As the final votes were tallied in the 2007 federal election, a collective lament could be heard echoing out from cartoonists across the land: 'But what are we going to do without John Howard?'
The 2008 Behind the Lines exhibition marks a significant turning point in the recording of Australian political history for both the National Museum and Australian political cartoonists. For the first time in a decade, the Museum is presenting a cartooning exhibition wherein John Howard is merely a player exiting stage left to make way for the new stars of Australian politics.
Likewise, cartoonists have had to come to grips with a new federal government and a Prime Minister whose personality presents a considerable challenge for even the most seasoned political commentator. At the same time, a turbulent year in Australian and international politics has tested their skills in an unprecedented manner.
The real Rudd
In 2007 Kevin Rudd was increasingly portrayed as the great saviour of the Australian Labor Party, seen to be offering a fresh alternative to the increasingly stale leadership style of John Howard. The election win saw Labor's hope of a return to power realised and in 2008 Rudd set out to prove himself as worthy of the position of Prime Minister of Australia. As the year progressed, the saintly image of Rudd so widely used by cartoonists in 2007 morphed into more earthly depictions. Rudd's steady manner and fixed smile are the hallmarks of a practised international bureaucrat and cartoonists have had a difficult time getting inside the 'real' Rudd. After initially struggling with how best to portray him, cartoonists utilised the very ambiguity of Rudd to unleash a wealth of offerings. First Dog on the Moon's depiction of Rudd as a loosely tethered balloon on a string is a particularly successful example. Other cartoonists have chosen to play on his neat schoolboy-style hair, tie and glasses, further enhancing the air of eager helpfulness that seemed to pervade his first months in office.
For many cartoonists the focus was not on Rudd but on the ongoing leadership speculation within the Liberal Party. Brendan Nelson's ascent to the top job was marred by continuing rumours of the possible return of Peter Costello to the leadership. Costello's own reluctance to confirm or deny the reports provoked cartoonists into developing a barrage of works portraying Costello as a procrastinating Hamlet. The increasing public tension between Malcolm Turnbull and Brendan Nelson was also excellent fodder for cartoonists. Nelson's falling opinion polls ensured it was only a matter of time before a leadership challenge would eventuate. In the end, Nelson was the master of his own demise by bringing forward a leadership vote. Turnbull's unabashed desire for the leadership and his media-friendly persona is expertly captured in John Spooner's excellent portrait Turnbull — claws out.
Sorry - not the hardest word
When political personality clashes took a back seat in the national consciousness, cartoonists had a chance to comment on a landmark year in Australian history and politics. In 2008, after the electoral whirlwind that captured public attention for most of 2007, more pressing concerns dominated the pages of the nation's newspapers. The historic apology made to the Indigenous people of Australia set the tone for Rudd's first months in office. Rudd's acceptance of the word 'sorry' as vital to the content of the apology was, for the most part, well received, although criticism that it was a token gesture was an inevitable part of the post-apology analysis.
Cartoonists approached the issue from a range of vantage points and the pathos inherent in David Rowe's work, portraying the apology as the first building block to a more equitable nation, makes it a particularly moving image.
Cartoonists also have the testing job of condensing weighty political issues into humorous and accessible commentary to be digested over a morning cup of coffee. The state of the environment, both at home and abroad, was the focus of the Garnaut Report, and as the year wore on cartoonists applied increasing scrutiny to both sides of politics on pressing issues such as climate change, petrol prices and sources of alternative energy. Towards the end of the year the unprecedented stock market meltdown, prompted by the collapse of several United States mortgage lenders and banks, sent shockwaves across the world. With the crisis still unfolding, cartoonists have managed to reflect the real concerns of everyday Australians caught up in the financial quagmire created on Wall Street.
Cartoons in the digital era
Now that the dust has settled, it seems cartoonists have done very well without John Howard. The confronting problem of capturing a changing political guard, as well as the big issues of the day, was approached with a vigour that reflects a renewed sense of energy in Australian politics. The quality of the work on show this year is a boon for the National Museum as we continue our collecting efforts in the field of political cartooning. This year, the number of digital-born cartoons in the show has outnumbered hand-drawn entries for the first time, reflecting the fast changing nature of professional political cartooning in Australia. As a result, this year's exhibition will showcase the outstanding work that a combination of unique illustrative techniques, razor sharp wit and cutting edge technologies can create, as well as highlighting the exceptional material that can be produced by the simple process of applying pen to paper.
Cartoons are a highly visual medium and, as part of the Museum's ongoing commitment to improving the accessibility of our website, we write detailed 'alt' tags for each of the cartoons in the online version of Behind the Lines 2008. This year we have created a text-only page that brings together these 'alt' tags on one page. We welcome your feedback on this approach to online exhibitions.