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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Abbott, Tony

Period of Service: 18/09/2013 - 15/09/2015
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Address to the 2014 Prime Minister's Literary Awards

It is terrific to be here. It’s great to be amongst so many people who are so important in the cultural life of our country.

I do really appreciate your presence. More than that, I really appreciate everything you do for the cultural life of our country to help shape and promote our identity.

Ladies and gentleman, in February 2012, I received what I thought was an innocuous tweet asking whether I was reading anything at that moment that I’d recommend to others.

So, I replied: “I've just read Nikki Gemmell's With My Body; a captivating successor to The Bride Stripped Bare!”

Now it’s not often that the Twitterverse comes to a standstill – but for a moment there was, it seems, a pause: perhaps an inaudible but palpable gasp of surprise.

Not least from Nikki Gemmell who wrote and “here was I thinking that the spring in his step was because of the machinations on the other side of politics!” This was in 2012, I hasten to add.

There seems to have been a shared assumption that my reading must be a dull reflection or reinforcement of views already held.

Likewise, when I respond to questions from young people about what they should read with the answer, the classics, Shakespeare and the Bible, it is seen as proof of a pre-existing world view – rather than an invitation to understand and appreciate the works that have shaped our culture and our world.

If I thought that young people had no need of such counsel – because they were already reading what’s sometimes called the Western canon – I would not offer that advice.

Our reading, after all, should challenge our thinking, not just confirm it.

And literature is at its best when it reveals to us a world not seen, a perspective not understood, or an aspect of life not yet contemplated.

Through literature, we can grasp the fullness of life without necessarily having to have lived that aspect of it ourselves.

If music is art for the ear, and art is joy for the eye, then literature is surely a delight to the mind and a light for the soul.

And my life, like that of so many in this room, has been defined by a love of words.

Like prime ministers Deakin and Curtin before me, I was a journalist before I entered Parliament.

As I’ve sometimes said: As a journalist, I was a frustrated politician; as a politician, I am a frustrated journalist – and when I was a trainee priest, for three years in my twenties, I was just frustrated.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that most Australian prime ministers over the past half century have, in fact, written books: Menzies, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard and most recently Julia Gillard. 

They have done so because they understood the power of the written and the spoken word.

I am reminded of a story by Sir Robert Menzies who during 1941 spent several weekends with Winston Churchill at the British Prime Minister’s retreat “Chequers".

On one evening, Menzies walked into Churchill’s study and found him pacing up and down, dictating a draft for broadcast.

Menzies offered to withdraw but Churchill would have none of it; offering the Australian prime minister a cigar and waving him to a chair.

And Menzies later recounted Churchill’s method:

“He tried every word, every phrase, for weight, for meaning, for sound.

“He knew, of course, that a broadcast speech must come effectively to the ear and must, if possible, achieve its instant persuasion and inspiration.

The result, said Menzies, “as we know to our advantage, was all clarity, and feeling, and inspiration.”

Every writer is willing to create meaning, to persuade, to touch and to inspire.

That’s a writer’s gift to an audience.

Now, it’s not without its risks, of course.

When asked about how he wrote best sellers, Bryce Courtenay said that no one ever sets out to write worst sellers!

To use the words of Richard Flanagan: “somewhere in that abyss between ambition and failure often lies greatness”.

So, tonight, I salute the contribution of Australia’s writers – and that of those who work with you.

Because, as an author, I know that behind every successful writer is another writer, the editor.

My first editor was the late Christopher Pearson.

I came to rely on him, almost as a medieval potentate might have relied on his food taster, to alert me to infelicities of style, non sequiturs and offences against the canons of political correctness.

It wasn't a fool-proof system.

Still, he helped to shape my public life and my political character and it is right that we collectively pay tribute to those who make and shape our literature.

So, I am proud to continue this tradition of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

I thank the writers, the editors and publishers of all the nominees for their contribution to a deeper, better, more thoughtful and more inspired national life.

Because the point of writing, as Pearson often reminded me, is to draw people closer to being their best selves.

I also acknowledge the judges who have read, weighed and debated the books in every category.

I recall one of my teachers, the English master from Riverview College, Joe Castley, admonishing his class far ago in the 1970s not to waste the summer break.

You must read, he said, not play, read! “Read”, he said, “with voracious appetite”.

It’s a phrase that I’ve never forgotten after all these years and have mostly tried to live by.

Literature has always made a vital contribution to our nation’s cultural and intellectual life.

In October, when Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker prize, I wrote, as many of you would have, offering my congratulations.

And he sent me a most gracious reply – which I hope he won’t mind me sharing.

Too often, he said, in Australian politics, the arts are seen as the province of the left, ‘and arts and artists (are) therefore to be shunned by the right’.

He noted that this is not the norm in most political cultures and hoped that ‘at some time, it might cease to be (so) in ours’.

Well, that’s my hope, too.

Because every government should want to encourage all of the voices – all of the voices – in Australian life, but these voices can only be heard if they’re listened to.

To that end, I announce tonight that the Government will establish the Book Council of Australia to promote good reading as well as good writing.

Tonight’s awards acknowledge the importance of our national stories as well as the excellence of our story-tellers.

They celebrate our literature, as well as those who are creating it.

Once you tell your stories, they become our stories.

So, I congratulate everyone associated with all of the nominated works and I look forward to spending quality time with some of them over the coming Christmas break.

Thank you so much. This is a marvellous night and I’m very honoured to be amongst you.