Australian Notes

Australian Notes

12 January 2013

The last time voluntary voting was tried in Australia was in New South Wales in 1968. The Liberal Askin government, then at the height of its popularity, reintroduced it for local government elections, and quickly reaped the benefits in the shires and municipalities. In 1976 a new State Labor government promptly reinstated compulsion and won back some of its lost ground. If Queensland returns to voluntary voting it will last only to its next Labor government, which will promptly abolish it. In principle, the case for voluntary voting is overwhelming. Only a few weird outposts like Australia and the Democratic Republic of Congo impose compulsory voting. But for the foreseeable future, what matters in the Australian debate is not high principle but which party is in government.

Take the Leunig case. In 1999 he was declared a National Treasure for his creation of the visionary Mr Curly and Vasco Pyjama, not to mention his poetic ducks and teapots. But in recent weeks he has been under heavy political fire because of a silly cartoon in the Melbourne Age which began with a version of Pastor Niemöller’s famous statement: ‘First they came for the Palestinians…’. The cartoon absurdly equated Israelis with Nazis. Inevitably his critics, and not only the Jewish press, got stuck into him. It was not the first time. Leunig has more than once evinced an amazing indifference to the Holocaust or its legacy. Some ten or more years ago one of his cartoons outrageously equated Israel with Auschwitz. Critics began to find his work ‘odious’, ‘malignant’, ‘perverse’. (They also noted that he had little or nothing to say in condemnation of Arab mass murderers like Osama bin Laden or Arab dictators like Saddam Hussein who used poison gas on their own people.)

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What is to be said for Leunig? One defence is that a successful cartoonist can never be fair and balanced. I used to say this myself. In the introduction to Cartoons of Australian History which I put out with the cartoonist Les Tanner back in the 1960s, I wrote: ‘…a cartoonist has no right to be fair. If you are a fair-minded sober kind of artist, you should not be a cartoonist. Cartoonists are satirists, not magistrates, and they seize on one aspect of a situation for the purposes of ridicule and hammer at it as unfairly and righteously as possible.’ I still stick to this, but only up to a point. Leunig made the same case more effectively in his cartoon ridiculing our guardians of political correctness. A gloomy pop-eyed Mr Curly with patched nose is standing before a judge who declares: ‘The tribunal has examined your joke with a fine tooth comb and is pleased to report that it has been deemed fit for telling in a public place. No racism, no sexism. It is environmentally responsible, does not denigrate old people or animals and does not violate the equal opportunities code. We have also found that it is not particularly funny. So we recommend that you go away and work on that.’

Yet there are limits to good-humoured political incorrectness. Leunig would not defend the gross anti-Semitic cartoons in some Middle Eastern newspapers today or in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. When a Sydney prankster submitted the cartoon equating Auschwitz and Israel to an Iranian newspaper competition mocking the Holocaust, the newspaper honoured Leunig with an award. The indignant Leunig successfully demanded the withdrawal of the cartoon from the competition. He summed up his position: ‘As a cartoonist I am not interested in defending the dominant… The work of the artist is to express what is repressed or even to speak the unspoken grief of society.’ His is a ‘dissenting, protesting’ voice. ‘My duty and conscience compel me to focus on the plight of the subjugated,’ that is, the Palestinians so cruelly afflicted by the ‘delinquent, irresponsible and unwise’ actions of Israel. In this apologia he does not repeat his obscene identification of Israelis and Nazis. But in condemning Israel’s actions he says nothing about its causes, such as hundreds of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilians or scores of Islamist suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis. But in the end you do not judge an artist by focusing on his follies and ignoring his best work. Leunig’s cartoons about Israel and the Palestinians are a tiny proportion of his work. The other day I noted on this page his new book, The Essential Leunig, pointedly subtitled Cartoons from a Winding Path. It is a selection of 400 of his cartoons from the past 40 years. Not one touches on Israel/Palestine or any political issue (unless you count one of his familiar excoriations, which enrage some feminists, of child care centres). His political cartoons have always been his weakest work. But you do not refuse to watch Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp because of Chaplin’s notorious naivete over Stalin and communism. You do not boycott the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition in Canberra because some of Lautrec’s work is anti-Semitic. Leunig’s follies, naivete and selective lack of imagination deserve all the criticism he attracts. They show his limitations but they do not destroy his great and enduring achievement.

‘I have lived with violence all my life. Things are now much worse. Now we have alcohol and drugs. That is why the jails are full of our young men and our young women. Aboriginal people have to acknowledge the truth. This is our problem that we can fix ourselves. We don’t need to be told by the white man.’ — from Bess Nungarrayi Price’s foreword to Stephanie Jarrett’s Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence (2013).

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