Howard the Ordinary


March 2, 1996 marked the start of 10 long years of struggle for the nation’s cartoonists.

John Howard’s ordinariness is one of his most effective electoral attributes, but it is almost impossible to capture. It’s a bit like having to draw something that’s not there. As someone once said of British politician Gordon Brown, ‘when he leaves a room the lights go on.’ Howard seemed to us like that or, as Paul Keating put it, ‘like a lizard on a rock alive but looking dead.’

Mark Latham, on the other hand, had it all: a big boofy head, as flat at the back as it was bulbous at the front; a nose in the middle of it as formless and as formidable as a boarding-house pudding; little gimlet eyes sparkling away behind small rectangular glasses; the kind of tight lips that can be rendered with just one squiggly line; and only two chins between his mouth and the collar of his shirt, both almost as big as each other. The man who told us ‘politics is Hollywood for ugly people’ summed up in his whole being why it is that most politicians are a delight to draw.

We look for big noses like Peter Costello’s magnificent proboscis, big ears like Tony Abbott’s or Billy McMahon’s (who was famously described as looking like a Volkswagen with the doors open), or big droopy eyes the size of ping-pong balls like Philip Ruddock’s.

Politicians like Rob Kemp, Bob Hawke and Robert Menzies did the decent thing by cartoonists by allowing their eyebrows to sprout in much the same way as other men disfigure themselves with handlebar or Zapata moustaches. Bronwyn Bishop and Graham Richardson gave us bouffant hairdos that endeared them both to us forever, while perhaps most generously of all Alexander Downer donned fishnet stockings and stilettos just to give us a trademark to run with and enjoy.

What we need is a feature to exaggerate to the point of absurdity, something anything to get a grip on but, please, not ordinariness.

Journalists as well as cartoonists found it difficult to get a handle on Howard when he first rose to prominence in Malcolm Fraser’s ministry in 1977. Fraser himself, with his half-closed eyes lurking somewhere behind the hanging gardens of his eyebrows and his jaw, the length of which was restricted only by the amount of drawing space available, was a gift from God. But his Treasurer was a different matter.

Howard was mired in the 1950s, a man who came over all misty eyed when recalling those glory days when Australia was still hanging on firmly to Mother England’s apron strings, nice people lived in suburban houses on a quarter acre, a wild night was when someone broke free from singing songs around the piano and danced the hokey-pokey, and modern art was a foreign pestilence successfully quarantined from our shores. Cartoonists and journalists alike portrayed him as a man living in the past, defined by a series of tired clichés.

Alan Moir, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December 2002.

His bottom lip has always been his most outstanding feature. For some reason it always looks completely white, especially under the lights in the House of Representatives. When he makes his way to the dispatch box, one can’t help being reminded of a zinc-creamed cricketer heading out to the crease. I lengthened his lower lip by 10 per cent after he brought in the GST and nobody noticed.

Alan Moir, a cartoonist with an exceptional gift for coming up with just the right image, started drawing Howard with only one eye. When one day, out of forgetfulness, he drew him with two, readers of the Sydney Morning Herald complained.

Thanks to an enormous upper lip, a protruding lower one and the absence of a discernible forehead, it became standard practice for cartoonists to represent Howard as a simian creature who had not evolved as far from the ape as one might expect of a future statesman.

Soon after Howard became Prime Minister my colleague Peter Nicholson started a minor diplomatic crisis with our nearest neighbour by drawing then Indonesian president Suharto as an orang-outang swinging happily through the trees high above a jungle engulfed in flames. Peter tried to defend this highly seditious piece of whimsy by demonstrating to the Indonesians that drawing our political leaders as apes is perfectly acceptable in Australia. He came running in to my office and asked me if I had any cartoons that made John Howard look like a monkey. I was able to oblige with several thousand.

Bill Leak, The Australian, 16 August 1998.

Oscar Wilde once said it’s absurd to categorise people as either good or bad; people are either charming or tedious. The 1996 election came down to a choice between the charming and the tedious. And, to the disappointment of many and the grim-faced self-affirmation of others tediousness won on the day.

It was Keating who said ‘when the government changes, the country changes.’ There are many of us still wondering why he had to squander an election just to demonstrate that it was true.

