WHAT THE HELL WAS HE THINKING? John Spooner’s Guide to the 21st Century
by John Spooner
Australian Scholarly, North Melbourne
Paperback: 258 pages
Reviewed by Peter Kelleher
John Spooner has produced some of the sharpest as well as some of the most confounding political cartoons you will ever see.
After a brief stint as a lawyer, Spooner took to the trade of political cartooning with relish and spent more than 40 years with Melbourne’s Age newspaper. Over the past decade or so in particular, and much to his consternation, he found he had a box seat to the devolution of what he terms a “pluralist” news source into the propaganda sheet for the radical left that The Age – along with its Fairfax stablemates – is today.
I note that that fall from newssheet of record to ephemeral rag coincided with the drying-up of the “rivers of gold” that classified advertisements generated until recently (does anyone remember visiting the newsagent’s in ages past and picking up the three-inch thick Saturday Age, then realising that those three inches did not include the classifieds section: three inches more!). The rise of the ratbag journalism that The Age exemplifies today may be the last gasp of the tenured hack, the source of whose gilded salary package has been spirited away by eBay and gumtree and the like. Certainly the behaviour of the Fairfax management team demonstrates the old saw (that I just made up), “I’ll be gone; you’ll be gone, so let’s strip the carcass now”.
The trope of the left, as the progressivist party, is that, if you find yourself increasingly in conflict with its agenda, you are being left behind. The difficulty with that accusation is that the left’s “progress” is as dissipated as the rake’s and one has to really be on one’s toes if one is to keep closely in its wake as it weaves and dodges its way through the ever-increasing accumulation of fashionable causes even as it leaves its original causes behind. The fact is that, it looks more as if Spooner left his colleagues behind as he went his own way in developing his views on the various causes as they sprang up.
Spooner found himself at variance with the left on the issue of neo-liberal economics: globalisation is the label applied to it today. Spooner watched with growing alarm as, beginning in the 1970s with the lowering of tariffs, progressing in the 1980s through “deregulation” of finance and industry, and culminating in the 2010s with the ultimate loss of manufacturing in this country with the closure of the auto industry, globalisation turned Australia into a country of consumers beyond our means and with a hidden unemployment and underemployment rate of 23 per cent today. It is hard to see how opposing the stripping out of jobs for the common man is in any way a right-wing position.
Spooner is particularly good on this issue, pointing out that government debt is not the only debt, and the debt run up by the private sector is at least as damaging to our society and is vastly greater ($1 trillion) yet gets a “pass” because, well, business runs on debt.
Spooner took his own positions on several other key issues beloved of the left. He supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein; he opposes euthanasia because the word “voluntary” loses all meaning in the circumstances where a person’s actual death is under discussion, especially if kids impatient for an inheritance are standing by; he supports Israel’s right to exist; and he is a global-warming sceptic.
As Spooner’s job got harder as successive Age editors got more antsy at the points of view his cartoons were expressing, he simply persisted and made his arguments for their publication as best he might. However, he saw that gradually he was becoming estranged, if that is not too strong a term, from colleagues and editors.
That Spooner was not simply shown the door for his counter-editorial policy views is a reflection rather of the esteem in which he was held personally than of the much vaunted “plurality” on which The Age had built its reputation, as by then that plurality had been eaten up by journalistic activism.
As a compendium of Spooner’s cartoon and art work over the decades, the book is invaluable and fascinating. There must be well over 250 colour cartoons throughout, drawn from Spooner’s 40-year career. Moreover, its large format allows easy viewing of the illustrations.
However, I want to draw attention in particular to the 14 caricature-cum-portraits at the end of the volume.
These include a rather unkind one of Gough Whitlam – his face reddened with veins; Malcolm Turnbull looking content – then you notice the hands, a devil’s claws; Condoleeza Rice looks superb, with her attractive slightly crooked smile – then you notice the hands, holding a chain and a pliers (for cross-examination); and Richard Dawkins as Michelangelo’s Adam fresh from the hand of … then you look at the hands – fresh from the hand of a monkey.