I met Bill Leak while working on my first annual Best Australian Political Cartoons in 2003. John Howard had just committed Australia to the Coalition of the Willing’s crazy desert adventure in Iraq, and Bill’s scrutiny of Howard’s obsequious relationship with Dubya and the United States chose itself as the book’s cover.
I went on to work with him on several other projects, including the book and exhibition Moments of Truth, and UnAustralian of the Year. We had endless meandering telephone conversations — about the book or cartoon at hand, philosophy, his dog, art, and politicians of all stripes, punctuated by a long, deep drag on the inevitable cigarette, and the equally inevitable abrupt departure as his deadline approached.
I loved the spontaneity and energy of his cartoons. Then on paint and paper, Bill’s true habitat, they were essential, must-see commentary during the Howard decade. And, unlike more recent times, they were as often as not at odds with the editorial line and conservative readership of his newspaper, The Australian. They frequently triggered furious reactions. Long before the twitterati dubbed him that ‘right-wing, racist cxxt’, letter-writing detractors to The Oz called him a ‘fxckin’ Howard-hating leftie cxxt’, occasionally on excrement-smeared paper.
One of my favourite Leaks is the scatological ‘Brown Nose Day’, surely one of the great satirical dissections of our rush to war with our great and powerful friend, and for which he deservedly won the last of his many Walkleys in 2002. Howard government minister Tony Abbott had the gross misfortune to be presenter that night. Bill accepted the award, and then proceeded to polish some metaphorical shit from Abbott’s nose before leaving the stage. Bill was convinced that this brilliant piece of spontaneous political theatre ended his chance of any future honours.
It’s easy to see why he inspired and was adored by many on the left, and it’s particularly hard for his long-term admirers to be reconciled with his more recent incarnation as culture-warrior hero of the libertarian right. Bill joked that the left could only explain his political realignment conspiratorially — surely he must have had a Murdoch microchip implanted in his head during brain surgery after his rooftop fall in 2008.
It’s tempting to see in his political shift that most clichéd of biographical trajectories: from the ratbag radicalism of youth to a curmudgeonly right. But it’s not true. Bill was as passionate as ever about the things he cared about. To him it was never about left or right: it was always about human freedom, which he believed was being betrayed by the left’s conversion to a censorious political correctness — an insidious and enfeebling soft fascism, which he saw it as his role to confront.
Satire has to offend someone and Bill took this duty very seriously. George Orwell said it well: ‘You cannot be really funny if your main aim is to flatter the comfortable classes.’ Bill certainly never did that. His great strength as a political cartoonist was his incendiary vitality. He always went for the jugular in pursuit of what he regarded as the truth and often paid little heed to his own internal censor. Or, as his detractors might put it, he frequently lacked judgement.
In recent years I found his cartoons on identity politics, race, Islam, the repeal of 18C etc. extraordinarily confronting and think that sometimes he slipped over the line separating satire from agitprop. But, there you have it: it’s no fun having your favourite bullshit detector redirect the spotlight back at you. To the end Bill was a controversialist, and he reveled in it.
Bill’s last decade was a hard one: his recovery from his fall in 2008 was long and arduous; it was followed by an Islamist threat that sent him from his home in the middle of the night and into hiding — never to return. More recently, the HRC complaint against him also took a toll. Throughout, he was supported by his wife, Goong, and two sons Jasper and Johannes, and our thoughts go to them.
I have been appalled by some of the emotions expressed after his death: from an exploitative quasi-martyrdom to the cause of repealing 18C, to a particularly nasty and vengeful schadenfreude.
But Bill leaves behind an immense body of work encompassing wonderful portraits and biting cartoons; such a rich, full, and anarchic artistic life as Bill Leak’s won’t, in the long term, be so easily reduced and defined.
Like so many people who knew him, I loved Bill’s extraordinary warmth, his wicked brilliance, his openness, and his generosity. He was a man of enormous spirit. He will be greatly missed.
Vale Bill Leak.
13 March, 2017