The State of Political Cartooning in 2017

Personal reflections on a year of political cartooning by Cathy Wilcox, Behind the Lines Political Cartoonist of the Year 2016.

Cartooning in a changing era

What a year. What a ride! I’m not sure if political cartooning got easier or harder in the past year, but it sure got faster and crazier.

The ‘easier’ thing about it, arguably, is that there’s been SO MUCH MATERIAL to work with and the proverbial blank page has never languished for more than a few minutes before a crowd of possible themes competes to fill it.

The ‘harder’ thing is that the print news industry has continued to suffer ever greater ‘disruption’ from a plethora of alternative news sources; and the continuing challenge to monetise online content, which has led to tough decisions being made about what can be afforded – and cartoonists have definitely suffered from the cuts.

This year has seen some of our greatest cartoonists have the chair pulled out from under them in full or in part. (Alan Moir has been cut down to one day per week; Glen Le Lievre’s spots in Fairfax have gone; as have Pat Campbell’s from the Canberra Times and regionals, and Peter Broelman’s from Fairfax regional …) Despite their award-winning brilliance, the bean counters have deemed them dispensable. Only Bill Leak’s departure from News Limited, albeit not in a manner or at a time of his choosing, cannot be attributed to cost cutting. May he rest in peace.

While I am only too aware of my good fortune in occupying one of the best cartooning gigs in Australia (OK, the best gig), as a profession, we’ve all learned not to count on our good fortune lasting forever, as much as we might constitute en masse a critical part of Australia’s great anti-authoritarian tradition.

Fewer cartoonists have a job, but the supply of daily grist has been unparalleled for the rest of us.

Politics and personalities

One of the most rewarding sources of inspiration in the past year has been international politics, thanks to the Kavalcade of Krazy Kapers in the age of Trump. We began to have a taste of this last year, during the interminable American Electoral Circus. If anyone thought things would settle down when the result was called, and that Donald Trump would quit the daily attention-/pussy-grabbing lunacy and somehow become ‘presidential’, they were decidedly wrong. Unless you redefine ‘presidential’, which Trump may have done.

Some more ‘K’s in the shape of Kim Jong Un and North Korea have also drawn our focus, or focused our drawings, on matters both international and existential. Now we have to accommodate such incongruous notions as ‘Trump and Kim are hilarious’, and ‘we’re all gonna die’.  All of which may be rendered redundant by Extreme Weather Events.

But cartoonists have always been at home on the gallows.

These international goings-on have provided a backdrop and something of a reference point for our politics at home. When we see our former prime minister Tony Abbott ‘acting out’ and seeking attention, we can see him as either ‘inspired’ by world lunatics or, more positively, not as bad as them. Likewise, we observe our own political fringe-dwellers and thank our stars that somehow our system has not allowed them access to unfettered power. Our Westminster system both enables them (think Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts) and curtails them (think Clive Palmer). And, regardless, they continue to provide cartoonists with endless colour and movement.

Meanwhile, with the background of seismic shifts in world politics and the immediate supply of information telling us of every new lunacy, we in Australia acclimatise to the ‘new normal’, and borrow the best and worst of what we see.

Our politicians appropriate the ‘fake news’ meme, they mine the playbook of how to spin ‘alternative facts’, how to insidiously undermine opponents and how to hijack the latest cultural idiom – identity politics, for example – and turn it back on its original user.

It remains the job of the cartoonist and the satirist to point out ‘THIS IS NOT NORMAL!’, ‘THAT ONE’S THE FAKE!’ and ‘THIS PERSON IS LYING!’. But we do so amid increasing undermining of the credibility of mainstream news and the politicising of institutions that were previously held to be above politics, like the Australian Human Rights Commission and the judiciary. This way lies totalitarianism – as we see in practice in countries like Turkey, Malaysia and Iran – and cartoonists are often visible casualties of that system.

Another defining feature of the past year of Australian politics has been the gaping Void of Leadership. While we’ve worn the outcome of the last Great Leadership Challenge, and ended up with the same leader in a nicer suit, the endless speculation about further challenges has at least lessened because: (a) nobody takes Tony Abbott’s unquenchable ambition seriously and, (b) there’s really nobody else to take Malcolm Turnbull’s place.

Even on the Labor side of politics, when someone thinks aloud that Bill Shorten doesn’t inspire them much as a leader, there’s a general understanding by a tired public that you wouldn’t wish the leader’s job on anyone you like, because you know they’ll either sell their soul or break your heart, or both. If you admire them, you’re not willing to have your heart broken again.

No matter the hope that Turnbull’s legitimate election would give him the gravitas he needed to stand up and take on the mantle of leadership, and live up to his promise of ‘respecting the intelligence of the Australian people’ with ‘advocacy, not slogans’; we have not seen it come to pass.

This great Void of Leadership has allowed an impression of chaos and instability to flourish. Nature, politics and cartoonists abhor a vacuum and, in the absence of a leader to inspire us to grow into our better selves, the weeds of power play, retribution, bullying and self-interest have found fertile ground. The Prime Minister, we conclude, is not working for us but, rather, to appease an insatiable cabal of resentful ultra-conservative backbenchers who threaten to cut him loose. Hence, our cartoons are full of shadowy figures, heavy curtains, daggers, Chesterfield chairs and cigars.

The leader of the Opposition is hardly better, determined as he is to beat a previous opposition leader at his wily, destructive game.

The challenge for cartoonists

The challenge for political cartoonists is not only to look behind the lines of the daily political games, but also to step further back and see what our politicians are really doing and how that affects us. There are a thousand realities, and folly in all extremes, and we’re just dumb humans performing the same tricks and making the same mistakes.

And so here’s the aptly named ‘Circus’ of our year in politics – perceived, analysed, reinterpreted, exposed.

You have to admire cartoonists for finding new metaphors for the same old sideshow.

Cathy Wilcox