Behind the Lines: The Best Political Cartoons of 2015

  • Speech, check against delivery

I truly am delighted to be here today to open "Behind the Lines: The Best Political Cartoons of 2015". I'm pleased that I have had the opportunity to view the exhibition. I acknowledge Parliamentary colleagues David Kemp, Margaret Reid, the cartoonists here today, the journalists from the Press Gallery and friends all of the Museum of Australian Democracy.

Political cartoonists have been causing trouble for political leaders in this country since the mid-19th century. I suspect this exhibition will be no exception to that.

Australia has a rich tradition of political satire and cartooning, born out of our irreverence for authority and social status, and a strong sense of what is right and fair.

From Will Dyson to Pat Oliphant, who in fact began with the Adelaide Advertiser and won a Pulitzer Prize for cartooning in 1966, Australian cartoonists have shaped how people perceive our country, how they perceive the world, the characters, the great events that have shaped our history.

In fact, the Library of Congress has described Pat Oliphant as one of the most gifted practitioners in the history of the profession. His cartoons and sketchbooks are preserved in the Library, alongside the Gutenberg Bible and George Washington's Presidential papers.

The early twentieth century was apparently considered a golden age for Australian cartoonists, with world events, social movements and government policies all coming together to provide a rich source of material and commentary.

I just want to assure Australia's cartoonists that the political class is doing its level-best to resurrect that golden age. You cannot complain that we are not giving you enough material!

It has been said that cartoons are the most important weapon in political analysis. They have the ability to cut through in a way the written word seldom does.

Cartoons are a weapon of free people across the world to hold the powerful to account. They are also a weapon used by the disenfranchised and voiceless to exert their universal human rights and freedoms.

Cartoons capture the essence of an issue in a most simple form. Yet the response they create could be so complex and profound. They can make you laugh, cry, blush with embarrassment or burst out in rage.

They can have a powerful, often devastating, impact.

Today we have spoken about the events of January this year when the world watched in horror as terrorists stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing 11, injuring 11.

Satire is such an integral part of French society. It is controversial, it is provocative, it offends all religions, all political parties. Nothing and nobody is spared. Satire is the counterbalance against power, it is a necessary part of the way French people, indeed free people around the world, see themselves and how they see the world.

The attack on the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo was an attack on free people everywhere. It was an assault on freedom of expression and freedom of speech – fundamental values that underpin every democratic society and that we hold dear, values that we stand up for, that we defend, that we are prepared to fight for.

I think the global response to this attack was utterly profound. That march of unity in Paris brought together a million people including world leaders. Senator Parry, the President of our Senate, represented Australia.

Watching these events unfold back in Australia, David Pope drew a pencil sketch that has come to symbolise the horror of the attack to so many people.

It is a simple, yet powerful and poignant reflection of the utterly and absolutely disproportionate response to the work of Charlie Hebdo and it just encapsulates the brutality of the terrorists.

I was reminded of that again as I looked at the cartoon at the beginning of this exhibition.

Such was the power of this image that it received 60,000 retweets and 30,000 favourites in less than 24 hours.

I had the honour of presenting David Pope's original "he drew first" sketch to the remaining satirists and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this year as a token of Australia's deepest sympathies and admiration. I also received a copy of the first edition of Charlie Hebdo that was printed just days after the terrorist attacks. It was produced entirely by the surviving staff just literally days after their colleagues had been murdered and even when I saw them, a couple of months later, the hurt, the anger, was so profound.

Typically a Charlie Hebdo print run would be about 60,000 I'm told. Eight million copies of this were produced and the previous record in France was apparently, France Soir in about 1970, two million copies on the death of Charles de Gaulle, so eight million copies of this were produced and I think that was reflective of the impact of this attack on cartoonists and the respect for the courage of those to carry on and not let the terrorists cower them into submission.

I understand that tonight at the Walkleys there are three cartoonists as finalists - Fiona and Cathy - but also David Pope, and I think it most appropriate that they be recognised in this way.

Political cartoonists are an integral part of Australian society. Our democracy is so much the better, so much the greater because of their participation. I'm honoured to launch this exhibition today of the best political cartoons of 2015.

Media enquiries