Premiers come and premiers go. But premiers’ literary prizes, like state government-funded writers’ festivals, do not change much at all.
Last week it was announced that David Hicks’s Guantanamo: My Journey (William Heinemann, 2010) has been shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. The aim of these gongs is to ”nurture Australia’s greatest talent” and ”support outstanding Australian writers”. Hicks’s book has been nominated in the non-fiction category, which carries a $15,000 prize.
Since his return from Guantanamo Bay, after pleading guilty to providing material support for terrorism, Hicks has become something of a hero for the left intelligentsia. He received an enthusiastic standing ovation when he addressed the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May. John Howard also spoke at this year’s festival, fulfilling the traditional role, at such occasions, of the token conservative. There was no standing ovation for Howard but two protesters were allowed to attend his session holding a large sign declaring him to be a war criminal.
It is reasonable to assume that those who supported the Howard government’s policies on Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the national anti-terrorist security legislation, would be critical of Hicks’s book. So let’s look at the assessments of three commentators who were not obvious supporters of Howard and who have some expertise on the matters published in Guantanamo: My Journey. Namely, journalists Leigh Sales and Sally Neighbour along with academic Waleed Aly.
Sales, who wrote the well received book on the Hicks case titled Detainee 002, challenged many of the claims in Guantanamo: My Journey and said, ”it is best read sceptically”. Neighbour depicted the book as ”a disappointing and deceptive version of the truth” and declared some of the author’s claims ”beyond belief”. Aly wrote that Hicks’s memoirs were ”self-serving” and ”weakest on the points of greatest political scrutiny”.
During his time in Guantanamo, Hicks’s family released many of his letters to the media. Some were quoted in the sympathetic documentary The President Versus David Hicks. In these letters, Hicks condemned ”Western-Jewish domination”, praised the Taliban, endorsed Islamist beheadings, boasted of his meeting with Osama bin Laden and related how he had fired live ammunition into the Indian side of the Kashmir Line of Control.
Yet, in his book, Hicks asserts that he ”never hurt or injured anyone” and that ”no one requires an apology” from him. He also claims never to have met Bin Laden and to only have ”participated in the symbolic exchange of fire” when at the Kashmir Line of Control – whatever that might mean.
Neither Hicks nor his publisher has responded to any of the criticisms. Yet Hicks has been judged an outstanding talent and placed on the shortlist for the literary gongs, which will be announced at next week’s Brisbane Writers Festival.
Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser is another current favourite of the left intelligentsia – like Hicks, he is admired for his hostility to Howard. In Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs(The Miegunyah Press, 2010), which Fraser co-wrote with Margaret Simons, it is reported that he is ”applauded” at literary festivals ”by the same kinds of people who had once reviled him for his role in the dismissal” of the Whitlam Labor government.
Last May, Fraser and Simons won $50,000 in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for their book. The judges specifically praised Fraser’s ”moral leadership” on several political causes favoured by the left intelligentsia.
Yet Fraser’s repetitive memoirs are absolutely littered with factual errors, and numerous key moments in his political life are omitted or glossed over. For example, Fraser claims he has won four elections, retained Gough Whitlam’s Medibank universal health insurance scheme and always supported immigration. All claims are inaccurate, perhaps due to Fraser’s acknowledgement that he has a ”notoriously fallible” memory.
I wrote up a list of the errors in the Fraser/Simons book for the July 2010 The Sydney Institute Quarterly. Neither the authors nor the publisher has challenged this critique. Reviewing Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, Michael Sexton said, ”there is too much rose-coloured light in this account”. Yet the co-authors walked away with $50,000 of taxpayers’ money, along with much praise from the left.
The Melbourne Writers Festival is now under way. There are many leftist and left-of-centre types on the program but barely a conservative writer or commentator. For example, the session on essay writing will hear the views of only Richard Flanagan, Marieke Hardy and Robert Manne.
In Victoria, the Coalition replaced Labor in office in November last year. However, the political complexion of taxpayer-funded literary festivals never seems to change.