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Address to the Prime Minister's Literary Awards, Sydney

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14 December 2015

Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Carriageworks, Sydney



Thank you for the very kind introduction. Lucy and I are thrilled to be here.

I'm sorry Louise you regard this as grungy, of course, it’s hard for us to compete here in Sydney with marvelous Melbourne, but we do our best.

Interestingly, I was thinking about Melbourne and Sydney today, we had the first meeting of the Advisory Council on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Constitution. Sixteen Australians, half of them Indigenous, half of them men, half of them women. A very distinguished group. And we started off, obviously, talking about history and we started off with a Welcome to Country by Yvonne the Chairman of the Metropolitan Land Council, here in Sydney.

And, it reminded me of one of the big differences between Sydney and Melbourne. I mean, Melbourne of course, Sydney was established as a British colony, Melbourne, was of course established in 1835 as a Tasmanian colony. And one of the big differences is that, financed by Indian capital too actually, settlers from Launceston financed by an Indian bank. James Boyce set that all out very well in his book 1835.

But, one of the interesting things about the two cities is that each of them carry with them, each of those places are heavy with the spirit of the Aboriginal people, the Eora nation in the Sydney area, the Kulin nation in the Port Phillip Bay area, who had inhabited those lands, where the two great cities reside for [inaudible] tens of thousands of years.

But, the interesting difference of course is that Melbourne, because of its topography is almost entirely the creation of the people that came there after 1835. The course of the river was altered, the parks were landscaped, the built environment was built. And it is a jewel, it is a jewel of the city. But, quite a remarkable city.

And yet, Sydney, on the other hand, while it has been a city for longer, nonetheless, the natural landscape totally dominates — the harbour, the headlands, the big cliffs, the islands in the harbour. All of that dominates. The view, the imagination, the perception.

And, it was interesting, as I looked down at the harbour and out at the city, and reflecting on Lucy's work, Lucy wrote a great work, a history of Sydney, some years ago. She wrote about the view of Sydney, the view of Port Jackson, that was seen by the first settlers as they came in and one headland after another unfolded. And, so many of those views are still there.

Interestingly, the landscape is somewhat more overgrown than it used to be. The Aboriginal inhabitants of Sydney were very good farmers, fire stick farmers. They deliberately kept the undergrowth burnt away so that it resembled, as Watkin Tench observed, something more like a series of paths, big trees and lots of pasture. And that was done quite deliberately to encourage the kangaroos and the other game the Aboriginals hunted.

So, here we are. In Sydney and Melbourne, two great cultural centres. The spirit, the memory, the Eora nation here, the spirit, the memory of the Kulin nation in and around Port Phillip. And yet, it is simply because of the dominance of our topography, the great fortune we have, those scenes, those vistas, the things that were seen, the cliffs under which the Gadigal people fish are still there. The headlands which they looked out across the waters are still there, just as they were, a little bit more overgrown in some respects. And of course, in some other areas, a bit more overbuilt. Just as they were in 1788.

You know, all of us live partly in the here and now, but in large part, in a world of imagination. The world of our imagination or perception is one that is created by artists -is created by writers and celebrated in books. Tonight, it's created of course by visual artists and other artists as well.

Our whole perception of Australia is a work in large part of literature. The Bush myth, the image of Australia as rugged outback frontiersmen. We have always been a highly urbanised nation. We have always, as Banjo Patterson wrote, been dreaming of Clancy of the Overflow. There have been many more of us as clerks in cities, listening to the traffic, as Patterson described, rather than actually chasing cattle along the rivers of Western Queensland. And that world of the imagination is as real as the here and now. It is as real as these fine pillars. And that world is created by our writers.

So it is correct, it is good that there is a Prime Minister's award, it is good that we are here to celebrate our literature. It is good that we encourage our writers, heaven knows, many of us here have written books, some of us have written quite a few.

I think everyone who has ever written a book knows about halfway through it you become completely and utterly bored with it and you think to yourself, 'how can I ever get to the end'. Then you require some sort of new shot of adrenaline or confidence, often, it is poverty, the need to get paid.

I can remember once giving a speech at one of your competitors annual dinners, Louise, in which I talked about freedoms, important freedoms. I talked about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and I said that in the world of literature, the most important freedom is the freedom of the author never to have to return an advance. But that didn't go down very well with the publishers, but a few of the authors liked it.

That commitment, that often very solitary commitment of the writer is so worthy of commendation, so worthy of encouragement. Because, we ask a lot of our writers, don't we? We ask them to be so empathetic, to be so plugged in, and so engaged that they understand our lives, our country, our imagination better than we do ourselves. We ask them to be the most convivial and understanding

publican, if you like, and at the same time, we expect them to lock themselves up for hours, for days, for years sometimes, to write away, to create that work of art which they can only do by themselves.

So, it is good to be here to celebrate our writers. Books will never go out of fashion. Louise, I think even if territorial copyright were to crumble, even if it were to crumble, authors in Australia will be able to stand up on their merits, their works are seen across the world and across the ages. And I'm very proud to be your Prime Minister, to be here tonight to present these awards.

Thank you very much