Recalling the past with a laugh

Haydon Manning, Flinders University

Russ Radcliffe (ed), Best Australian Political Cartoons 2008, Melbourne, Scribe Publications, 2008 (186 pp). ISBN 13 9-78192137-232-2 (paperback) RRP $27.95.

Imagine it’s ten or more years from now and a friend asks, ‘Do you remember the main political events of Kevin Rudd’s first year in office?’ I’m often asked this kind of question, and while one tries to conjure an intelligent response, the reality is that any thorough answer requires research. But what kind of research? Understandably one flinches at the prospect of combing for days through newspaper microfilms. A little less laborious is the biannual chronicle of national affairs in the Australian Journal of Politics and History. But with a copy of Russ Radcliffe’s anthology of political cartoons for 2008, one could confidently list the key events within minutes. The enduring virtue of Radcliffe’s meticulous collections, which date back to 2003, is how immediately the combination of cartoons, with their caricatures and captions, reminds one of passed events.

My colleague Robert Phiddian and I research election campaign cartoons, and preparing to write an account of the 2007 election campaign recently, I had cause to remind myself of the 1998 election. Initially I could recall little, excepting the obvious: it was the ‘GST election’ and Beazley-led Labor nearly defeated the first-term Howard Government. The academic book dealing with this election (Simms & Warhurst 2000) includes many chapters offering scholarly accounts of the campaign. But one stands out for its capacity to remind one instantly of the campaign’s cut and thrust: the one presenting cartoons published in major national newspapers during the campaign (Manning & Phiddian 2000). It is surely not our ageless prose that prompts memory—rather, the cartoons inform one of events forgotten. Cartoonists working for the major dailies are all fine political commentators whose work offers an outstanding chronicle of events. By appealing to humour, they manage to present, in sharp relief, the vanities, ironies and contradictions of our leaders and their parties’ hopes and aspirations.

Cartoonists present the vanities, ironies and contradictions of our leaders.

Mainly selected from the editorial pages of daily newspapers, Radcliffe’s most recent collection presents 185 cartoons, each accompanied by a pithy quotation drawn from one of the cartoon’s subjects. A host of political events are covered: Labor coming to grips with governing, the Opposition’s ongoing leadership wrangling, culprits of the global financial crisis, political machinations over climate change, failures of federalism to deal with the water crisis in Murray-Darling Basin, the contradictions of China’s Olympic Games and the US election. Most cartoons describe political events and, of course, are amusing. But a few are satirical (see Manning & Phiddian 2004 for a discussion of the difference between different kinds of cartoons and Press 1981). Among the satirical cartoons are entries from Alan Moir (p. 80), Bruce Petty (p. 81), and John Spooner (pp. 101–102). Satirical cartoons render both amusement and disgust as the message is digested. They are more than just funny gags for, like Ron Tandberg’s (Melbourne Age) cartoon below, they home in on a particular point of failure in national politics.

Patti Miller eloquently explains that political cartooning concerns ‘the censuring of behaviour and attitudes through the powerful force of ridicule, or “laughing with knives”’ (Miller 2002). Journalists constantly front the prospect of libel while cartoonists enjoy a wider licence. Indeed their work’s integrity and purpose requires that they are set apart by their licence to mock the king and queens of political life. In this regard, Radcliffe’s selection of a Moir cartoon from the The Sydney Morning Herald, titled ‘Gullibles Travels’ evokes a Swiftian dimension with its six frames parodying Prime Minister Rudd’s many overseas ventures. It is a classic example of ridicule on a theme that drew plenty of Opposition criticism and journalistic commentary as the year progressed.

Cartoonists employ a variety of techniques as part of what Gombrich (1978) calls their ‘armoury’. The armoury aims, by various means, to skewer its targets through the use of stereotypical imagery and metaphor. For the most part, stereotyping plays on hazy assumptions about the individual’s identity. This is an important point, because we manage to recognise the inherent inadequacy of the stereotype but still enjoy its articulation. For example, John Spooner (The Age) draws Opposition leader, Brendan Nelson, at risk of drowning due to his inexperience and nice guy image. Aware of his plight, the ambitious Malcolm Turnbull and the experienced Peter Costello watch from behind a tree, both smug in the knowledge that the new boy is struggling to keep his head above water. Spooner is one of the nation’s top caricaturists and along with Moir, Tandberg, Rowe and Knight, his cartoons are among the most frequently selected.

The stereotype of the politician out of his or her depth is commonplace, likewise the idea that being on top in politics is only ever temporary. Moir’s (p. 13) depiction of Nelson captures this well: he draws him going out to bat as ‘Nightwatchman’ with his back filled with arrows. This cartoon reminds one how short-lived Nelson’s time as leader was and how it was doomed from the start. Moir knew this, but Mr Nelson believed otherwise, no doubt.

Journalists confront the prospect of libel suits, while cartoonists enjoy a wider licence.

