Address to The 2015 National Writers’ Congress
A culture of reading

11 September 2015

Sydney

It is both a privilege and a pleasure to address the 2015 National Writers’ Congress.

As you know, I am a lover of books. Reading has been one of the great pleasures of my life. Indeed, in some ways, it has defined my life. Books have certainly defined my political identity. It was reading Mill’s On Liberty when I was at school that persuaded me that I was a liberal. Later, at university, I encountered Menzies’ The Forgotten People. No Australian, before or since, has ever expressed the values of the liberal tradition in more compelling language. Those two books, more than anything else, set me on the course of a political vocation. Indeed, for me, even political scandals have a bookish edge – too many expensively-housed books in my Parliamentary office; being caught reading poetry to help me stay awake late at night during Senate Estimates.

The vocation of politics and the craft of writing share much in common. In both callings, the principal tool of our trade is language. Practitioners of politics must be artificers of the spoken word. And those whose craft is the spoken word will always owe a deep debt to the written word. Indeed, the more familiar they are with good writing, the more memorable their utterances will be. Sir Robert Menzies’ daughter Heather Henderson, in her recent memoir of her father, recalled that before he was to deliver a major speech, Sir Robert – who seldom if ever spoke from a scripted text – would read not briefing books, but poetry. Menzies’ knowledge of English and Australian poetry was both rich and deep; according to his daughter, it was by immersing himself in his beloved poetry the night before that he found the beautiful cadences which defined his greatest speeches.

It is no coincidence that many great political leaders have also been writers. The young John F Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for History. Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize – not, as is commonly thought, the Nobel Peace Prize, but the Nobel Prize for Literature, for his History of the English Speaking Peoples. If Barack Obama had never gone on to do anything more with his life, his memoir Dreams from my Father – written before he had established himself as a political figure – would have earned him an honoured and notable place in American literature, as a fine example of the genre of memoirs by young people struggling with their identity and background. In Britain, although neither of them quite reached the summit of political ambition, both Roy Jenkins and William Hague did reach the summit of biographical achievement, with their richly awarded biographies of others who had achieved the political prize which eluded them: Jenkins’ superb biographies of Gladstone and Churchill, and Hague’s exemplary biography of Pitt – a political biography so good that it is astonishing to think it was a first work, written while William Hague was a busy front-line politician.

Not only have there been many political leaders who were superb writers; some of the greatest literary figures of the past century have held, or sought, serious political office. Andre Malraux served in de Gaulle’s Cabinet, as the first French Minister for Culture. The acclaimed Czech dramatist Vaclav Havel went on to lead the Velvet Revolution and become the first President of post Cold War Czechoslovakia. Gore Vidal twice ran for Congress, and in 1982 came very close to becoming a Democrat Senator for California. Imagine how entertaining that would have been.

In Australia, I have already mentioned Menzies, our most literate of Prime Ministers. And we must, of course, pay homage to Gough Whitlam, the depth of whose familiarity with classical literature and history was one of his defining, and most attractive, features. When Gore Vidal visited Australia during the time of the Whitlam Government and made Gough Whitlam’s acquaintance, it is said to have been love at first sight. Among others, Sir Paul Hasluck was a serious historian, almost certainly the most significant scholar ever to have served in our Parliament who, earlier in his life, was also a not insignificant poet.

Among more recent leading political figures, Bob Carr is so well read that he actually wrote a book about how well read he was. John Howard’s memoir, Lazarus Rising, was the most successful Australian political book ever published, while his more recent book, his history of the Menzies era, won the highest praise from no less a figure than Clive James. Earlier this year, in a relatively rare compliment to Australian writing, the Times Literary Supplement featured Howard’s The Menzies Era on its front cover, and led the issue with Clive James’ long, enthusiastic and entertaining review. He wrote:

“Quiet in his retirement, Howard … content[ed] himself with writing and publishing his political autobiography, Lazarus Rising. His more devoted enemies greeted the book as the kind of thing you might expect from an unrepentant racist, misogynist, CIA agent and neo- Nazi, but even they had to concede that it was neatly done. The reading public agreed … and the less blinkered of the reviewers guessed that he might be starting a second career, as a political historian. … The Menzies Era shows that they were right. Though the field of Australian political commentary is nowadays a happy hunting ground for fantasists, it does have some exemplars of sober judgment, and Howard has already proved himself to count high among their ranks. Even those who thought that his lack of effervescence in government was a bourgeois insult to their own exciting personalities would be obliged to admit, if only under torture, that his unspectacular expository prose is a suitable instrument for recounting both the broad sweep and fine detail of Australia’s modern historical reality.”

