Johannes Leak with former prime minister Tony Abbott (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

When Bill Leak died of heart failure in 2017, Spectator editor Rowan Dean (and many others on the right) declared the cartoonist had been “hounded to his grave” by the Human Rights Commission.

Earlier this month, Leak’s son Johannes drew a cartoon about the so-called Medivac “debate”. The image portrays a queue of stereotypically Middle Eastern refugees lining up by a Qantas jet as asylum-seeker advocate Dr Kerryn Phelps proclaims “another acute case of hypochondria” and a nurse hands out a boarding pass.

“You poor man,” the nurse said. “Take one of these and you’ll feel better in no time.”

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Leak knows, of course, that the camps on Nauru and Manus have been beset by an epidemic of self harm and suicide attempts; that the two sites lack proper medical facilities; and that 12 people have already died in offshore detention.

But sure: hypochondria.

In November, Johannes Leak became editorial cartoonist for The Australian, taking up the position famously held by his father.

The transition speaks volumes about contemporary conservatism.

For most of his career, Bill Leak loathed Toryism in general and the Liberal Party in particular. Born into a blue-collar Labor family, he despised John Howard with a particular passion.

In one cartoon, Leak presented a toadlike Howard arriving on a boat to be greeted by Indigenous people declaring, “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

“But … but … but that’s inhumane,” Howard sputters.

As Warren Brown puts it in a eulogy for his friend, Leak saw conservatives as “hell-bent on crushing the arts, education, health, welfare — all the things he understood to be fair and ethical”.

In 2008, Leak tumbled from a balcony belonging to business tycoon John Singleton and suffered serious head injuries.

“While convalescing at his home in Hardy’s Bay,” Brown said, “his outlook began to change diametrically”.

The circumstances of that change encouraged a dismissal of Leak’s subsequent conservatism as the consequence of cortical trauma — a clearly erroneous medicalisation (since Leak drew as well as ever) of a pretty traditional political evolution.

No especial mystery shrouds the process by which erstwhile radicals become reactionary as they age into riches and success. The cartoons of Leak’s late phase make more sense if considered not as the output of a damaged brain but as a shift common to many in his generation, with his drawings about Safe Schools, Indigenous people and political correctness gone mad all begging for the addition of the caption, “OK boomer”.

As a rule, apostates don’t walk away from their old beliefs. Rather, they excoriate them obsessively, seeking to settle accounts with their younger selves.

That’s what made the later Leak so iconic for the right: his willingness — compulsion, even — to go low when attacking the minorities he once defended.

By triggering progressives, he served an important function for a conservatism with no particular program of its own, uniting a fractured right in tribal opposition to the left.

He was also talented (nine Walkleys, 12 Archibald nominations, etc) in a way that his son — who dutifully mimics Dad’s style, up to and including his strange obsession with gimp suits — simply isn’t.

The dynastic succession by which, as The Australian put it, Johannes “ascend[ed] the cartoon world’s throne” speaks volumes about the supposed anti-elitism espoused by reactionary populists. Emerging cartoonists abound in Australia — but not all of them have the right surname.

But if the younger Leak’s not much of an artist (WTF does this drawing even mean?), he’s already displayed a prodigious talent for the callousness his father only embraced later in life.

In April 2016, Omid Masoumali died after setting himself on fire on Nauru. An inquest found that, had he been transferred to Australia, he almost certainly would have survived.

It takes a certain kind of cruelty to dismiss him as a “hypochondriac”.

But that’s the point.

Conservatism needs to outrage liberals to hold itself together. If you’re committed to “owning teh left”, you need neither scruples nor ability.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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