'It's political': Michael Robotham and Peter Carey accuse Morrison government of abandoning authors

Kelly Burke
·3-min read

Celebrated Australian crime writer Michael Robotham has delivered a scathing assessment of the Morrison government’s support for literature, in a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions.

Last week Robotham became the first Australian-born writer to collect the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger prize twice, for his psychological thriller Good Girl, Bad Girl.

Three days before learning he had joined the ranks of such illustrious crime writers as John le Carre, Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters, Robotham penned his submission to the inquiry in Canberra which, among other issues, is examining the effect the Covid-19 pandemic has had on Australian arts and culture.

Related: Why do arts and culture matter to Australia? You may as well ask about the meaning of life

“This pandemic has silenced Australian voices and shrunk our vibrant local publishing industry and adversely affected local writers, publishers, booksellers, readers and, in particular, our culture,” Robotham wrote.

“We have had nothing from the government – no jobkeeper, no jobseeker, no rescue packages, no acknowledgement that we even count.

“I can’t help but feel this oversight is political. Perhaps the politicians see the writers as being among the elites, or lefties, or greenies, whose existence needs to be crushed rather than nurtured or cherished. They would rather us wither on the vine, because we don’t have ‘real’ jobs. We don’t drive utes and wear hard hats; or we’re no good for a photo opportunity on Sky News.”

Robotham said while he was not in need of financial government assistance, he was speaking up for the vast majority of authors who were.

According to the most recent research, Australian authors on average earn just $12,900 from their writing a year.

“This is not about welfare,” Robotham wrote. “We writers give far more to the economy and society and our culture than we ever take back. We are not looking for patronage or political favours, we are simply seeking a fair go. We are not elites. We are not chardonnay-sipping socialists. We are writers. We are creators. We are storytellers. And we have been forgotten.”

Robotham’s submission joins a collection of others to the inquiry from celebrated Australian authors, including Helen Garner, Peter Carey, Kate Grenville and Malcolm Knox.

According to the Australia Council, since the pandemic hit, more than a third of Australians (36%) have been reading more.

“If reading is the second-most popular way Australians engage with arts and culture, then where’s the disconnect?” wrote Peter Carey, who has twice won the Man Booker prize.

“It is hard to fathom the reasoning behind literature funding at the Australia Council decreasing by 44% over the past six years from $9m in 2013-14 to $5.1m in 2018-19; or why literature is the only art form that does not receive infrastructure support through a targeted government program, when reading and writing plays such a well-documented role in the health and wellbeing of our citizens.”

Grenville wrote to the inquiry warning that the ability for Australians to see themselves reflected in Australian literature was a “fragile privilege”.

“It didn’t happen before there was government support, and it will wither on the vine unless governments give adequate support once again,” she wrote.

Garner’s submission took on a more positive tone, drawing on her own experience to showcase the difference government support could make to an early-career writer.

“The funding I had from the Literature Board, when I was starting out, gave me weeks and months of unencumbered time for the wide, deep reading every writer needs to do,” she wrote.

“Without the help I was given, my work would have been hasty and shallow, and my working life harder and more painfully fragmented.”

Submissions to the inquiry closed last Thursday. The first public hearing will take place in Canberra on 13 November.