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Abbott's budgie-smuggler blues

  • 19 August 2011

Responding to an illustration that appreared in Eureka Street, one regular correspondent lamented the portrayal by cartoonists of Tony Abbott wearing Speedos. Others elsewhere have expressed similar frustration at such humorous if crude references to Abbott's choice of swimwear.

Abbott's representation in political cartoons increased after he became leader of the Liberal Party in December 2009. This is not unusual. Party leaders, particularly those of the major parties, invariably attract more attention from cartoonists than most other politicians. Abbott's cartoon appearances in Speedos became more frequent.

But these portrayals are not part of a sinister plot to undermine his authority. Don't attribute to conspiracy something that can be explained by silliness. The initial media photographic and film images of a serious politician wearing what are colloquially known as 'budgie smugglers' naturally set the tone for an atmosphere of frivolity.

In the early days of his growing political profile, Abbott was frequently depicted in one of two ways. The first was as a monk, referencing his Catholic identity, Jesuit schooling and time in the seminary. (Kevin Rudd's religious belief was similarly caricaturised in this later cartoon).

The second was as a pugilist, alluding to his boxing days and his role as Liberal Party 'head-kicker' under former Prime Minister John Howard.

As a politician with a growing public profile, Abbott provided media opportunities to publicise various issues. Such appearances included cycling events (such as the charitable 'pollie pedal' bike ride he initiated), iron-man and triathlon events, and, yes, surf lifesaving activities.

Given the sense of humour prevalent in Australia (even the term 'budgie smugglers' says something about our culture's humour), it's no surprise that after making numerous public appearances in his Speedos, many cartoonists gleefully seized the opportunity to represent Abbott thus attired.

Many of Australia's most prominent cartoonists co-opted the image of Abbott in his Speedos, but this is by no means the only characterisation. Some continued with the distinctive red and yellow lifesaving cap, even if they dispensed with the Speedos. Others simply depicted Abbott on a bike.

Illustrations reflecting Abbott's Catholic identity and boxing also continued. And of course there are many cartoons in which he simply looks like a well-dressed politician or corporate figure.

Many cartoonists reference all of these, depending on the message of