Howard’s victory speech said a lot about our new Prime Minister. The man with the pinched eyebrows and the permanently pleading look on his face waited for the cheering to die down before he dribbled into the microphone: ‘The deepest, the most profound emotion I’m experiencing here tonight is humility.’ The contrast with Keating’s 1993 victory declaration, ‘the sweetest victory of all,’ could not have been greater. Howard was apparently a man who rated humility as an emotional experience.

Nicholson, with his brilliant cartoon ‘The Big Picture’ showing Howard arriving in his new office as Keating puts a huge work of art through the shredder in the background, summed up what a lot of people feared most about Howard while at the same time capturing what a lot of others had come to loathe about Keating.

Having realised his ambition to become Prime Minister, Howard quickly transformed himself into a creature entirely different from the one most cartoonists had grown to understand. Given his uncanny resemblance to a chameleon, I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised. In his 10 years in office, Howard has reinvented himself more times than Madonna. But, like the pop star, the image changes while the music stays the same. Howard has stuck to his ideological agenda with the tenacity that has characterised his whole political career.

In early 1999, while Howard was resisting calls for an apology to the Aborigines over the stolen generation, US President Bill Clinton was trying to quash rumours that he had sired a half-black love child, one of the many stories his enemies were putting about in an attempt to brand him as a serial philanderer. This gave me the opportunity to invent Little Black Johnny, a half-Aboriginal love child of Howard’s own, in a cartoon that showed a tearful Janette extracting an apology from her husband. Sitting between the two was a toddler who looked exactly the same as his ‘father,’ only black.

Readers were both outraged and delighted, in roughly the same numbers, and so another Little Johnny was born. For a year or so he kept on popping up whenever I drew a cartoon on the subject of ‘the apology.’ The little chap symbolised the Prime Minister’s conscience and I continued to draw him in the vain hope that he would eventually get his message through. With time he faded away, just another failed attempt by a delusional cartoonist to influence the public debate.

Howard was right when he said ‘the times will suit me’. He has presided over the Parliament during a period of historically ineffective Opposition
and that, of course, has suited him just fine. It has also suited us cartoonists whose job it is to act as a constant thorn in the side of any government, regardless of its political stripe. We look for hypocrisy and falsehood with the same eagerness with which we look for big noses and gap teeth, and Howard keeps us busier than ever.

From his 1996 declaration that he would enforce unprecedentedly high standards of parliamentary behaviour (a notion that cost him seven ministers in his first term), through to the spectacular ‘children overboard’ deception and the subsequent ‘Tampa election,’ cartoonists have been outraged and grateful in equal measure at the political audacity of this arch-conservative-turned-revolutionary.

And it got worse. Next thing we were being told that a bloke called Saddam Hussein was squirrelling away a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in a place called Iraq and if we didn’t stop him dead in his tracks he’d be on his way across the oceans, hell-bent on testing them out on the likes of us. Cartoonists had a field day pointing out the absurdity of this proposition, but if we presumptuously assumed we were acting as a substitute Opposition, we were soon to realise we were even less effective than the ‘real’ one in Canberra.

We wore out a lot of pencils expressing our disgust at the treatment of asylum seekers, thinking mandatory detention had to be a temporary aberration, the sort of thing that could never happen in Australia. But here we are, many years and thousands of pencils later, all realising that it’s going to take a lot more than a few cartoons to bring about any change in the direction of the Ship of State as long as Howard is at the helm.

It doesn’t matter what uniform we put him in, be it as the seven-million-year-old caveman, Bush’s diminutive sidekick, the deputy sheriff or a blundering soldier lost in the minefields of Iraq, Howard is always one step ahead, leaving us to wonder what cliché he is going to demand of us next.

It is often said that Howard is the consummate politician and, if managing to turn around both policy and debate on a wide range of issues is any sort of test, you’d have to say it’s true. If longevity in office is anything to go by, Howard comes up trumps on that score too. He also proves time and time again that his ability to read the collective mood of the people is pretty near infallible, as is his skill at leading his party and bending his ministers to his will.

The makeover of Howard’s appearance and deportment has been as complete as the makeover he has given the country. Howard has reshaped Australia to conform to his own vision. We love the inflated feelings of international self-importance he has given us and we don’t seem to care about all the things he has taken away. Happy to live in an economy instead of a society, we might as well also accept that we are all Little Johnnies now.

Smaller, meaner and less attractive, we’re looking more like monkeys every day.

Bill Leak, The Australian, 9 October 2004.

This is an edited extract from The Howard Factor (Melbourne University Publishing).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.