In the 2006 throwaway romantic comedy Failure to Launch, Matthew McConaughey plays a funny, handsome, promising man who, deep into his thirties, just can’t leave home. Eventually, it turns out that he had suffered a calamitous loss many years before when his fiancée died. He was doomed from the outset; after the bad start, his pecker and promise are all gone.
So it is with the Book Council of Australia (BCA), which was long dreamed of – since 2010 in fact – by a kabal of publisher, bookseller, agent, and author organisations, and eventually endorsed by Labor, and then announced by Tony Abbott at last year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
But the day after this year’s PM’s Awards, the A$6 million to fund the BCA for its first three years has slipped back into general revenue as part of the MYEFO budget statement. The BCA, rather than launching, has been sent back to hangar.
The Council’s fate was perhaps soured from the start when – against industry wishes – it was funded by A$6 million taken from the budget of the Australia Council.
It was dirty money, and it became dirtier still when it turned out that this was just a precursor to Senator George Brandis’s A$104.7 million attack on the Australia Council budget in May in order to establish a ministerial National Program for Excellence in the Arts.
Eventually, in September, when Brandis, in one of his dying acts as arts minister, empanelled a Book Council Board, under the chairpersonship of Melbourne University Press’s director Louise Adler, further indignity was heaped upon the BCA.
Melbourne literary activist Sam Twyford-Moore engineered an industry campaign against the Council’s provenance, structure, and board appointments. Louise Adler in particular was targeted. Twyford-Moore called out the big guns: John Coetzee and Nick Cave, alongside 350 others, signed a public letter of opposition.
Since then nothing official has been heard about the BCA until the one-line detail in the MYEFO papers today. But few seem to be mourning its passing.
Former President of the Australian Publishers Association Peter Donoghue seemed to sum up industry feeling in a Facebook post today:
The now abolished Book Council of Australia was always a bullshit organisation of dubious “industry policy” Kim Carr provenance, funded with stolen money, and a play pen for your standard book trade enmities – big players versus small; established versus emerging; local versus global; authors versus everybody else, etc – so I for one rejoice in its demise. The pity is the money wasn’t returned to its rightful owner, the Australia Council.
The demise of the BCA leaves government policy in the literary sector uncertain. Arts Minister Mitch Fifield is promising to “consult widely with the literary community about alternative sector-led mechanisms for representation and promotion”, but for now conservative governments are leaving behind them a trail of acts that some interpret as hostile to literature, including:
- the cutting of funding for literary awards in Queensland
- the removal of territorial copyright protections
- cuts to the Australia Council
- and industry reports of imminent cuts to small literary organisations in WA.
At the very least the conservatives seem ambivalent about supporting literature’s potential to arm any of their opponents in the renewed culture wars.
The BCA was probably doomed the moment Tony Abbott announced its creation out of Australia Council funds. But whether government-funded or otherwise, the sector, after the demise of the Literature Board in 2014 and the BCA today, still badly needs a body to advocate for literature and to advise government on policy settings.