Cartoonists are the court jesters of the news section. While journalists are constrained by fact, cartoonists speak truth. Consider Glen Le Lievre’s frame of the ghosts of robo-debt at the foot of Scott Morrison’s bed, captioned with “I don’t accept the premise of your question” – a brutal reference to the former prime minister’s shameless lack of accountability in the face of the scandal’s suicides. How would this be conveyed in print without a defamation suit?
To flip through editor Russ Radcliffe’s Best Australian Political Cartoons 2023 is to experience the year in fast-forward. All the issues are there: the Voice, Brittany Higgins, stage three tax cuts, mortgage rate hikes, AI, Ben Roberts-Smith. In keeping with this year, beneath the vigorous caricaturing, the cartoons exude exhaustion and disappointment. Another Le Lievre has a political billboard of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese giving the thumbs up saying, “No one left behind”, with Labor red the only colour in a grey street of shuttered houses and windblown rubbish. Eloquently it conveys the undeniable fact that life is harder today than a year ago.
Sometimes a powerful sense of continuity from the previous government emerges, in the ongoing issues of political donations, AUKUS and carbon targets. This paper’s Jon Kudelka is particularly acerbic on the criminalisation of climate protests. His stand-out is three frames showing a house battered by fire, flood and a tornado, captioned “Everyone…”, “has the right…”,
“…to feel safe”. The fourth and final frame states “…in their own home” and pictures the Earth aflame. The caption reads “Brought to you by the Business Council of Australia on behalf of Woodside Energy”, which is particularly biting as this time things were supposed to be different.
The best speak to more than one issue. David Rowe’s cartoon in The Australian Financial Review of Sussan Ley pinning a poster emblazoned with “No Means No” comments on both the Brittany Higgins case and the referendum. John Farmer’s sketch in The Mercury of a donor exchanging cash with a political party for a note saying “Favourable Outcome” below the speech bubble “Seems pretty transparent to me!” could have been printed in any week in the previous decade.
Melbourne-based Chinese political dissident Badiucao is a welcome addition. His commentary on Australian–Chinese relations cuts deeper than the usual bruisings of Western democratic discourse. In one, a panda in a Red Army cloth cap unconvincingly paints three koalas as pandas, a reminder that political cartooning has higher stakes in an authoritarian surveillance state.
In a world of shrinking column space, cartoons are resilient through their economy, relevance and wit – bespoke memes from a pre-meme era. This excellent collection speaks truth through humour, a spoonful of sugar in increasingly bitter times.
Scribe, 192pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2023 as "Best Australian Political Cartoons 2023".
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