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In an unreleased review he chaired into the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Gerard Henderson recommended he be put in charge of judges. Now he’s got his wish, for a much richer prize. By Mike Seccombe.

The Henderson gigs

It’s usually pretty easy to tell if someone is happy. They smile. They laugh. They react warmly. And then there is Gerard Henderson. Even by the joyless standards of Australia’s right, he is exceptional.

Alan Jones unpurses his lips periodically and smiles. Ray Hadley actually has quite an infectious grin. Even Andrew Bolt occasionally betrays pleasure.

But not Gerard. Australia’s most indefatigable culture warrior – a former chief-of-staff to John Howard and handmaiden to B. A. Santamaria – is perennially po-faced. He is the Eeyore of Australian public life.

Outward appearances aside, what makes Gerard Henderson happy? Irritating others into denouncing him, it would seem.

If you go to his Media Watch Dog column on the Sydney Institute website or at The Australian, and scroll past all the boring stuff – the nitpicking catalogues of alleged journalistic errors and bias, the 50-year-old transcripts of Santamaria’s crazed theorising on the Vietnam War – you will find an extensive collection of abuse directed at, and diligently collected by, Henderson himself.

The site records that David Marr recently referred to him as “the Inspector Clouseau of forensic journalism”, that Mark Latham names him the “great Australian media nutter”, that Mike Carlton thinks him an “unhinged crank” who in the 18th century would be caged and poked with sticks, and that Malcolm Farr simply calls him a “complete fuckwit”. In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that The Saturday Paper’s own editor, Erik Jensen, is there too, calling Henderson a “sclerotic warhorse”, among other things.

Now, lots of people in public life take pleasure in irritating their opponents, but there are surely few others who obsessively collect and display the abuse directed at them. The more outraged their responses, the happier he seems to be.

One must assume, then, that Eeyore is pretty pleased right now, for in recent weeks he has been subject to a great amount of criticism.

The reason is his appointment as a judge and chairman of the nonfiction and history panel of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the country’s richest literary prize and therefore a major strategic battleground for the newly revived culture wars.

NSW Awards review

He had wanted a gig like this for years. In fact, about three years ago, he thought he had cunningly engineered one, only to be denied. Back in mid-2011, the newly elected O’Farrell government allowed itself to be persuaded that it should conduct a review of the NSW Premier’s Literary and History Awards.

Henderson was appointed chairman of the five-member review panel, which also included two others of conspicuously like mind: former editor of Quadrant and one-time Liberal parliamentarian Peter Coleman, and another favourite of Henderson’s Sydney Institute, lawyer Michael Sexton. Joining them were journalist Shelley Gare and a somewhat obscure psychiatrist, advocate for the rights of Islamic women and sometime Sydney Institute speaker, Ida Lichter.

There was never any doubt about the agenda of the review panel, or at least the majority of the panel. It was to ensure award winners were of the right stripe politically. Henderson made that quite clear at the time, in a snarky op-ed piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, decrying the dominance of the “left intelligentsia” in deciding these sorts of awards, not just in NSW, but all over the country.

The Herald piece was particularly critical of the previous year’s winner, the political memoir of that well-known leftist, Malcolm Fraser. Henderson made a point of citing a hostile review of the book by his co-panellist Michael Sexton.

Henderson and his fellow culture warriors clearly meant to waste no time in effecting change. The review panel met three times over six weeks in October and November 2011, and on November 22 produced a brief report.

Its recommendations were trivial, for the most part. It suggested, for example, that the expensive sit-down dinners that had previously accompanied the awards should be replaced by more modest “receptions in Parliament House – preferably in the Strangers’ Dining Room”.

The two functions – one for the literary awards and one for the history awards – should be kept brief, starting at 6pm and ending “no later than 7.15pm”. Ageing ideologues like early nights, apparently.

But there was a sting to it: a single sentence about halfway through the report. “The Review Panel recommended that the selection panel for the appointment of judges should comprise Gerard Henderson (as chair), Mary Darwell (representing Arts NSW) and Michael Sexton,” it said.

Indeed, members of the selection panel would not only assess the applications of those who wanted to be judges, they also reserved the right to “invite a person or persons to apply”.

Those they favoured would be well remunerated. The report suggested senior judges should be paid $12,000 to $15,000.

It all seemed neatly stitched up. A great victory loomed for the cultural warriors of the political right.

Then the report went off to government and disappeared. It was never released. When we asked for it, the department couldn’t find it.

Changes were made to the premier’s awards system, but not the ones recommended. The responsibility for administering the awards passed to the State Library of NSW. The state librarian was put in charge of appointing judges. And they have continued to be appointed on the basis of merit, rather than politics.

PM's gongs

Fast forward to last month, and another new conservative government, the Abbott federal Coalition, was intent on recasting its own literary awards regime.

There was no pussyfooting around with review committees this time, even ones that recommend placing prizes in the hands of the committee’s own members. As the arts minister and attorney-general George Brandis told senate estimates, he did a review himself.

“I reviewed the members of the panels that had been constituted over the previous years since 2008,” said Brandis. “I was unable to identify a single person – not one – in all those years whose views or outlook I would describe as being conservative or even liberal democratic. Not one.

“So one of the things that I wanted to do,” he went on, “was to ensure that there was a diversity of opinion among those panels and that, for the first time, people of more conservative or more liberal democratic views should be included, especially – importantly – in the nonfiction and history section. That is why on the nonfiction and history section an attempt was made, for the first time, to have a couple of people who were not of the left.”

Brandis told estimates he had consulted Prime Minister Tony Abbott, but added: “I think it is fair to say that he relied upon me and those who advise me to provide most of the names.”

And what were those names? Gerard Henderson, of course, as chairman. But also two others whose names will be familiar from that 2011 NSW review panel: Peter Coleman and Ida Lichter.

They are joined by professor Ross Fitzgerald and Dr Ann Moyal, AM, actual historians and clearly not of the right.

But it’s hard to dismiss the reality. This is about politics, and politics is all about numbers. And the numbers are 3-2.

Politics is also about the personal. And Henderson is very personal about his politics. There are filing cabinets’ worth of storied nonfiction writers in the country who have received beltings or baitings in print from him, including the likes of Tim Flannery, Robert Manne, Helen Garner, Jonathan Green and Hugh White. Can those he enjoys tartly dismissing as “luvvies” or “sandalistas” expect their books will be objectively considered? George Megalogenis’s The Australian Moment – last year’s winner – may still have got a close reading, but we can only speculate as to whether previous winners such as Mark McKenna’s Manning Clark biography would have won under Henderson.

Time will tell if anything but the most ideologically bent reads get the gong. But there’ll be no use complaining about it. That will only further cheer Gerard.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 21, 2014 as "The Henderson gigs". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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