Foreword by the curator

2016 was a make-or-break year for Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States – three countries with parallel stories and conflicting intentions.

All year we were told that the Coalition would win the election, that the United Kingdom would remain in the European Union and that it was inconceivable that Donald Trump would become the Republican presidential nominee. But the Fates – the spirits believed by the ancient Greeks to determine destiny – clearly had different outcomes in mind.

Destiny has always been a heroic theme and it emerged spectacularly during the year. So many rival claimants – Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump – were buffeted by the Fates, three sisters who spin, measure and cut the thread of life.

Take Clotho, who spins the thread, and think of Barnaby Joyce, Pauline Hanson and other domestic politicians elected to powerful positions. Or take Lachesis, who measures the thread, and consider Kim Carr, Jacqui Lambie and Peter Dutton’s longevity. Finally take Atropos, the most terrible of the three because she cuts the thread, and remember those who met their political end – Bronwyn Bishop, Clive Palmer, Glenn Lazarus, Ricky Muir and Dio Wang, to name a few.

A sense of destiny undoubtedly influenced Malcolm Turnbull. His calculated actions and decisions shaped the final months of the 44th parliament, and influenced the makeup of the 45th. Abroad, in the United Kingdom, destiny guided the hand of millions of citizens who voted to leave the European Union. It was an unexpected outcome that propelled Teresa May into the office of British prime minister. And in the United States, some said a fate more terrible than imaginable awaited the mighty nation if destiny favoured Republican nominee Trump as president.

That’s one spin on the year, but what did the cartoonists make of it all? They created thousands of cartoons chronicling the Australian parliamentary election, and the UK and US campaigns. There was a strong focus on the Brexit referendum and the highs and lows of American political rivalry. Some domestic matters that had a brief moment in the sun were equally popular subjects, among them Senate voting reforms, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, banks, budget reforms, the same-sex marriage plebiscite, tensions over the South China Sea, foreign donations, the Census debacle and international terrorism.

So, what combination of motive, chance and circumstance spurred these cartoons into existence? In Australia, parliament was suddenly dissolved in May, triggering a July election. Everyone knew 2016 was to be an election year, but as cartoonists grew weary of the prime minister’s long double dissolution trigger game, and the second longest election campaign in Australian history, they turned their attention to more entertaining rhetoric, boast, bluff and bluster.

The two international topics that seemed tailor-made for punchlines were the Brexit referendum result that shook up the European Union and upset the established order, and the craziness of the United States presidential contest. The campaign provided rich material for satirists as politics became personal.

Political cartoonists take their art seriously, and many great cartoons are included in Behind the Lines. Organised by themes that showcase different styles and approaches, this collection is both an insightful national commentary on the year in politics and a magnificent reminder of this vibrant genre.

The best cartoons make us laugh, and it took masters of the form – like Fiona Katauskas, Mark Knight and Cathy Wilcox – to animate party leaders who, at times, displayed no engaging personal mannerisms. Faced with this dilemma, John Spooner and Chris ‘Roy’ Taylor depicted both subjects as diminutive, suited figures with large foreheads – code for their political similarity. And although Eric Löbbecke and John Shakespeare applied external aids (top hat, crown and other regalia) to Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten was not similarly distinguished.

In the best cartoons image and caption are interdependent. The wit and skill of Warren Brown, Andrew Dyson, Jon Kudelka, Greg Smith and Paul Zanetti married unerring penmanship with humour. Alan Moir and David Rowe created some humdinger animal transformations, with Barnaby Joyce as a bulldog, Sam Dastyari as a barbequed duck, Donald Trump as a caterpillar and the crossbench senators as wildcats.

Did I leave anything out? Yes, by naming names, Peter Broelman, First Dog on the Moon, David Pope, Matt Golding and Sean Leahy were anything but oblique. And by taking pot shots at well known subjects like Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer, Nick Xenophon and Eric Abetz, cartoonists Chris Downes, Rocco Fazzari and Jonathan Bentley were specific, not general.

Behind the Lines, our annual political portrait, engages our attention because we know the subject matter and we understand the jokes. It’s largely because Tony Abbott continues to cause trouble for the prime minister that his legendary speedos remain a potent visual metaphor. And only the spirits know when Bronwyn Bishop’s helicopter will be relegated to comic obscurity or whether Donald Trump’s tremendous hair will ever stand as anything more than a passing novelty. 

Tania Cleary
Exhibition Curator