Laughter in troubling times

Australia has a strong democracy. Our traditions of free speech and a free media are deeply ingrained in our political life, as is again demonstrated by this year’s crop of the best political cartoons.

And, yet, there is a sense that these are troubling times. Australians’ trust in their politicians and institutions – including the media – continues to be eroded. Political groupings of all persuasions seem unable to offer effective solutions to complex issues, and the international situation seems more uncertain than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, cartoonists this year have responded to the political milieu with glee and we have reacted to their work with laughter, sometimes tinged with apprehension.

The theme for this year’s exhibition is The Three Ring Circus. In the words of our curator, Holly Williams, this phrase was ‘first coined as a term in 1881 for simultaneous performances, [and] now includes the definition as something wild, confusing, engrossing, or entertaining’. This notion captures the fascination our political year attracts: hugely entertaining and sometimes hilarious, but with an awareness of the risks taken and the consummate skills of the performers.

Our politicians faced a particularly challenging year in 2017 as an unusually wide range of issues demanded effective action. But spare a thought for Australia’s political cartoonists, who are part audience members and part performers in their own right. Not only were they called on to respond with insight, wit and artistic skill almost daily, but they did so in a media landscape experiencing disruption and change. Again, in the words of curator Holly Williams, ‘fewer cartoonists are gracing the dwindling pages of our daily newspapers. Their work is just as likely to be found on their social media feeds, or sadly not at all [but] we are still fortunate to have the keen intelligence and rich visual skills of some of finest in their craft’.

At the Museum of Australian Democracy, our appreciation of the cartoonists’ skill is deepened by the relevance of their work to issues that we engage with daily. Their audience, and visitors to this exhibition, are empowered to read the day’s headlines secure in the knowledge that we have a resilient democracy and we can shape our future as active citizens. For the Museum, 2017 was a year to look back as well as forward as our home, Old Parliament House, celebrated its 90th birthday – a reminder of just how strong and stable our institutions are. Now over 20 years old and still vibrantly strong, Behind the Lines is almost an institution in its own right. Our Behind the ­­­­Lines Political Cartoonist of the Year award is almost as longstanding. This year we are delighted to feature in this catalogue Cathy Wilcox, 2016 Political Cartoonist of the Year, who reflects on the year from the perspective of a practicing cartoonist. Behind the Lines is an important part of what we do: celebrating our Australian democracy and the power of our voices in it.

This year’s Behind the Lines exhibition continues that tradition. So, whether you experience it through this catalogue or, better still, enjoy it on display at the Museum of Australian Democracy or at one of its national touring venues, we hope you enjoy The Three Ring Circus and celebrate our freedom that makes it possible.

Daryl Karp

Museum of Australian Democracy