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Monday, 20 March 2017
Page: 1486


Senator BUSHBY (TasmaniaChief Government Whip in the Senate) (22:19): I rise today to pay homage to a great Australian taken away from us too soon, a comic genius in the literal sense, a man who was not constrained by fear of political correctness, a truth-teller, a larrikin, a husband, a father and a friend to so many: Bill Leak.

It would be disingenuous to say that I was friends with Bill Leak. In truth, I had no personal relationship with him. However, almost every day he interrupted my life fleetingly as I looked over his cartoon in The Australian, which either made me chuckle with mirth or cringe as he cut close to the bone, due to his uncanny ability to unpack a complex issue with the simplicity of some beautiful brushstrokes and a clever line or two.

Some people assume that Bill Leak was a machiavellian rogue, pushing forward a right-wing agenda, but nothing could be further from the truth. Any honest assessment of Bill's unbelievably capacious catalogue of art—and, yes, the comic medium he chose to focus on truly is an art form—makes him one of Australia's genuine master artisans. His works rank amongst our finest in terms of beauty, skill, technique, meaning and what is rapidly becoming a lost art form: truth-telling.

Bill's work was never constrained by labels of Left or Right, conservative or so-called progressive, or by race, colour, creed, gender, sexuality or religion. His greatness is palpable. It is astonishing, as it was inevitable, that he received the recognition of the best judges of his medium, as evidenced by his nine Walkley awards and 19 Stanley awards, amongst other accolades.

My colleagues on the conservative end of the political scale were not spared Bill's razor-sharp wit and willingness to offend. In fact, Bill stood apart from so many others in his field in that he did not conform to a political dogma.

I am not trying to eulogise Bill into sainthood. He was flawed and frail in the same ways that all of us manacled by humanity are. In the personal accounts I have heard and read since Bill's passing, he clearly struggled in dealing with vexatious and hurtful claims made against him. This is the pain felt by an artist agonising over the consequences of his work. Great artists are true to their subjects and true to themselves. Think of artists like Goya and his troubling Saturn Devouring His Son, Michelangelo's The Last Judgement and da Vinci's Mona Lisa. All of these great works were offensive to many in their day and to some remain so to this very day. But the world is richer and more diverse due to the genius manifest in these works. An artist, and indeed a citizen, should never retreat from causing offence. Everyone has a right to be offended, but as a society we need to be very careful not to censor others just because we feel offence. Voltaire said and is often quoted: 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'

Sadly, in Australia we are increasingly imperilled by the thought police of the Left. Freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of speech are the foundational elements that make democracy work. Indeed, they are the fundamental building blocks of democracy. Undue inhibition of any of these elements is the first step on all pathways towards totalitarianism, authoritarianism and the loss of liberty by the masses. The truth is, none of us has a mortgage on morality. True diversity is achieved through the free voices of the many rather than the constrained singularity of the collective.

In Bill Leak we have lost one who was steadfast in his resolve to create what was a poignant and humorous reflection of reality. In the only standard by which we can universally judge an artist—truthfulness—Bill Leak passed any reasonable examination with the highest of distinction. May Bill's legacy be his inspiration for others to speak the truth with neither fear nor favour. May difficult topics continue to be broached without dread of creating offence.

Bill Leak is a great loss to Australia. My deepest sympathy goes out to his family, his close friends and the thousands of Australians who loved him so dearly.

May you rest in peace.

Senate adjourned at 22:24