In ‘Bruce Petty drawing money’, the last essay from Overland 201 to go online, Robert Phiddian analyses politics and economics in the oeuvre of Australian cartoonist, Bruce Petty. (You’ll need to purchase a copy of 201 to see the accompanying images.)
Political cartoonists draw characters and events. They live off the flux of the political moment, and it used to be rare for them to reach deeper, to engage satirically with patterns of power in society, let alone the economy. Bruce Petty’s trajectory has been different and very influential, especially at the Age, on a generation of cartoonists like Spooner, Leunig and Nicholson. He has fostered a more analytical, economically literate, but still staunchly oppositional attitude towards money and its acolytes on the pictorial parts of the nation’s editorial pages. It is a culture of scepticism that the editorial and financial writers might have striven harder to share, before the instant wisdom of the global financial crisis became fashionable.
Ever since he started at Rupert Murdoch’s crusading Mirror (1962) and Australian (1964) newspapers, Bruce Petty sought to draw the big issues and processes more than other cartoonists. His work at the early Australian was dominated by the directly political issues that characterised the 1960s and early 1970s, when there was a widely distributed and accepted sense of optimism that politics could involve planning and substantial achievement. The political spectrum supporting this attitude was broad and not even exclusively left-wing, running from Donald Horne’s right-wing contrarianism in The Lucky Country to the socialist and communist enthusiasms of Stephen Murray-Smith’s Overland. This time of hope, as Horne described it in another book, ended with the mayhem of the second Whitlam government and its dismissal in 1975, though the geopolitical driver for the change was the Oil Shock of 1973. Throughout these years, Petty was a prominent proponent of this progressive attitude, a daily cartoonist working in a newsroom, whose attention focused sharply on the daily news cycle.1
The collapse of Planet Whitlam was compounded for Petty by the way the once liberal Australian suddenly veered Right and edged him out. He contributed posters to ‘Maintain the Rage’ rallies, donated images to any number of good causes, and focused a lot of attention on animated movies.2 Instead of attempting to live in a lost Camelot, however, he got on with analysing the new, economically-driven politics. He was quick to spot the ascendant ideas delineated in political slogans like Malcolm Fraser’s ‘Life is not meant to be easy’(1971),3 Margaret Thatcher’s ‘And who is society? There is no such thing!’ (1987), and Bill Clinton’s ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ (1992). Before 1975, he had been swimming with the apparent tide of history, against a conservatism whose time was obviously up. Now, without any real ideological movement, he found himself a mordant critic of an ascendant and reductive economic libertarianism. The central theme of his cartooning became market-doubting in the decades of the rise of monetarism, and the main formal preoccupation became drawing the complex processes of money, influence and power. This searching satirical critique is apparent in books (The Money Book, 1983; The Absurd Machine, 1997), films (The Money Game, 1970; Global Haywire, 2008) and hundreds (if not thousands) of editorial cartoons.