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Leunig on Leak, and how to let go

NATIONAL TREASURE: Beloved cartoonist Michael Leunig is a headline guest of the Newcastle Writers Festival. Picture: Simone De PeakIF ANYONE wantsto wind back Australia’sracial discrimination laws in the name of a beloved cartoonist, they’d best not ask Michael Leunig.
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The 71-year-oldsays cartoonists in Australia “have masses of freedom”, despite arecent push to overhaul section 18C of the Racial Discrimination act.

A guest of this weekend’sNewcastle Writers Festival, Leunig said the cartoonist atthe centre of the free speech maelstrom, the late Bill Leak, was “egged on” by commentators eager for a fight.

Leak died last month aged 61, following an investigation by the Human Rights Commission into his cartoon that portrayeda neglectfulAboriginal father.

“I thought Bill made a terrible mistake in drawing that cartoon,” Leunig told the Newcastle Herald.

“I thought it was a cruel cartoon which had no point except for reinforcing some stereotypes. I didn’t like it.”

The national living treasure andCurly Flat creatorsaid he had reservations about more protections forspeech deemed offensive, and that Australians readilyacceptlibel and slander laws.

But Leunig, whose workhas criticisedAustralia’s militaryinvolvement in Iraq,aspects ofchildcare,and Victoria’sban on un-vaccinated children attendingkindergarten, said he’d thought about the latter stages of Leak’slife.

“I imagine it could’ve been painful, deep water he was in.”

In the social mediaage, when anyone can be used“as a bit of content”, Leunigsaid being a cartoonist camewith its share of soul-searching.

“It’s a lonely job. You’re given great freedom on the one hand, but you’ve got to wear it alone,” Leunig said.

“Some people say cartooning is just making wisecracks about politicians, but I’m more interested in our part in all of this.”

In a career spanning 40 years of whimsy in Fairfax newspapers, has Leunigregretted a cartoon?

“I think I have. There area deadlines, and sometimesthere’s nothing coming,” he said.

“You look backand think, that was a bit spiteful, or that was a bit clever dick-ish. That pressure to be cruel for the sake of it, I find pretty pointless.”

Onhis second visit to Newcastle, the first having been at night, Leunig said he was still recovering from a near-fatal head knockthat had “sent the books flying” from his memory.

Leunig was struckby asteel trapdoor last year in a bushfire shelter in rural Victoria, and suffered seizures and bleeding onhisbrain.

Since then, Leunig said he values“letting go-ness”and being in the natural world.

“It’s sort of liberating to have an accident like that;it makesyoulet go,” he said.

“Life is a kind of injury. None of us gets awaywithout some kind of damage.”

Political comment is one thing, he said, but “sometimes you just want to do a drawing of a little guy talking to a dog, saying something about life”.

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