‘Cartoonists are barometer of freedom’

Canberra Times cartoonist (and artist also in his own right) Ian Sharpe made some telling remarks in his speech at the opening of the CLA cartoon exhibition Laughing With Knives, at the ACT Legislative Assembly on 8 October.

Speech by Canberra Times cartoonist, Ian Sharpe, at the official opening of the CLA cartoon exhibition, Monday 8 October 2007, at the ACT Legislative Assembly

Ian Sharpe Cartoonits Canberra TimesSpeaker Mr Wayne Berry, CLA President Kristine Klugman, distinguished guest.

It’s my great honour to be asked to say a few words, representing the cartoonists.

Kris said I was chosen because I had one overwhelming quality that no other cartoonist in the world has…I’m a paid-up member of Civil Liberties Australia. I’m a member because civil liberties and freedoms are the very fundamentals of a cartoonist’s life and work…

Firstly, a cartoonist has to grow up and develop as a person knowing what freedom is, and I was lucky to do that in Australia. And a cartoonist usually has to live in a society which is generally free, where the people understand what liberties and freedoms are.

It’s only in those circumstances, when you’re able to view the world differently – irreverently – upside-down – that you can look life in the eye, and realise that, sometimes, there’s a sty in there.

And it’s the “stys” – the odd growths on the body politic – that cartoonists are good at identifying in a way that makes people laugh…and think……not necessarily in that order. Oh, and we’re also good at highlighting the odd growths on the politicians’ bodies, like big noses, or large lips, or eyebrows that were made to paint the Harbour Bridge.

But we cartoonists can only continue to draw freely if the society we work in continues to value everybody’s freedoms, and is prepared to fight for them. Because, cartooning itself is never safe.  It is so prominent, and so easily crosses language barriers, that it can quickly suffer a rapid attack that echoes around the world.

You’ll remember the Danish cartoonist who drew the Muslim prophet, for example, and set of a month-long anti-cartoonist wave around the world, where people died in protest marches.

And cartooonists themselves are never safe. In some countries today, there is a line as fine as a fishnet stocking between the freedom to draw for a newspaper…and the opportunity to draw on the walls of a jail cell.

Where there are no ‘edgy’ political cartoons, there is usually no freedom. Look at Burma now, or Zimbabwe: can you remember a cartoon from their internal newspapers that made you laugh about the political situation in those countries?

Even cartooning in Australia is not yet safe from the new sedition laws introduced two years ago. The Attorney-General says cartoonists have nothing to worry about…but, of course, Mr Ruddock saying that just makes all us cartoonists more fearful.

It’s the Australian people – all of us – whose continued vigilance is needed to safeguard everybody’s civil liberties, including those of cartoonists. If ever push comes to shove in Australia, there’s only a very few cartoonists. So the few of us might be depending on all of you to protect our freedom to draw, because our freedom is a barometer of your freedom.

When you hear people say ‘Australia is a free country’, it’s often hard to know exactly what that means. But there’s at least one simple test by which you can measure freedom in Australia: are cartoonists free to draw what they want, without fear of censure or reprisal.

At the moment, we are.  I hope it lasts forever. But, if the freedom of cartoonists ever comes under serious threat, then Australia’s basic liberties won’t be far behind.

That’s why I’m a member of CLA, and proud to be a supporter of this exhibition, and delighted that so many other cartoonists are also supporting the continuing battle for freedom and liberty by making their cartoons available for the sake of the cause.

Thank you.

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