I’ve been extremely unsettled lately, and have contemplated moving interstate more than once (basically I will go to anyone who can give me a postdoc). With our premier having, as his first move in government, signaled his utter disdain for writers by axing the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, this impulse has only strengthened. In an attempt to address a budget deficit of approximately $4.6 billion, Campbell Newman has recouped $244,475 - the equivalent, as author of young adult fiction James Roy notes, of 5 cents in a thousand dollars. Newman’s rationale is to ‘revitalise frontline services and lower the cost of living for all Queenslanders’. However, TLC Books in Manly points out that the savings represent 18.3 cents per person in the state. How, exactly, a saving of nearly 20c per person might help Newman’s proposal to lower the cost of living is a little beyond me. And what will Newman do with this meagre pouch of coins? Plant some shrubbery and fill in some potholes, perhaps? Do a little rebranding of logos? Pay for some PR for damage control after having pissed off a community of writers who, when angry, tend to, uhm, vent through their writing? Their ire had the topic trending on Twitter yesterday evening, blogs aplenty have sprouted, while Sharon Johnston has arranged a petition to have the awards reinstated, which I urge all to sign.
To sum up some of the blogs and articles I’ve been canvassing, Ben Eltham, writing in Crikey, notes that the move had little to do with money, and much to do with politics (namely, sticking two fingers up at his predecessors), while his sister, Queensland Writers’ Centre Chief Executive, Kate Eltham, indicated that his government has, in the same breath, broken an election promise. Matthew Condon, author of Brisbane, writes that this will repeal the efforts of Queenslanders over the past 25 years to transform the state from a laughing stock into a vibrant literary and arts community. Stuart Glover, University of Queensland academic, discusses the history and usefulness of the awards, concluding that Newman ‘has signalled that he doesn’t understand the way artists and writers help us make a civilized society, and the way they help us discuss and negotiate who we are. Newman may not like to read, but he is mistaken to think that we should not encourage others to do so.’ Meanwhile journalist and author Andrew Stafford offers some much needed light relief.
James Roy also discusses the response from the public at large represented in the comments sections of online articles and shows that many perceive writers to be bludgers and that the money should be put towards something more ‘useful’. As he points out, ‘these views reveal a gross misunderstanding of how difficult it is to survive as a writer’. Only a handful of writers can afford to live from their work, and often forgo the assumed trappings of middle-class life (car, house, superannuation and, god forbid, a regular income). Literary awards, as Kate Middleton observes, may not seem like much, but for writers they represent a fortune. This is why Newman seems so mean-spirited, and this is why I’m angry: $250,000 might cover the cost of one high-ranking staff member in his office, but it denigrates the aspirations of thousands of people who slog their guts out to produce stories that might, heaven forbid! be read by Newman’s frontline staff at the end of a long day. It also stings that ‘no other events had been identified for the LNP Government's cost savings program at this stage’, most likely because, as John Birmingham has rightly indicated, Newman wasn’t going to lose any votes by attacking the arts community
However, the ramifications are far wider. As Condon puts it, ‘What Premier Newman doesn’t seem to comprehend is that the awards are worth infinitely more than their dollar value. They speak to children dreaming of a career in books and writing, to working artists, to readers, to a community’s cultural health and to a national creative agenda.’
Writers don’t expect much. We write because we love what we do, and because we can’t exist any other way. To take away a set of awards that encourages us to write about who we are, to help others dream, to establish Queensland’s identity, to offer solace and pleasure, to give us some recognition that those long and lonely hours with next to no remuneration might be worth something, is a mean and hollow move.
And for me the dream is this: packing a suitcase so I can skip town to a place that values its writers more than a stretch of tarmac.