Features Australia

Words are cheap

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

Like many Speccie contributors, I was privileged to know Bill Leak personally, although for only about ten months.But through no merit of my own, I felt as if I’d known him for ten years, such was the nature of the man’s friendship and personality. And so I have lost not only a hero and a fellow commentator, but also a kind friend. Despicable mandarins such as Gillian Triggs and – as Bill used to call him – Dr Tim Southpossum – have lost a punching bag, albeit one that hit back. The Left has lost someone to blame for all the ills of the world. And all Australians have lost a champion of free speech and human rights, whether they recognise it or not.

It is true that Bill finished on a high note. Memories of the hilarious launch of his new book of some of the most deplorable cartoons he had drawn for the Australian were fresh in the minds of many when they heard the tragic news of his death. As the video footage of Bill laughing hysterically at Sir Les Patterson’s speech shows, he obviously enjoyed the occasion, loved his friends, was devoted to his wife, and was pretty bloody chuffed to have the grotesque Sir Les marking this ‘cultural landmark.’

But recent years had not been so bright for Bill or his family. Two years ago he received credible death threats from Muslim extremists. Or was it from radicalised Presbyterians? We joked that Bill would never know for certain. In any case, he and his family had to move house and the possibility of one day being murdered in Australia for the crime of blasphemy never went away.

More recently still, Racism Commissar Southpossum made Bill’s ‘Yeah righto, what’s his name then?’ cartoon famous as he used it as a prop to tout for business. After telling his Twitter audience of cry-babies and bed-wetters that some of them might find Bill’s cartoon offensive, the most incredible thing happened: some people did!

Legal matters are often slow and expensive, but in this case the team of normally bone-lazy human rights lawyers had the paperwork ready, were willing to travel, and were on the taxpayer’s generous payroll. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act created the offence, and the Human Rights Commission provided the legal and bureaucratic machinery to tie Bill down in extensive lawfare. Eventually complaints were dropped, and in one sense Bill won. But really he lost, and he was keenly aware that others – those without the backing of Rupert Murdoch – could lose far more than he did. Despite being a free man once again, he committed himself to destroying section 18C, declaring the battle against political correctness to be the fight of our times.


But in good times and in bad, Bill continued to do what editorial cartoonists do daily. He held a mirror up to our faces, and a torch to dark places, forcing us to examine not only our own preconceptions and prejudices, but the tyranny of political correctness and hypocrisy. ‘It’s just my luck,’ he said at the launch of Trigger Warning, ‘that causing offence has been made an offence at the same time that taking offence has become fashionable.’ And isn’t it indeed fashionable!

When a bush aborigine who – it’s probably fair to say – doesn’t regularly open the Oz’s opinion pages is cast as a cause célèbre in the fight against offensive drawings, something’s not right. And if you’re the Aboriginal Affairs Minister and you’re more worried about hurt indigenous feelings rather than low indigenous literacy, life expectancy, and employment, you’re really not doing it right at all. Also, you’re patronising.

Bill hated the patronising way governments treated aboriginal people, and for what benefit? So he called out the problems as he saw them. No wonder many aborigines loved what became Australia’s most famous cartoon – it represented every town they’ve ever been to: responsible indigenous people (the police officer) under-resourced and unsupported as they try to do the right thing, good-for-nothing losers who don’t just forget their kids’ names but who beat them and their mothers as well, and kids on the fast track to becoming just like their dads, with no job, education, health-care, or hope.

Another recurring theme of Bill’s recent work, and his conversations with me, was the depravity of our schools. Having a young stepdaughter, he worried about public schools, and all the more if they were Safe. ‘They’re staffed with sex-crazed perverts and they don’t teach sh-t,’ he would scream. And he was right. His last cartoon summed up not only the pedagogical state of affairs, but also the maladroit way the NSW Education Minister was dealing with Punchbowl Boys Madrassa. A foolishly grinning Rob Stokes assures a journalist that it’s simply a case of boys being boys, but the grin is on Stokes’ severed head tucked under his arm. If any bigoted readers are wondering, Stokes’ beheading had nothing to do with Islam. But lots of Bill’s cartoons did, which earned him not only the fatwas of murderous Muhammadans, but also the opprobrium of gutless politicians.

Speaking of which, Malcolm Turnbull wrote thoughtfully and kindly of Bill on the day he died. He praised his wit, brilliance, scepticism, and mastery of satire and political cartooning. It was a genuine eulogy from a friend and admirer.

But words are cheap, and cheaper still from the lips of a Liberal prime minister whose support among conservatives is in free fall.

As Bill, Bolt, and the QUT students know, there can be no free speech or genuine human rights, let alone honest discussion about indigenous policy, as long as section 18C is on the books. Turnbull’s history with the Spycatcher trial (which is how he met Bill who was doing courtroom sketches for a British newspaper) should give us an iota of hope that deep down he believes in free speech. He should therefore see to 18C’s repeal.

Malcolm, honour your heroic friend. Mean what you wrote on social media. Do what Tony Abbott couldn’t. And be the PM who stands up for the things that he actually believes in.

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