Award winner ... author Bill Gammage at his home in Turner.

Award winner ... author Bill Gammage at his home in Turner. Photo: Marina Neil

Canberra historian Bill Gammage's debunking of terra nullius, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, has won the $80,000 Prime Minister's Literary Award for Australian History.

But the ANU professor was not at today's ceremony to receive his award from Prime Minister Julia Gillard – instead he is holidaying in Britain. As he told The Canberra Times before his departure, "I'll be somewhere between Carlisle and Wolverhampton, taking my first break in many years."

Novelist Gillian Mears's Foal's Bread won the fiction award and Mark McKenna's An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark took the non-fiction award, while the inaugural poetry prize went to Luke Davies for Interferon Psalms.

Gammage's award-winning book.

Gammage's award-winning book.

Robert Newton won the young-adult fiction award for When We Were Two and Frances Watts and Judy Watson took the children's fiction award for Goodnight, Mice!.

All the winners receive $80,000 tax-free.

In a moving acceptance speech, the wheelchair-bound Mears, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, spoke of the links between writing and horse jumping, a feature of her winning novel which is set around the show high-jumping circuit.

"I first jumped a horse when I was about nine years old, a long-backed mare with a mouth of steel," she recalled. Winning the award, she said "makes me feel as if I've just slipped over eight-feet with a pony not expected to go these heights".

Historian Mark McKenna said it was a privilege to write Manning Clark’s biography. “He opened our eyes to our own past; he showed our history can be as rich as, as epic, as any on earth.”

And he thanked Sebastian Clark, the son of historian Manning Clark and his wife Dymphna, for his “extraordinary" act of generosity in allowing him to use correspondence between his parents.

Poet Luke Davies spoke of the difficulties of earning a living as a poet and being “catastrophically broke”. He joked that, checking out of his hotel this morning and worrying his credit card might be rejected, he would have the chance to say, “Listen, I’m just going up the road to get a cheque from the Prime Minister.”

For her part, Ms Gillard acknowledged the difficulties writers faced. “Writing is perhaps the loneliest of art forms and one of the hardest,” she said.

But as young-adult winner Robert Newton put it, “The Prime Minister’s right, writing is a very difficult thing to do but it beats diggings holes.”