Metaphor is frequently used by political cartoonists in the endeavour to strike an immediate chord with their audience. Gombrich argues that ‘In cartooning, as in language, there are metaphors which are so widespread that one may call them universal or natural’ (1978, p. 138). In cartoons, we find very common metaphoric contrasts, such as light for hope or good and dark for threat or evil; fat for rich and thin for poor; youth for innocence or the future and age for experience. This collection is not large enough to illustrate all these elements, but we see a clear example in cartoonist, Bill Leak’s (The Australian) depiction of Prime Minister Rudd as ‘Tintin’. The central character in Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s stories of the adventures of an innocent young lad, Tintin is keen to do good. Leak managed to convey innocence and naïvety surrounding Rudd in cartoons leading up to the election, when Rudd was pitched against the tough and seasoned campaigner, John Howard. Since the election Leak continued, for the most part, to depict the new Prime Minister as Tintin and in the cartoon below takes an opportunity to mock the Prime Minister’s propensity to overly intellectualise issues.

Radcliffe chooses for the anthology’s cover a Leak cartoon (shown above). This is not one where Leak chooses not to caricature Rudd as Tintin, a point he admitted on the ABC’s Insiders ‘Talking Pictures’ segment was difficult to avoid. ‘Well, the thing is, I’ve been drawing him with a perfectly round head in an attempt to get away from the Tintin image, but every time he walks out into a puff of wind, the tuft of hair blows up and there is Tintin right before my very eyes. And I can’t do anything about that now, can I?’ (ABC Television 2008).

Political cartoonists use metaphor to strike an immediate chord with their audience.

The cover cartoon captures so much about the Rudd Government’s first year in office. At the beginning were the dire warnings from a shaky new Treasurer about the perils of rising inflation. By year’s end the economy was in peril for entirely different reasons. Leak sets a supermarket aisle for his lampooning of the new prime minister and his treasurer as they puzzle over the price of goods. The cartoon’s caption, ‘Supermarket Crash’, and its background depicting a bear savaging a bull, aims to mock the government’s warning that the economy was so strong that inflation threatened to destroy prosperity. They were wrong because forces abroad managed that feat, a point well covered in several cartoons dealing with the complicity of Wall Street, bankers and their ranks of advisors with Harvard MBAs. On this point, Bruce Petty (The Age) is particularly searing in a cartoon conjuring the images of the collapsed World Trade Centre, as a father and son ponder the wreckage.

The cover cartoon captures so much about the Rudd Government’s first year in office.

This cartoon is not likely to prompt a belly laugh. Rather, it is pure satire: laughter is likely to be muted by its reminder of the criminality of 9/11 and the obvious analogy that the banks’ propensity to sell sub-prime financial derivative products was in its own way ‘criminal’. These cost the banking system dearly and all but destroyed liquidity; only massive government capital injections rescued the situation. Cartoonists had a field day pointing to the ‘warts and all’ of this malady.

According to Joan Kerr (1978) cartoonists share a ‘missionary zeal to show us as we are, warts and all—indeed, warts above all—in ways that we all understand and appreciate’. Radcliffe’s collection certainly celebrates the mission. In the spirit of good humour, set against the gloom and doom of the global financial crisis, and pushing the ‘warts’ aside for a moment, Wilcox captures an element of ‘hope’ in this very amusing cartoon.

Radcliffe is Australia’s leading archivist of political cartoons, and along with the National Museum of Australia’s occasional anthologies (for example, National Museum 2002, 2008) he gives us all a laugh. More importantly, he gives us a record of our political life in a manner accessible to very wide audience.


National Museum of Australia 2002, Cartoons 2002: Life, Love, Politics: Entries to the 2002 National Museum of Australia Political Humour Competition, National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

National Museum of Australia 2008, Behind the Lines: The Year’s Best Cartoons 2008, National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

ABC Television 2008, ‘Talking Pictures’, Insiders, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 20 April [Online], Available: [2008, Jan 30].

Gombrich, E.H. 1978, Meditations on a Hobby Horse, Phaidon Press, Oxford.

Kerr, J. 1999, Artists and Cartoonists in Black and White, Southwood Press, Sydney.

Manning, H. & Phiddian, R. 2000, ‘Where are the clowns? Political satire in the 1998 federal election campaign’, in Howard’s Agenda: The 1998 Federal Election, eds M. Simms & J. Warhurst, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.

Manning, H. & Phiddian, R. 2004, ‘In defence of the political cartoonists’ licence to mock’, Australian Review of Public Affairs, vol. 5, December, pp. 25–42 [Online], Available: [2009, Feb 12].

Miller, P. 2002, ‘Laughing with knives’, Good Weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 July, pp. 14–18.

Press, C. 1981, The Political Cartoon, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Rutherford NJ.

Simms, M. & Warhurst J. (eds) 2000, In Howard’s Agenda: The 1998 Federal Election, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.

Haydon Manning is Associate Professor in the School of Political and International Studies at Flinders University. His most recent book is a collection, co-edited with Robert Phiddian, called Comic Commentators – Contemporary Political Cartooning Australia (2008, Network Books).

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