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Sunday 21 January 2018


Never A Bleak Day With Bill

Paul Zanetti Friday 10 March 2017

Bill Leak wasn’t counting on leaving us. He had other plans, which centred on getting back to his first love, painting.

Just this week he called asking what I thought of a property he and his wife, Goong, had found online - 12 acres for Goong’s gardens and a granny flat which Bill was excited about converting into an artist studio.

Malcolm Turnbull, who’d known Bill for over 30 years, asked yesterday, “Who had more life, more energy than him? So many more cartoons to draw, paintings to paint, politicians to satirise - so many more lives to enhance with his wit, his brilliance, his good friendship."

More on that later, but that’s just what Bill had in mind. Back to basics. More paintings to paint. He’d lost his entire life’s collection of oils after a fire at John Singleton’s beach house where some of his most famous and valuable art had been stored.

“I was hoping that would’ve been my super,” he lamented.

“Were the house contents insured?” I asked.

“Apparently bloody not," Bill replied. "I wish I’d known, but who thinks of stuff like that? It was a terrible situation. Singo and I haven’t spoken since.”

Bill recently moved house, rather hastily, after the coppers warned him the Islamists had him on their hit list, along with fellow cartoonist, Larry Pickering, both for daring to draw cartoons depicting the Islamic founder, Mohammed.

The new place was a house, a refuge, but not not the ideal home for Bill. It did the job but it was only ever a temporary stopover.

After he’d settled in, he confided that, “Those bastards just cost me $300k!”

“Between what I lost on selling the other place in haste and having to grab this place, it’s been a bloody expensive ordeal. I don’t know how people make money on property because I always seem to find a way to lose money. Maybe that’s how they make their money - finding mugs like me.”

This week started out as a high for Bill, brimming with promise. Who could have ever have imagined it would end so tragically, so finally?

Bill was relieved and excited about the launch of his new book, Trigger Warning - Deplorable Cartoons. Discussions with the publisher started last year with plans for a pre-Christmas print run. Three months after deadline, Bill was finally able to put the book to bed.

But this week it was the property that had him going.

“Mate, I want your opinion on this place. I’m hopeless with these things. I just fall in love and always pay the asking price. They see me coming a mile off.”

We both google-earthed while on the blower.

Without wanting to seem a spoiler, I raised my first concern.

“Umm….Bill, there are power lines running right across the backyard. There’s a fucking huge power tower, smack bang, behind the house. On the property itself!!”

“Yeah, I know. But check out the cottage - and the granny flat. And look at the land. It’s perfect for Goong (he adored his wife and stepdaughter Tasha). She wants a huge garden. She’ll totally transform the place into an oasis. It’s just what she wants.”

Bill saw the potential, not the power lines.

“Okay, fair enough, mate. If it’s what you want, make an offer, but consider the resale value, too. Don’t pay too much.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be planning on selling the joint, mate. I'd retire there”

“Sure, Bill, but the power tower’s a dead-set bargaining chip. What are they asking?”


“Tell ‘em they’re dreaming. Offer them $1.2m.”

We then talked about the practical side of owning a rural zoned property. Keeping the water tanks topped up in a dry spell, waste water management, general maintenance and upkeep…Bill suggested a quad bike would help out.

All was good. The next ten years, and more, of living the dream were fermenting in Bill’s mind. He was on top of his game and top o’ the world. The next decade promised us the best of Bill.

By week’s end those dreams were tragically shut down. I got word from Larry mid morning yesterday that Bill was dead. Shocked, numbed, saddened…gutted. I couldn’t believe my great mate, and ’soul brother’ had left us.
Any suggestions over the past 24 hours that Bill was stressed out, or depressed by the authoritarians at the state funded thought police of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) weren’t reflected by our chats and emails.

Bill was always up for a fight, in fact he revelled in a good stoush.

He’d tell me, “I’ve been used to fighting since I was at school. I was that scrawny, skinny kid with long curly hair who was more into art, music and reading than sport (although he loved his cricket and Aussie Rules). That always guaranteed I copped a regular, right royal flogging. But I made sure I made it worth their while.”

Fast forward 50 years and that fighting spirit stood Bill Leak in good stead when up against the torch burning, anti-social lynch mob, calling for his sacking for doing his job, while fighting a rear guard action from the state funded ‘goon squad at the Ministry of Truth’.

Bill didn’t do social media.

“I’m not a Tweety Bird or a Facer, so I don’t know, nor care, who’s feigning outrage at my latest cartoon They’re entitled to be outraged by my cartoons and I don’t plan on disappointing them anytime soon.”

Each evening, pre-publication Bill and I exchanged cartoons before they appeared in the following day’s paper.

