Walking the line


A few months ago, it was still possible to retreat into the cosy delusion that the current world order was a bad dream from which we were soon to awake. A neo-imperial presidency acquired through a dodgy electoral process, and a neo-con cheer squad returned in an election based on fear and loathing – surely these things would pass. Well the game is up – they’re back. To use a popular cartoon image from last year – the same head is still up the same arse and we’d better get used to it.

‘War of terror’
Bill Leak, The Australian

While political cartoons always run the risk of reducing complex issues to simplistic parody or the lure of the cheap shot, at their best they are as politically informed and ethically aware as the editorials they sit next to often, these days, expressing starkly opposing sentiments.

Their work is closer in fact, if not in spirit, to commentary rather than entertainment. And, as truth tellers, unravellers of spin, detectors of bullshit, and puncturers of bloated egos, they are the great democratic levellers. As Bob Ellis tellingly put it, they perform a ‘spiritual autopsy’ on the state of things – revealing the deeper pathologies of our political culture. During elections they are on overtime.

The most potent cartoons work in close proximity to the line between excess on one side – infantile, grotesque humour and downright offensiveness – and the demands of legitimate truth-telling on the other. The two sides of this line are not opposites; rather, they exist in a constant state of flux and negotiation – they define each other.

The Australian‘s Bill Leak constantly rides this line, and his potency and bite derive from a willingness to risk excess. No doubt this is why he receives so much hate mail. His cartoon ‘The War of Terror’ is a case in point. John Howard stands at a lectern intoning his standard election mantra about Labor and interest rates. Behind him we have a gut-wrenching image of Ken Bigley, held hostage by Iraqi insurgents, begging for his life on TV. Excessive – yes. In bad taste – yes. Horribly insensitive – yes.

David Rowe, Australian Financial Review

Of course Leak is not out to level or confute the distinction between a relatively commonplace piece of domestic malfeasance and a brutal public humiliation and murder. Nor is it an example of cartoonist’s vitriol. He is starkly illustrating one of the more virulent political pathologies of recent years – the Howard Government’s manipulation of real social fears on a wide range of political fronts for its own ends: fear of refugees; of WMDs; of unions; of interest rates. This is a ‘war of terror’ in which national anxieties are continuously tweaked so that in subtle, almost subliminal, ways fear becomes suffused through all areas of political discourse. Leak’s genius is to bring this strategy into the open.

Politicians often perversely enjoy a subtle reinforcement of their tough-guy images through cartoons, but it is hard to imagine this cartoon being appropriated to hang in John Howard’s office.

Cartoons with serious moral intent must at some level repel us and, sure, Leak occasionally oversteps the line. But it is precisely his willingness to work this line that makes him one of our finest cartoonists.

Of course, for fear to work as a political strategy, an antidote must be offered. In the 2004 election it was ‘trust’. Our cartoonists refused to accept the Howard interpretation of trust as a kind of pragmatic protectionism, and persisted in the foolish and naïve belief that trust and integrity are vitally related moral imperatives. Inspired by the intemperate line of a certain brash Liberal senator, the ‘lying rodent’ image was pounced on gratefully by many of our cartoonists. The Financial Review‘s David Rowe caught the contradiction beautifully. Trust, the vital element in public discourse without which democracy becomes meaningless, is a block of cheese – and just a rat-nibbled ‘t’ away from disintegration. Rowe’s rodent was the ugliest of them all – not much room for appropriation in this one either.

Bill Leak, The Australian

Leak revelled in this metaphor with a wonderfully drawn cartoon that referred back to the Pinocchio nose favoured by cartoonists in previous years, and perfectly balanced it with the snaking rat tail. The caption says, ‘Don’t worry George – it hasn’t made any difference to my image’. Is he consoling an intemperate senator or reassuring a mendacious president also about to face the public judgement? It works beautifully either way.

Sean Leahy has also made great play with the rat imagery. His wonderful post election cartoon ‘The Liverpool (council) Kiss’, in the Courier Mail, recreates the Howard/Latham confrontation outside the radio studio on election eve. It was widely interpreted as doing Latham real electoral harm, confirming him as an aggressive bully. Our cartoonists didn’t exactly take Latham to their collective bosoms, and Leahy’s Latham is an enormous, neck-bolted Frankenstein’s monster towering over and preparing to head butt the terrified rodent Howard. But in the final panel Leahy shows the brilliant reversal – brute strength is whipped by rat cunning, and the grinning, fluffy eared Howard is left standing holding Latham’s severed arm.

‘Liverpool (council) kiss’
Sean Leahy, Courier-Mail

There is a darkness and anger in our best cartoonists these days that I think comes from a realisation that the game has changed. The old notion that all you have to do is uncover lies and tell the truth, and shame and public anger will do the rest, seems pathetically naive. Bruce Petty works the rodent image beautifully drawing Howard as a rhino whose armour-plated skin repels all accusations: ‘Australian voters are smart enough to know I’m not a rodent’. Indeed they are. But it is the great political discovery of the Howard years and, I fear, his most awful legacy – lies have no political cost unless they involve our wallets.

Bruce Petty, The Age & SMH

Best Australian Political Cartoons 2004
– edited by Russ Radcliffe
– introduction by Phillip Adams

Published by Scribe, AUD$26.95

ISBN 1 920769 34X

Available at all good bookstores

A portrait of the year in politics from Australia’s finest political cartoonists, including Alston, Atchison, Brown, Katauskas, Knight, Leahy, Leak, Moir, Nicholson, O’Farrell, Petty, Pope, Pryor, David Rowe, Spooner, Tandberg, Cathy Wilcox, and many more.

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