The current crop of my Federal Parliamentary colleagues has produced a superabundance of books. Admittedly, most belong either to the category of rather dull and worthy policy blueprints for Australia’s future, of the kind rising backbenchers are wont to write to advertise their intellectual wares; or memoirs of the “where did it all go so wrong – it certainly wasn’t my fault” variety: a very well-populated field of political literature which Ministers of the previous Government have made their own. But two recent works stand out as different and better: Chris Bowen’s The Money Men: Australia’s Twelve Most Notable Treasurers, which is a substantial, interesting and even scholarly work, and Christopher Pyne’s A Letter to My Children – a quirky and rather touching memoir of his late father and of the wellsprings of his own attraction to the vocation of politics.

Christopher Pyne is, in fact, one of the six published authors among the nineteen of us who sit around the Cabinet table. Most Cabinet Ministers have a book in them after they have finished their political careers – or, at least, so publishers seem to think – but no previous Australian Cabinet has contained so many people who have written substantial books before their political prime – and on such a wide variety of topics: from Malcolm Turnbull’s accounts of the Spycatcher case (in which our hero was, of course, Malcolm Turnbull), and the republic referendum (ditto), to Andrew Robb’s moving and very personal memoir of his battle with depression.

The Cabinet is led, of course, by a Prime Minister who is himself not only a published author, but one of only three Australian Prime Ministers – the others being Alfred Deakin and John Curtin – who once made his living from the written word, as a journalist. Beneath Tony Abbott’s somewhat outdoorsy persona there lies a mind both deeply and widely read: an absolutely typical product of a good Jesuit education.

So, whatever the political controversies of the day may be – and I am sure that this audience includes critics of the Government as well as its many admirers – nobody can deny that the current Government, by both temperament and the actual personal experience of many of its members as writers themselves, is deeply committed to the promotion of both good writing and wide reading.

The importance of promoting a culture of reading is something that means a great deal to me, as it does to my Ministerial colleagues. In an age of shortened attention-spans, the trivialization of complex issues, and the replacement of serious public discussion with gibes of 140 characters or less, the need to promote a culture of reading – and, with it, the reflective and thoughtful habits of mind which reading engenders – has never been more important. And while political leaders can call attention to the problem, and develop policies to address it, the obligation lies, frankly, no less with you – them men and women of letters, who define and shape our literary culture – to take the lead as well.

The Government is doing what we can to promote a culture of reading by its support for writers, publishers, and the book industry. I should give due credit to Kevin Rudd, for inaugurating the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in 2008. Last year, the Abbott Government decided to significantly expand the scale and scope of the PMLAs, so that they are now Australia’s richest literature prize. The decision to do so was, by the way, the personal decision of Tony Abbott’s, and it reflects his love of books. This year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards will be announced, here in Sydney, on October 7.

As well, I am using the opportunity of this address to announce another major initiative to support Australian writers and the Australian book industry – the creation of the Book Council of Australia, whose terms of reference are today published on the Ministry of the Arts website. The functions of the Book Council will be to provide advice to the Government on strategies to raise and strengthen the profile of Australian literature and literary non-fiction nationally and internationally, including priorities for funding through targeted initiatives, and to foster a culture of reading among the Australian public.

In providing this advice, I am asking the Council to consider, in particular:

  • strategies to encourage a culture of reading
  • the accessibility of books and writing for all Australians
  • the breadth and diversity of Australian writing
  • support for and promotion of high quality Australian literature
  • the Australian Publishing industry’s capacity to meet new technologies and competitive challenges
  • opportunities to build on successful programs as well as identifying opportunities for new initiatives
  • available information, data and research on the Australian book sector

Earlier this week, I wrote to a number of key stakeholder organizations inviting them to be represented on the Book Council. Those include:

  • Australian Booksellers Association
  • Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA)
  • Australian Publishers Association
  • Australian Society of Authors
  • Australian Writers’ Guild
  • The Children’s Book Council of Australia
  • Copyright Agency Ltd (CAL)
  • National Library of Australia, and the
  • Small Press Network

I am also announcing today that the inaugural Chair of the Book Council of Australia will be one of the most respected figures in the Australian publishing industry, Louise Adler. I look forward to working with Louise and the members of the Book Council to support Australian writers and the Australian publishing industry.

We are both – politicians and writers – people who make our living by words. Whether it be the spoken word or the written word, it is language that unites us. In celebrating Australian writing, in nurturing a culture of reading, or in supporting Australian publishing, the Government is seeking to create a nation in which the joy of reading and the love of books, is shared by all.