Bill always prefaced his cartoon attachment with the most hilarious, unprintable, anti PC descriptions of the cartoon topic, so often funnier than the cartoon. It was a double bonus of Bleak for me. I wish I’d kept the emails. They’re worthy of a book. Sealed, behind the counter, of course.

Bill always responded to my cartoons full of ebullient generosity. Bill also had a way with words.

This past week:


That is fucking GOLD, Paul!

Just. So. Fucking. FUNNY!!!

Cheers mate,



It's a big call and I know it's a bit early, Paul, but THAT is the best cartoon of 2017. Hands fucking DOWN!

Brilliant, mate!




Fucking purler, Paul! And fucking BEEEAAUUTIFUL caricatures!!

You're an inspiration, mate.



His unselfish praise of others in his inimitable way, was legendary among those who knew him well.

So was his humility.

Despite his freakish, jaw dropping, awe-inspiring talents as a portrait artist, caricaturist, cartoonist, writer, raconteur and anything else he put his mind to, despite all the awards, the fans, the admiration and the praise, Bill the egalitarian never considered himself better than anyone else.

Reading through all the online tributes to Bill yesterday, one in particular summed Bill up - by a reader of The Australian, someone who didn’t know Bill, but happened to be standing beside him at a book signing in Sydney.

Bill was a prolific reader, which was the reason he was up at 4:00AM. He regularly fired off early morning links to his favourite pieces from The Australian, The Spectator, Quadrant, Steyn Online and Spiked Online.

Two of his favourite writers amongst a few dozen or so were Brendan O’Neill in the UK and Mark Steyn in Canada, who of course, mutually were fans of Bill from afar.

Libertarian, Steyn, was recently in Sydney to flog his latest book, so Bill hopped down from the Central Coast to get some signed copies, standing in the aforementioned line beside another Steyn fan from WA.

When the Sandgroper realised he was standing next to Bill Leak, he struck up a conversation about two legendary West Aussie cartoonists, Paul Rigby and Dean Alston, who happened to be friends of the man’s father.

Bill and the Sandgroper chatted until they got to the front of the queue whereupon the Sandgroper announced to Mark Steyn, “I'm in the queue with Bill Leak.”

“What are you doing in the queue, Bill?” Steyn asked. “You could have come straight to the front."

“No, that’s not how it’s done in Australia, mate.” replied Bill.

That was Bill Leak to a tee, and gives a glimpse into why he related, and was so in tune, to so many Australians.

One night last August 3rd an email plopped into my inbox, on cue.

I took one look at the cartoon and fired back to Bill, “Brilliant, mate! That’ll get the Twitter storm fired up for tomorrow!”

It was a poignant cartoon laced with the sort of hard biting truth that often offends the perpetually faux-outraged snowflakes of Twitter.

Neither of us had foreseen that within 24 hours Bill would be labelled Australia’s number one racist.

That one cartoon would consume his life over the next few months, making Bill Leak a household name, for better or worse, irrespective of his readership.

The cartoon depicted an aboriginal policeman handing a barefoot aboriginal teenager over to his father, holding a can of beer. The policeman is saying, “You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility.”

The deadbeat dad replies, “Yeah, righto. What’s his name then?”

The next morning Bill’s name was trending on Twitter. I texted him.

He wasn’t tuned into social media, seeing no point in reading or responding to mouth-frothing sewer trolls.

Bill often took a morning break to walk his dog, tuning out of all news, while taking a few calls.

By late morning, Bill’s cartoon was mainstream headline news.

Understandably, he was perplexed and bewildered that anybody could be so utterly idiotic, to either unwittingly or mischievously misinterpret the cartoon’s message which, to a sane, intelligent reader perfectly highlighted the tragic plight of aboriginal kids in remote, dysfunctional communities.

The now discredited Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, (or Timmy Southpossum, in Bill’s emails) was quick off the blocks, soliciting online for business through his social media account, inciting complaints to his office.

The shit hit the fan when the lynch mob mindlessly followed a call to arms to vilify Bill, generating over 700 complaints to the Press Council (none upheld).

Bill responded with an unnecessary explanatory opinion piece, then took a long, pre-planned 5 week leave in Los Angeles to spend time with his muso son, Jasper.

Awaiting him at home was a demand from the AHRC for Bill to explain himself. A complaint had been lodged by a white woman living in Germany who apparently identified as a drunk and dysfunctional black man.

Despite the absurdity of the complainant’s faux-connection to the cartoon, the AHRC took the complaint seriously. Any clear thinking commission officer - or president - would have laughed it off.

Bill read the complaint out to me. My immediate reply was, “Mate! That’s fantastic!”

Naturally, Bill didn’t see the good news.

I explained myself. “Bill, you’ve just become the front line warrior for free speech in Australia. This single complaint is so outrageous it will bring 18C to the forefront of national debate. You don’t have to do anything, mate. The Oz will look after you, your journo mates will defend your right to free speech. Larry, me and every other cartoonist will come out fighting for you (I kind of overestimated that ‘every other cartoonist’ bit).”

