Abbott's budgie-smuggler blues


Abbott cyclingResponding 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 the cartoon or perhaps simply happenstance. Eureka Street cartoonist Fiona Katauskas used Abbott's cycling in one cartoon and his Speedos in others. For some, the Speedos image has become exaggerated into caricature over time.

Cartoonists themselves noticed this: Paul Zanetti commented that Abbott is now synonymous with Speedos, while Warren Brown regards them as Abbott's trademark.

It would be interesting to determine whether any politicians changed their behaviour as a result of a particular illustration. Certainly Alexander Downer did not make the mistake of appearing in fishnets again following this photograph (designed to draw attention to a charity). A decade later, cartoonists were still drawing Downer in stockings and heels.

If Abbott did not want to be represented in Speedos, it's reasonable to suppose he would not provide media opportunities wearing them. In fact Abbott explicitly drew attention to his swimming attire when he promised to not appear in Speedos, then broke his undertaking.

In 2001, the Australian Review of Public Affairs featured an article by University of Sydney political scientist Dr Michael Hogan, expressing concern that political cartoons may undermine public confidence in politicians, parties and democratic institutions.

Two Flinders University academics, political scientist Dr Haydon Manning and English department political satire lecturer Dr Robert Phiddian, later responded. Their 2004 article defended political cartoonists' licence to mock public figures and institutions, and disputed their effect on public opinion. They concluded that citizens' capacity to recognise cartoons as exaggerated political commentary is underestimated.

History demonstrates that politicians are almost always pitilessly represented in cartoons. Just ask John 'Eyebrows' Howard, Mark 'Frankenstein' Latham, Kevin 'Tintin' Rudd, Brendan 'Hair' Nelson, Malcolm 'Dark Circles' Turnbull, and Julia 'Nose' Gillard (or 'Bottom' as the case may be). There's no need for anyone to have a glass jaw on Tony Abbott's behalf.


Moira Byrne GartonMoira Byrne Garton is completing a PhD in politics at the Australian National University, and working as a policy analyst. Analysis of political cartoons and images are high on her list of future research interests. 

Topic tags: Moira Byrne Garton, Fiona Katauskas, Chris Johnston, Tony Abbott, Speedos, cartoons



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Existing comments

Moira,continual use of representation in caricature e.g. speedos, nose, bottom etc does lead to disrespect of the person and of the office and we end up seeing only the caricatured piece rather than the person and the office. e.g "What Mr Abbott says can't be that important he is always swimming/bike riding so what does he know" instead of the thought "a healthy Leader of a nation, a good role model for all."

Sorry Moira dont buy the bit about our larrikin "humour. " it's stale. are we politically on the world stage or not? If we mock our leaders why shouldnt others do also?

Anne Lastman | 19 August 2011  

Hmm, well, it's not as if anyone can accuse Abbott of being denied the portrayal of himself as 'The Thinker' is it?

He likes to be seen as a 'typical Aussie', a 'workers friend' a 'normal bloke' and he'd be lost if he tried to alter that confected image, wouldn't he?

It's not so much cartoonists that highlight this man's Catholic underpinnings as Abbott himself. He loves it because, never mind there are many unanswered (and even more unasked)question about the morality of the Vatican's Empire, it is the 'image' of high morality that Abbott, and indeed Gillard, cultivate.

Clearly, there are no politicians today who pay anything beyond lipservice to any message Jesus might have offered, they all of them sit with the money changers in the Temple, catering to the rich and greedy rather than the poor and needy, all done, of course, 'in the national interest'.

Abbott gets the coverage he seeks, and he'd be horrified if any cartoonist portrayed him as a thoughtful, thinking, pleasant person.

Harold Wilson | 19 August 2011  

I am sure that Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard can survive these cartoons. They may hate some and love others. In most cases any publicity is good as it keeps them “alive” in the media. I wonder why nobody has made a good cartoon about Bob Brown?

Beat Odermatt | 19 August 2011  

This is all pretty much reflective of the superficial nature of political debate in Australia and much of the world. What has happened to questions about policy and what is best for Australia and the world? At least humour keeps us laughing.

Peter Anderson | 19 August 2011  

Enjoyed the balanced approach and good humour

leo kane | 19 August 2011  

Peter, you are so right. Humour and laughter are gifts from God. What would we do without them?! I do miss the cartoons of Kevin Rudd as PM with cute clean-cut little boy look, holding school bag. These were mainly Sean Leahy's works. Excellent. LouW

LouW | 19 August 2011  

I just remember! How Julia was represented by a Liberal MP as being dragged by a crocodile! That was not nice at all! How non cartoonists males like to make things bad for polite women like Julia (and others)just because they hate them. No, Moira there's certainly no larriking humour that is acceptable!

Nathalie | 19 August 2011  

So now we have an article about Tony Abbott's immodest dressing in public. At least we didn't have another cartoon depicting Abbott's near nakedness. The Catholic Church teaches us that we must be modest in dress, thoughts, words and deeds. Both Tony Abbott and Bob Hawke have appeared in public wearing speedos. But Tony Abbott says he is Catholic and so I wonder why he would appear in public in such an immodest costume. I realise many secular publications will use Abbott's lack of dress standard to denigrate him. I would like to think that as Eureka Street is a Catholic publication, it would refrain from using immodest cartoons of Abbott in articles. I think the term "budgie smuggler" is rank, rude, crude and vulgar and not a fitting way to describe an immodest bathing suit. The term sounds like something you would hear in a vulgar teenager, not a mature person. When I read out loud that part of the article to a visitor this morning, she replied "Eewww! Yuk! That's disgusting!" I have a sense of humour but to read that terminology by a young woman in an article for "Eureka street" sounds so crass and ugly to come from a Catholic magazine. What has happened to good taste, modesty in speech, dress and mind?? In charity (love of God) we should avoid all immodesty. It is very offensive to God, our Lady and the Saints and Angels of Heaven. Our immortal Souls' eternal future demands that we take part in good works not scandal and vulgarity.

Trent | 19 August 2011  

Notwithstanding our reputation as laconic larrikins, our draconian libel laws prevent us from having the kind of political satire that's often published in, say, Private Eye or having comedians such as Smith/Colbert or Letterman on our screens lampooning the likes of Hanson, Joyce, Katter and those 'faceless' Labor back room boys. Instead with Murdoch owning 70+% of our media, the boundaries of political satire are definitely limited to Jones, Bolt doing their Mosley best to incite rather than entertain.

Alex Njoo | 19 August 2011  

i find this disturbing article very... disturbing because Mr. Abbott looks very good in speedos and needs to show them off more.

Daniel Pandolfo | 22 August 2011  

I stopped using the ABC as a commentary resource a while back, partly because I could no longer bear Geraldine Doogue's apparently uncontrollable urge to refer to Tony Abbott as "the mad monk" and to snigger while doing so. It's almost as unbearable as the Gillard giggle in the face of awkward questions - eg about her socialist past. Almost.

HH | 22 August 2011  

I don't think it's fair to say Abbott provided media opportunities in his speedos. He was engaged in his regular activities, and journalists turned up at the beach to photograph him. I wonder what would be said if journalists turned up at the beach to take photos of a female politician in a bikini.

Warwick | 05 September 2012  

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