In tracing the life journey of Bill Leak, journalist and biographer FRED PAWLE also learnt much about worrying changes in Australian culture.
Being accused of racism is the best assurance these days of being the opposite. From late 2017 to early 2021, on the rare occasions I found myself in social situations requiring small talk, I would occasionally divulge, in answer to the obligatory question, “So what do you do?”, that I was writing the biography of Bill Leak. More often than not, the response was, “Oh, isn’t he that racist cartoonist?”
I must admit I didn’t look particularly hard for evidence of this aspect to Leak’s character during those three years, although if it had existed I would have found it. None of his friends volunteered any hint of it. Nor did my comprehensive research into his early life reveal a hitherto unknown membership of the Nazi Party or nights out burning crosses near indigenous communities. The closest I got was an anecdote of my own, from early on in our 23-year friendship, when I recalled him saying, “I’m not racist. I hate everyone equally.”
He meant it as a joke rather than a statement of fact, a way of expressing his exasperation with the nation’s politics, or the fact that such a wide diversity of people disagreed with his own politics at the time, if I remember correctly. Most people feel like this at some stage or other. I left it out of the final edit of the biography not because it was a trivial throwaway line, or that it discorded with everything else he stood for, but because the left, in their humourless, literal determination to find offence wherever they seek it, would have pounced on it as proof that Bill was racist. If he hated everyone, then he hated people who were different to him! The bigot!
I need not have bothered. They cancelled him anyway. I sent no fewer than six copies of the book to the ABC, including to prominent journalists who are mentioned favourably in it and who had once counted themselves as close friends of Bill’s. Some acknowledged they had received the book after I inquired to confirm it had arrived, but none invited me into the ABC to talk about it or mentioned to their viewers/listeners that it had been published and might be of some interest. This prominent and patriotic Australian was conspicuously and comprehensively erased by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
This prominent and patriotic Australian was conspicuously and comprehensively erased by the ABC.
The same ban does not apply to books written by ABC journalists. About the same time my book was published, Lisa Millar was granted leave from her main job as co-presenter of News Breakfast on ABC-TV to pop down the corridor for an interview on Radio National, where Fran Kelly described her as someone “we all know and love”. She was interviewed again later that afternoon by Richard Glover, on ABC Radio, lest any of his listeners had missed the RN chat. This partly explains why ABC journalists publish so many books these days—they have an inbuilt promotion platform.
Millar’s book is called Daring to Fly, a reference to her irrational fear of flying, which proved to be a traumatic obstacle for such a nomadic international correspondent. Leak, on the other hand, had an entirely rational fear of dying—at the hands of militant Islamists offended by his depiction of Muhammad in a cartoon in The Australian only a few days after the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. But neither this dramatic element of his story nor the fact some prominent hosts at the ABC had once been friends with Leak were enough to disarm the ABC’s collective determination to pretend Leak never even lived. You have got to give them credit for chutzpah. They lionised Leak while he seemed to share their political views, then, after he had dared to start associating with the type of people the ABC despises (conservatives and free thinkers), dropped him like a hot potato. To paraphrase a politician they all detest: We will decide whose books are read at the ABC and the circumstances in which they are promoted.
Which brings me back to racism. The ABC journalists who knew Leak also knew he was incapable of racism. His entire life was testimony to the idea that, regardless of one’s other demons or flaws, it was beholden upon all conscionable people to always judge others by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin. Had Leak not lived his life by this standard, they would not have befriended him, and neither would have I. Their determination to ignore him now is evidence of a psychological backflip no less deluded than racism, and possibly even more pernicious.
One of the reasons I wrote the book was not just to honour a friend for a life well lived, but to capture a period of popular culture in what was once an optimistic, friendly, happy country. Leak epitomised each phase in Australian post-war history, from growing up under Robert Menzies to the libertarian 1970s, the prosperous larrikinism under Hawke and Keating, the acrimony during the Howard years (which Leak later realised was largely contrived), and the nerdish earnestness of Rudd, which led to the divisive, self-destructive culture wars of the past decade and a half.
Leak died in 2017, at a time when imported militant Islam and economy-destroying green paganism were terrifying to those who understood the fragile foundations of freedom and prosperity, but not terrifying enough to cause defeatism. I am occasionally asked what Leak would make of the country Australia has become since 2017, and it bothers me to say that even he would feel an almost hopeless despair.
Leak once thought Australia had earned its place among the world’s most envious countries in which to live because its inhabitants shared a robustly honest way of, in his words, calling “bullshit” where they saw it, more often than not as a devastating put-down or, in Leak’s case, a brilliantly conceived and drawn cartoon. Our culture had a self-correcting mechanism that seemed as deeply ingrained in our character as the First Amendment was in the US Constitution. Unburdened by America’s religious baggage, Australians were even freer to pursue happiness, and found it in the rewards of hard work, sport, and the raucous joys of drinking and joking around with their mates.
We have lost the ability to seek out the truth.
One of the defining cultural developments in Australia during Leak’s lifetime was the almost complete obliteration of racism. This part of our culture was never as grim as the popular misconception would have us believe, but it was still ugly. The European migrants who arrived immediately after World War II, and the waves of Vietnamese, Lebanese and Chinese who followed them, endured insults and ostracism from insular Anglo-Saxons but did, in the space of a few decades, succeed in becoming part of our cultural fabric.
The referendum to allow the Federal government to become more active in Aboriginal affairs, conducted in 1967, when Leak was 11 years old, started the long process of reconciliation between modern Australia and the original inhabitants.
