt, for her first novel, Home, and Tara June Winch, for her short-story collection Swallow the Air.

Expressing her disappointment about the axing of the awards, Winch said her win ‘completely changed’ her life.

Playwright Sam Watson says the David Unapion category of the awards was the only recognition for indigenous writers. ‘If we lose the Unaipon award then our writers, our storytellers, our performers will all slip back into the darkness and they will never come forward again.’

‘The prize money may come from the Premier’s Department but the award comes from UQP,’ said Greg Bain. ‘We are pledging to continue publishing the winner of the Unaipon award each year as well as the winner of the emerging Queensland author category.’

Petition for change

Emerging Mackay author Sharon Johnston has started a petition calling on Campbell Newman to reinstate the awards on Change.org, which has collected nearly 3000 signatures so far.

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