Curiouser and curiouser

Think our national political life is accelerating? That it’s as if some unseen deity has surreptitiously rested a finger on the fast-forward button?
Politics used to be boring, punctuated only from time to time by something genuinely attention-grabbing. Not anymore. Now, it seems, it’s the dull days that are uncommon. Tumult is the new norm.

This year alone, Barnaby Joyce spectacularly crashed and burned, going from deputy prime minister to disgraced backbencher and then back to favoured leadership status among many colleagues, all within the calendar year. Crazily, this followed a costly by-election that was forced when it emerged he had never once been validly elected.

Fraser Anning, who had dumped Pauline Hanson’s One Nation to become an independent on entering the Senate in late 2017, then dumped his own independence to join Katter’s Australian Party. Yet, by late October, the hard-right Anning had proved too extreme even for that eccentric grouping after an incendiary Senate speech on immigration in which he mentioned a ‘final solution’ and lauded the idyll of ‘European’ Australians.

Or consider the first-term Julia Banks, the only Liberal in the country to actually wrest a seat from Labor in the last election. She announced in 2018 that she would not seek a second term, unable to abide the gender bias and rank disloyalty in her party, the apotheosis of which was the assault on Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership. Her journey had described a ballistic arc from victorious last seat to exasperated last straw.

Turnbull’s bruising demise may have been Scott Morrison’s good fortune, but the nation had been excluded. The transaction cost of installing a third Liberal prime minister inside two terms had not yet been tallied, let alone paid, as the first electoral test would reveal.

Turnbull’s blue-ribbon seat of Wentworth was easily swept away in what became perhaps the most keenly watched by-election in the nation’s history. Lifelong Liberal voters had coldly dispatched the Coalition’s parliamentary majority.

Through all of this, and a panoply of other controversies, the commentators reached for superlatives, struggling to convey the historic weight of events routinely overwhelmed by the next bizarre development.

Not so, however, the nation’s cartoonists, who time and again showed nothing pricks pretension like a good mirror—or as Lewis Carroll would say, a ‘looking-glass’.
Cartoonists are the great reducers, using wit, artistry and the juxtaposition of issues to strip away artifice and expose those who proceed under Groucho Marx’s excoriating dictum, “These are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I have others”.

In this sense, political cartoonists deploy a form of visual jujitsu—alloying the gentle power of the sketched image with the puffed-up might of their subject, the preening, self-important politician.

The result can be simultaneously hilarious and scarifying. Nothing less than the exposure of politics as the theatre of the absurd it so often resembles.

Mark Kenny
National Affairs Editor, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald
October 2018