Leak would later contribute to this cultural shift, siding consistently with the disadvantaged in his cartoons, especially when, in 2016, it became clear that the most heartbreakingly disadvantaged were innocent indigenous kids.
Australia became a better country during Leak’s lifetime because we did not tolerate “bullshit”. Leak, like all Australians, saw this as proof that a self-correcting culture is a virtuous one. But as the ABC proves daily, calling “bullshit” is not so important any more, Or at least not important to the people who dominate our cultural institutions. Nobody at the ABC called “bullshit” on Leak’s alleged racism, even though they knew it not to be true. Nor do they call “bullshit” on myriad other modern shibboleths: Tim Flannery’s “not even the rain that falls will fill our dams”, Bruce Pascoe’s imaginary indigenous farming towns, the fictional destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, the demonstrably incorrect rising sea levels, the self-loathing invention of white Australian racism, the comparative virtues or even superiority of less advanced cultures, and the blatantly exaggerated lethality of COVID-19.
The inability of Australia to debate these topics openly means we have lost more than the hilarious, withering punchlines of straight talkers like Leak. It means we have also lost the ability to seek out the truth. This is not such a bad thing if, like most people at the ABC and other woke institutions, you believe the truth is personal and relative. But it rings alarm bells to anybody who knows the truth to be immutable and elusive. You can spend a whole life pursuing it—indeed, everyone should—and never fully understand it. That’s what makes life so exhilarating.
I feel confident I have more than adequately researched and explained every aspect of Leak’s life: his devotion to beauty, his desperate need for love, his sense of humour, his (possibly misplaced) faith in Australia, his seemingly mercurial politics, and his extraordinary gift for friendship.
But I found one part of his life difficult to explain. As a kid growing up in a middle-class suburb of Sydney, Leak saw the effect drinking was having on his parents’ generation and wanted no part of it, even telling his mum one Christmas to go easy on the brandy she poured into the family pudding. He discovered alcohol’s consoling, anaesthetic qualities in his late teens, when he was, I deduced, starting to also feel the burden of his own intellectual curiosity and artistic sensibility. It was a refuge he sought for almost all of the rest of his life, even when it threatened to destroy his family, his work and his sanity. He sought its toxic embrace even after he, aged 52, drunkenly fell off a balcony, suffered brain damage, and almost died.
But three years later he finally did give it up. His second wife, Goong, claims credit, which I have no reason to believe is not true. He also occasionally attended Alcoholics Anonymous, which may have helped. But there was an equally dramatic development in his life at this time. He suddenly became aware that the people fighting the culture wars were not in it for the ‘lols’. This, he realised, was a fight to defend the civilisation that had made his own life so rewarding, if also chaotic. “It was no place for a man with a hangover,” was the best, most succinct way I could explain it. Leak himself called it simply “the joys of thinking straight”.
He was not alone in suddenly discovering there was more to liberty than getting wasted. His friend Barry Humphries made a similar discovery, and went on to become Australia’s greatest comedian. Wartime prime minister John Curtin also learned there was a greater calling that only the sober could answer. So too did Bob Hawke, although he returned to the drink once his work in Canberra was done.
The point is symbolic of where Australia now finds itself. Our immature, youthful recklessness used to be our most endearing quality. It Is a useful characteristic if you are trying to build a modern, prosperous nation on a hostile continent at the arse end of the world. But it is not much use now that the world is so interconnected, our prosperity has peaked, and we often see ourselves—thanks again to the ABC and the woke elite—as a country with a dark past and an even darker present.
Leftist author Donald Horne inaugurated this intellectual pessimism in The Lucky Country (1964), saying, “Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck”, and that the country’s philistinism would be its undoing. “The answer to the question, ‘can the racket last?’ appears to be NO.”
But The Lucky Country was not entirely cynical. It couldn’t have gone through six editions and still be printed in 2009, four years after Horne’s death, if it had not also included cause for optimism. In the final paragraph, Horne wrote:
The good qualities of Australians should be described and admired and brought into play. Their non-doctrinaire tolerance, their sense of pleasure, their sense of fair play, their interest in material things, their sense of family, their identity with nature and their sense of reserve, their adaptability when a way is shown, their fraternalism, their scepticism, their talent for improvisation, their courage and stoicism. These are great qualities that could constitute the beginnings of a great nation.
Australia, a great nation? That a leftist academic ever thought this was possible is astonishing. But then, Horne would struggle to qualify as a leftist these days. His list of Australian virtues might have seemed insightful or even radical in 1964, but are blandly conservative now. Where is the gender fluidity, the reverence for Islam, contempt for Christianity, demonisation of the US and Israel, blind faith in ‘The Science’, and the catastrophic certainty we are destroying the planet?
Australia is not alone in descending into this woke abyss, of course. But it is alone in doing so before fully realising its potential. The British Empire gave the world democratic institutions, the rule of law, property rights and—through soccer, rugby and cricket—the entertaining and affirming distraction of team sports. Its successor, the US, gave us jazz, westerns, space travel, rugged individualism, and the internet. Australia was spawned by both of them, yet its contribution to Western culture does not extend much beyond Crocodile Dundee and Men at Work’s Land Down Under, both of which were endearingly confident at the time, but are looking a little dated now. Horne’s hope for a “great nation” is yet to be realised.
Walkley award nominated journalist Fred Pawle became surfing mates with Bill Leak while working at The Australian in 1994. Pawle also worked at GQ Australia and edited the ABC’s arts magazine, Limelight.
Die Laughing: The Biography of Bill Leak, written by Fred Pawle, with an introduction by Barry Humphries and published by the IPA, is available now at dielaughing.org.au