Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.

For someone who promised to lead an adult government, Tony Abbott is giving every indication that The Lodge is occupied by a student politician.

Whether it is the two royal commissions and other acts of political retribution dished out to the Coalition’s opponents, the appointment of assorted mates including a ‘‘freedom commissioner’’ on a salary of more than $300,000 a year without even the pretence of due process, or Abbott’s reinstatement of knight and dame honours, this is a prime minister who believes in government by trolling - like an internet user who intentionally angers someone to provoke a response.

Little wonder then that Abbott has decided to stack the non-fiction and history panel tasked with judging the Prime Minister’s $600,000 worth of literary prizes (including the prestigious Australian history gong) with venerable conservatives, including appointing Gerard Henderson as its new chairman. Not one member of the 2013 panel remains.

There will be many who specifically question Henderson’s qualifications. He is of course a published author of Australian history, including an account of the Liberal Party. He has more than two decades’ experience as a print, radio and television commentator, is executive director of The Sydney Institute, and writes a column for The Australian. Henderson’s recent commentary, however, mostly consists of ad hominem, highly personal attacks on anyone whose politics veers to the left of Genghis Khan. In particular, his eccentric weekly ‘‘Media Watch Dog’’ blog is a bully pulpit used to vilify and harass individuals, from ‘‘taxpayer-funded’’, ‘‘sandal-wearing’’ academics to journalists employed by the ABC and Fairfax. Many of those he has vituperatively criticised will potentially have to  offer up their works for consideration by Henderson’s panel.

And therein lies the rub. It is difficult to believe that Henderson will be able to act as an impartial judge on perhaps dozens of books, for example a future offering by public intellectuals Robert Manne and David Marr, two of his most frequent targets.

Your humble correspondent is also slated to release two works of Australian history next year. Henderson aside, I don’t expect to be in the running for the prize. Yet, given that I too have been a target of Media Watch Dog’s aggressive pedantry and interminable requests for ‘‘correspondence’’, could Henderson fairly assess my work?

My experience also suggests Henderson’s ability to review works of history or non-fiction is rather limited. In a spiteful blog entry which criticised the book version of my doctoral thesis, Henderson wrote that I was supervised by a ‘‘Mark Quartly’’ and examined by ‘‘Mark Heard’’. I have never met nor do I know the former. The latter, despite an exhaustive search of Australian university faculties, doesn’t appear to exist. The nation’s pre-eminent literary prizes can scarcely afford such basic errors of fact.

More relevant is Henderson’s long-running jihad against Melbourne publisher Morry Schwartz and his stable of publications (The Monthly, The Saturday Paper and Quarterly Essay). The question must be asked: will Henderson be able to objectively judge a book submitted for one of the prizes by an author from Schwartz’s ‘‘Black Inc’’ imprint?

Henderson’s appointment is not the only concerning inclusion.

In a previous incarnation, former Quadrant editor and Liberal Party MP Peter Coleman made a sizeable contribution to the intellectual life of this country. These days, though, his shtick is writing a boorish column for the Australian version of the conservative Spectator magazine. In March, he referenced a Bill Leak cartoon on the controversy over the Racial Discrimination Act which depicted an ‘‘Aborigine, an Arab and a Jew’’ lording it over white patrons of a public bar. Coleman made the extraordinary claim that opponents of a revision to the Act were ‘‘hypersensitive and humourless minorities’’ opposed to the ‘‘vast majority who enjoy free speech, including humour, as their birthright’’. It is reasonable to ask whether he is capable of judging entries from people of said backgrounds.

At the risk of being accused of ageism, the composition of the new panel is also troubling. Two octogenarians and three 60-somethings combine to produce an average age of 76. The youngest member turns 66 this year.

As historian Frank Bongiorno notes, the panel members are each ‘‘individually distinguished in the world of books and ideas’’, yet the overall constitution is a ‘‘novel and effective way of avoiding the supposed curse of baby boomer cultural domination’’. Bongiorno, who was shortlisted for the PM’s Australian History prize in 2013, suggests that ‘‘important issues of representativeness and perspective’’ are involved, as there would be if a ‘‘bunch of 20 and 30-somethings’’ instead dominated.

Given these concerns, it isn’t beyond the realm of probability to imagine that some authors and publishers might refrain from submitting entries. This would be a tragedy for writers, academics and the publishing industry more generally.

‘‘Can you bear it?’’ is the catch-phrase of Henderson’s blog. I don’t presume to speak for all Australian writers and historians, but I’d wager that in relation to the panel appointments many would answer with a resounding ‘‘no’’.

Given that the Abbott government seems intent on prosecuting a juvenile series of culture wars in the midst of the serious policy challenges Australia faces, a great many citizens other than writers must surely be making an equally critical judgment of such partisan shenanigans.

Nick Dyrenfurth’s latest book, Mateship: A Very Australian History, will be published next year.