Foreword by Peter Greste

We all love a good political cartoon. Whether we agree with the underlying sentiment or not, the biting wit and the sharp insight of a well-crafted caricature and its punch line are always deeply satisfying.

In the hands of a great cartoonist, a simple line drawing has extraordinary power to slice through political spin and rhetoric; to clearly illuminate an otherwise hidden truth.

Using humor to puncture political bombast isn’t new, of course. Aristophanes, who is widely considered to be the father of comedy, lived in ancient Greece about 400 BC. Aristophanes’ famously cutting topical satires were so biting that Plato blamed his play, The Clouds, for contributing to Socrates’ trial and subsequent death sentence. Since then, comics, cartoonists and satirists have jabbed and sniped at our political leaders, probing the boundaries of political tolerance, and occasionally overstepping it.

Napoleon once said that the English caricaturist James Gillray “did more than all the armies in Europe to bring me down”. The German-born American cartoonist Thomas Nast’s depictions of the corrupt Democratic Party figure, Boss Tweed, in Harper’s Weekly magazine in the late 1800s, are justly credited with driving him and his supporters from office. Tweed famously said, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles. My constituents can’t read. But they can’t help seeing them damn pictures.” And in World War I, German authorities offered a 12,000 guilder reward for the capture of the Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemaekers because his dark depictions of the occupying forces were so damaging to already weak public support.

That is why political cartoonists have been as much at the center of a free society as any writer or commentator. By distilling political arguments and criticisms into clear, easily digestible (and at times grossly caricatured) statements, they have oiled our political debate and helped shape public opinion.

It often strikes me that in Australia freedom of expression has become so much a part of public life—a principle so deeply ingrained in our political DNA—that it has become part of the social wallpaper. Like oxygen, it is essential to life as we know it, and yet it has become invisible to us. We exist without fully appreciating its central importance to the way our society functions, until it is threatened or taken away. And it is only when we don’t have it, that it becomes breathtakingly obvious just how important it is to the way we live. But the importance of freedom of expression is so easy to miss that at times we need to look beyond our shores to more authoritarian states in order to understand what life might be like without the right to speak as we think—without the ability to openly criticise, parody and debate social and political issues.

Most French people certainly believed those principles to be deeply embedded in their national culture until the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, forced their way into the offices of French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris in January 2015. By the time they fled, 12 staff had been gunned down in what the attackers said was retribution for cartoons published in the magazine that insulted the Prophet Mohammed.

At the time, the attack triggered a fierce debate about whether the magazine had overstepped the mark in publishing caricatures that it knew would inflame Islamic sensitivities. The fundamental question was, should the right to free speech extend to material that is knowingly offensive?

As the Booker Prize-winning author Ian McEwan argued in an address to a group of American college students, “freedom of expression sustains all the other freedoms we enjoy” and “without free speech, democracy is a sham”.

While there is no excuse for gratuitously throwing around insults, we legislate the limits of free speech at our peril. Even in Australia—one of the world’s bastions of free speech—the Foreign Fighters Bill makes a new offence of ‘advocating terrorism’ but it is so loosely worded that the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance is worried that it could include news stories that simply report on banned advocacy. Yet how are we ever going to challenge the extremists if we can’t openly debate the ideology they use to recruit and radicalise their supporters? How can we tackle extremist views of any particular stripe if we can’t ever expose their logic and their rhetoric to the disinfecting power of daylight?

The best political cartoons will always push the boundaries. They challenge policies, ideas and individuals, stripping away the shiny wrapping and flowery bows that politicians often wrap them in. And yes, at times they even ridicule and insult—as Charlie Hebdo routinely did—deliberately overstepping generally accepted social boundaries.

We must not only be prepared to accept this, we must be ready to defend them if they do. Because if members of a grown-up, mature society can’t handle a cheap jab or a rhetorical (or even literal) middle-finger; if we’ve become so sensitive to insult and so restrictive in our thinking that we have to place legislative boundaries around what’s politically correct, then we’ve regressed to the politics of the schoolyard. And that is hardly the way for a complex, sophisticated society to debate and negotiate its way through some of the most fraught issues of our age.

This collection is a remarkable gallery of the best that Australia’s political cartoonists have produced through the year, so by definition it includes some of their most provocative work. Our politicians won’t like all of them, and nor can every reader be expected to, but then that’s the point. If the work you see here doesn’t make you smile one moment and grimace the next; if it doesn’t make you angry or infuriate you at some level, or push you to reconsider some of your most dearly held beliefs, then it will have failed. But somehow I suspect it will do all that and a good deal more.

Peter Greste
Australian journalist and award-winning foreign correspondent