Aus. Book Industry Awards.

IMG_2133Here with Chris Moss & Nicole Salisbury. 2014 @ Doltone House.

On Friday night at the annual Australian book industry awards in Sydney, prime minister Tony Abbott was handed an open letter, signed by dozens of prominent artists and writers and previously published on Guardian Australia, objecting to cuts to arts funding in the 2014 federal Budget.

The poet and author Maxine Beneba Clarke approached the prime minister during the event and offered him a sealed envelope. In it, was a copy of her work Foreign Soil, along with an open letter by the editors of literary journals Meanjin and Overland, signed by writers including Anna Funder, Alexis Wright, JM Coetzee, Don Watson, Christos Tsiolkas and Michelle de Kretser.

“There was discussion about the potential of organising a physical protest,” Maxine Beneba Clarke told the Guardian, “and we decided that we didn’t want to do that. It’s the Australian book industry awards, we don’t want to do a disservice to an industry that we are all part of. And so I just thought, I’m physically there, how often do you get that opportunity? I’m sure I never will again.

“Tony Abbott was seated in the middle of the room, and about halfway through the event they announced the main course and I just approached his table very humbly, and said, ‘Look I know that it’s really forward of me to approach you like this, but I’ve been wanting to meet you for quite a long time, and I just wanted to take this opportunity to actually come up and speak to you.’

“He looked quite taken aback, and I had a petition in a sealed envelope with a copy of my book because I was worried that if I told him it was a petition he wouldn’t accept. He asked me who I was, and I told him my name and I said I’ve just published my first book I’ve brought a copy here particularly for you, I’d really love it if you would accept the book.

“He hesitated and then he took the envelope, and I said, ‘In the envelope there’s also a letter signed by a number of prominent Australian writers and thinkers regarding the cuts to the arts industry. I feel like I’ve been really respectful and I haven’t caused a scene, and I haven’t been rude to you, and I really hope you actually take this envelope when you walk out of here and you engage with Australian artists about this petition. And he said thank you and I walked away, very surprised I hadn’t been tackled by security.”

The petition is against the $28.2m cut to the Australia Council, the $38m cut from the budget for Screen Australia and the $120m cut from ABC and SBS over the next term. The letter says: “This decrease in federal support will be devastating to those who make art of any kind in this country, and many important works, works that would inform national debate and expand the horizons of Australia and its citizens, will simply never be made. Ultimately, these cuts will impoverish Australian culture and society.”

The letter also highlights the contribution arts industries make to the economy, which according to Australian Bureau of Statistics contributed $86bn to the Australian GDP during 2008-9, “$13bn of which flowed directly from our field, literature and print media.” The letter contrasts this revenue with the mining sector, which “only provides $121bn to the GDP, and employs fewer workers (187,400 directly, 599,680 indirectly), yet receives far more government financial support at federal and state levels.”

Clarke said that Abbott’s speech later in the night, “was a speech about the book industry, and how important the written word is, but it didn’t really refer to writers at all. It was just about how important it is that the written word is distributed, how important it is in the dissemination of ideas. But the lifeblood of the book industry is writers, and there’s this anomaly where the prime minster is turning up supporting these awards, but on the other hand not guaranteeing funding that has to date been ongoing for the arts industry.”

When asked what she hoped her delivery of the letter to the prime minster would achieve, Clarke said “I would like to see him speaking with the two people who created the petition, the editor and deputy editor of two of our major literary journals, about what the cuts mean at a grass roots level.”

When asked whether Abbott would respond, Clarke said: “I feel like to not engage with it now would be a really stupid thing to do, would be really ungracious.

“They did leave with it. I was watching, one of his aides had it in her handbag, but whether he actually physically opens that package, or engages with it in any way we’ll have to see.”