Following and recalling election campaigns through cartoons

Cartoonists like the Herald Sun’s Mark Knight can capture and critique the political mood in the most vivid way during election campaigns. AAP/Alan Porritt

Cartoonists working in a liberal democracy have a licence to be satirical, comic and even outrageous because they are the modern day court jesters. Since 1996 we have been studying political cartoons appearing in newspapers during election campaigns.

We confidently recommend that if you are after a shortcut to understanding the next campaign’s ebb and flow, cartoons are well worth seeking out. Google names such as Leak, Nicholson, Leahy, Moir, Knight and Wilcox with the word “cartoon” and you’ll be well served with pithy insight on what’s been going on as Rudd and Abbott battle it out.

Cartoons offer a marvellous means of chronicling any election campaign through their capacity to provide compact and pungent commentary on issues, events and characters. With their mixture of images and words political cartoons are - at least to us - beautiful graphic islands in a sea of election campaign analysis. Perhaps that should be “swamp”.

Cartoonists tend to be idiosyncratic campaign spectators, forever keen to present an undisciplined, amusing and critical view of the leaders and their campaign strategists’ best endeavours to conjure a narrative high on rhetoric and low on substance. They take up the “citizens’ perspective” on the policy sales campaign and leaders’ efforts to scare voters into jumping at policy shadows. This cartoon from the 2010 campaign illustrates that point, and reminds us of an ever-present theme in election campaigns going back over a decade.

Bill Leak, The Australian, July 20, 2010

A common theme found in election cartoons is the level of impatience cartoonists express with the political classes’ debasement of national political life at a time that should be a celebration of democracy. Consider this from Bruce Petty, published just before polling day in 2010.

Bruce Petty, The Age, August 16, 2010

Every campaign has a set of core issues around which the rival leaders and their parties attempt to pitch for our vote. Cartoons offer a particularly useful means for remembering these issues and, consequently, they serve as useful adjuncts for political historians. One cartoon can recall the central issue of a campaign with a compelling economy, as illustrated by one of the most memorable cartoons of the last thirty years below.

Ron Tandberg, The Age, February 4, 1983

Prime minister Malcolm Fraser hoped to lock in an election campaign against a rival he had defeated in 1980 - Labor leader Bill Hayden. Fraser was certainly “caught with his pants down” when, during his late morning on a visit to the governor-general’s residence to request the dissolution of parliament, the Labor Party met and decided to replace Bill Hayden with Bob Hawke – his worst nightmare.

The Tandberg cartoon above illustrates how amusing caricature, combined with a suitable caption, may act to define public opinion or set a tone for campaigning. This cartoon argues that from the outset, the campaign was effectively over. Fraser lost the election and Tandberg’s prescient cartoon, set alongside The Age’s front page banner headlines, captured poignantly what thousands of words of commentary also conveyed, namely that Fraser was in trouble. Nothing much changed between then and polling day.

Looking back a decade, the 2001 campaign stands out as one where the cartoonists took a stance against both parties and, for that matter, against the ordinary voters with whom their sympathies usually lie.

The question of refugees occupied centre stage, as both leaders tried to appear tough and marching in step with public opinion on border security. Mark Knight’s cartoon from middle of the campaign presents prime minister John Howard and opposition leader Kim Beazley in a dark light as each tries to “better” the other in response to the tragic sinking of a boat carrying refugees. This cartoon is satire at its best – it holds our leaders to moral account and the reader is not about to laugh loudly, but rather to grimace at the truth it reveals.

Mark Knight, Herald Sun, October 24, 2001

Cartoonists across the nation tried to shock their readers into moral responsibility for the 353 refugees who drowned when the boat they were attempting to reach Australia on sank. The media carried photographs of drowned children and grieving parents. Surely, the cartoonists thought, this was enough to humanise the refugee issue and make Australians face it with greater sympathy.

Only days before polling, the message the Coalition government was prepared to accept and promote was that refugees were prepared to “throw their children overboard”. Cartoonists were appalled by what they saw as its callous opportunism, but also at Labor for callous “me-tooism”. John Spooner’s cartoon below represents well their ire with a depiction of prime minister John Howard pushing compassion and dignity overboard in imitation of the central scandal of the campaign.

John Spooner, The Age, October 12, 2001

Spooner’s Howard is a grim and beady-eyed figure, but Beazley is little better treated, sanctimoniously squinting and wringing his hands by the oars. The capacity for cartoons to remind us of the main issue of a campaign is evident in this cartoon by Alan Moir from 2007.

Alan Moir, Sydney Morning Herald, October 17, 2007

Kevin Rudd would lead Labor to victory in 2007 basically by turning political wisdom on its head when told the nation that prime minister Howard’s “reckless spending must end”. Rudd had cultivated a narrative that he was really a “mini-me Howard” in the lead-up to the 2007 election. With the suggestion he would be more prudent with the country’s purse, Rudd was able to portray Howard as a man desperate to buy his way back into office - as Sean Leahy illustrates in this telling cartoon.

Sean Leahy, Courier Mail, November 16, 2007

What do election cartoons tell us?

We have argued that cartoons can remind us about what happened in a campaign, or help us learn about it if we were not there. With a bit of explanation, they provide a sort of instant electoral history, but they do more than refresh us on the facts. They don’t only tell us what the campaign was about, but also something of what it felt like to be there.

They can express the frustrations of a majority when they complain about political mendacity, or of a minority when they argue for a generous treatment of refugees. Like the Ron Tandberg on Malcolm Fraser, they can capture the momentum of a campaign in an image. They can show us what seemed ridiculous at the time, but also what made people angry or disgusted. They can take us into the passions of the democratic process.

In the 15 years we have been looking at cartoons, it is our impression that the rising emotion has been contempt for an increasingly manipulated and cynical political process. Perhaps we or the cartoonists are just getting more jaded, but we saw fit to conclude our last survey essay with this summary from Jon Kudelka.

Jon Kudelka, The Mercury, August 21, 2010

We live in hope that the piece we write for the 2013 campaign will have a more uplifting conclusion. But we are not betting the house on it.