For many people politics has lost its interest. There is a certain sameness to political rhetoric, whether of the left or right. This is partly a function of the way political journalism concentrates on the crisis of the moment. The press gallery pick over the remains of each day in search of a landmark event. This endless analysis of the current controversy can anaesthetise even the most dedicated follower of politics.
There is, however, one form of political commentary which regularly captures the moment and delights the reader. For me, the most economic and satisfying political coverage is that provided by our cartoonists and illustrators. A well executed cartoon can say more about our politics than hundreds of words of text or the worthy prognostications of a leading pundit. The Behind the Lines exhibition celebrates this power.
The best of Australia's major cartoonists and illustrators are represented with examples drawn from both regional and metropolitan newspapers. This ephemeral art form, usually soon forgotten, is given a second life freed from the constraints of newsprint. The cartoons, reframed in the context of a gallery, demand our attention and give us pause to reflect on the political life of the nation.
The media's obsession with the moment creates a problem for political commentary. The focus of the media is limited to only a few days. Journalists regularly remind their readers of the proverbial 'week' in which political fortunes can change. Today's rooster, they tell us, can be tomorrow's feather duster. This concentration on the daily and weekly flow of events makes it difficult to view longer term movements in the body politic.
In Behind the Lines, I have attempted to bring together some of the best cartoons and illustrations of the last 12 months, providing an overview of the main events of the year. Each cartoon is a snapshot of the changing landscape, reminding us of what has happened in federal politics in recent times.
And what have our cartoonists told us about the last year? First and foremost cartoonists have consistently commented on the conduct of the war in Iraq. What has happened to the weapons of mass destruction? Are coalition forces involved in torturing prisoners? Has the shift from invasion to occupation compromised the goal of liberating Iraq?
One of the best examples in the exhibition is Ron Tandberg's The search for weapons of mass destruction goes on, in which the only weapons visible are those of the occupying power. Alan Moir also effectively captures the paradox of war with his depiction of President Bush as a tank driver proclaiming through a megaphone that, 'Violence doesn't pay!'.
Cartoonists have also provided some of the more accessible commentary on the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement. This agreement, whose complexity defeats not only our political commentators but many of our politicians as well, received a sceptical response from cartoonists. Again cartoonists ask us to look beyond the surface. What is the benefit for Australia? How equal can such a partnership be? This is reflected beautifully in Andrew Dyson's illustration of Uncle Sam relaxing after having consumed a good portion of roast kangaroo.
Ironically, one of the more difficult issues for cartoonists over the last 12 months was the Federal election. While the polls represent the culmination of the democratic process, the staged nature of modern political campaigning and the endless spin of political minders, provided a challenge for cartoonists. Vince O'Farrell expressed the cynicism felt by many with his depiction of a marginal electorate voter as a beggar attracting cash from both parties in his cartoon, The marginalised.
As the year came to a close the tsunami that swept through Asia shattered the complacency of Australia's summer torpor. Cartoonists expressed the compassion felt for the victims and applauded the government's rapid response. Spooner's illustration of a game of beach cricket being interrupted by the outlines of bodies at the water's edge reminds us of our mortality, even as we relax on our summer vacation.
The finale to the exhibition is the fall of Mark Latham. A figure who fascinated political commentators as he briefly emerged as a threat to the Howard government early in the year, only to be decisively rejected at the polls. His final demise, caused by a recurring bout of pancreatitis, was captured by Mark Knight's cartoon of a battered and dishevelled Latham limping from the political scene, glancing sideways at an emergency case in which a smiling Kim Beazley awaits the call.
Behind the Lines celebrates Australian political cartooning and provides us with a wonderful opportunity to look back over the year in Australian politics. Many of the works in the exhibition will be preserved in the Museum's collection, providing a valuable resource for future historians to understand Australia. As we look back through these images we are reminded that, while our interest in politics may fade, we need to pay close attention to what our governments do.