Bill took heart from our unwavering support (I’ve been told by mutual friends) but his fighting spirit was already primed, ready to be unleashed.

On a personal and professional level I’d been through the AHRC wringers seven years prior, for precisely the same reason - drawing a cartoon highlighting the abuse of aboriginal kids in their own remote communities.

The complainant in my case? A white activist described as a ‘serial pest’, who’d figured out the monetary opportunities of milking Section 18C.

In my case, the newspaper handled the complaint in-house. In Bill’s case, News Corp came out with all guns blazing.

Bill bunkered in for a bare knuckle fight.

“Mate, use your pen,” I suggested. “It’s your greatest weapon. It’s all you need, and it’s a tool they don’t have. Fight back and fight hard. We’ll back you to the hilt and let the lawyers do the rest of the work.”

Over the next few months, Bill produced some of the most cutting, devastating cartoons of Race Discrimination Commissioner, ‘Timmy Southpossum’, and Gillian Triggs, president of the AHRC, who would go on to tie herself up in knots over the complaint.

The Bill Leak case and the QUT case became the catalysts for the recent parliamentary inquiry into free speech in Australia. Both Bill and I were invited to appear as witnesses, which we did.

Mealy mouthed, weak politicians have chosen to not act.

Yesterday, Malcolm Turnbull posted an online tribute.

I can’t believe that Bill Leak is dead.

Who had more life, more energy than him? So many more cartoons to draw, paintings to paint, politicians to satirise - so many more lives to enhance with his wit, his brilliance, his good friendship.

Lucy and I first met Bill more than thirty years ago - he would have been thirty and I was thirty two.

Bill was doing the courtroom illustrations for the Spycatcher trial for one of the British television networks.

We were young, filled with mischief and confidence and delighted to shake up the British establishment.

And right through his far too short life Bill was always a good humoured sceptic of anybody and anything in authority; he was a superb satirist.

He was a great friend of Lucy’s equally mischievous uncle Robert Hughes. Bob had started his career drawing cartoons, and was still pretty good, but he knew Bill was the master of political cartooning.

And a fine painter as well, especially of portraits. His portrait of Bob Hughes brought the darkness of Goya into a bleak, almost menacing image of Bob in his last years, almost broken but not beaten, glaring defiantly into an uncertain future.

In the early 90s Bill asked to do a portrait of me he wanted to enter in the Archibald and at the same time he was simultaneously painting the official portraits of Governor General Bill Hayden and Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

Bill’s account of their comments on the other’s developing portrait was hilarious - each encouraging Bill to touch up their old rival’s painting to make it a little less flattering.

Yes, art is long and life is short, but it shouldn’t be this short. Bill should have grown old and even more wiry, like Norman Lindsay, and kept painting into his 80s and beyond as Lloyd Rees did and John Olsen is doing today.

Our love and prayers are with Bill’s family at this tough time.


During the time Bill was the subject of the Section 18C ordeal (prior to the dropping of complaints), and with The Australian in full defence and offence mode, I got a call one Sunday afternoon from Bill.

“Mate, Truffles has just called me. As you know, we haven’t spoken for years. What do you make of that?” (Truffles was Bill’s affectionate reference to Malcolm).

My own reading was that Turnbull was signalling an 18C white flag, letting Bill know he had his support. I thought it could be good news and the war might have been over.

So I asked Bill, “Did he bring up 18C?”

“No, not at all.” He replied. “He simply said hello, it’s Malcolm and that he was sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon, thought of Bill and decided to give him a call.”

I asked what they talked about, “Everything and anything - but not 18C.”

“Odd,” I said. “Maybe he’s just sending signals. Bloody hell, why can’t the bastard just come out and get to the point instead of dilly dallying?”

A short while later, Bill said Truffles called again. Seemingly, Turnbull was feeling the heat over 18C and wanted Bill onside.

Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, Turnbull has let Bill down.

A week or more ago, after the 18C Free Speech parliamentary inquiry report was handed down, with no recommendation to either repeal or amend Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Bill and I felt the whole fight had been in vain.

By his weakness Turnbull has contributed to Bill Leak’s angst and suffering. Turnbull’s words of condolence are the words of a weasel.

This tweet yesterday says it far better than I have done:

The only way for Turnbull to redeem himself is to stand up like a man, try to be at least half the fighter that Bill Leak was, show some guts and leadership and repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The amended Act, should be nick named ‘Leak’s Law.’

That’s the least he could do to remember the great Bill Leak. And to hell with the faux-offence seeking bed wetters.

Are you man enough, Truffles?

 PS: Bill, don't worry mate. This fight ain't over.