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'It's up to him' - Cartoon Interpretation

Cartoon by Samuel Wells published in the Melbourne Herald, 23 January 1945

Click on the cartoon below to see a larger image.

'It's up to him' cartoon by Wells


Before you try the guided interpretation activities, here's some useful contextual information that will help you understand the situation in Australia in early 1945, both on the home front and with regard to the war effort. There's also some background about the cartoonist and the publisher of the newspaper that carried the cartoon.

The homefront

  • In 1942 John Curtin set up the Department of Post War Reconstruction (PWR) with the aim of: avoiding the economic dislocation associated with the end of the previous war; helping to create international financial structures that would prevent the devastating economic chaos of events like the Great Depression; and ensuring full employment.
  • An important objective of the PWR was the improvement of welfare provisions for needy Australians such as the unemployed, disabled and widowed.
  • In the 1943 election the Curtin Labor government won a huge majority. Curtin said his government would not use its power to force the socialisation of industry during the war. The government felt, however, that it needed greater powers for the period of post war reconstruction.
  • In 1942, the government failed persuade the states to voluntarily transfer the specified powers it wanted for the duration of the war and five years afterwards.
  • The Fourteen Powers referendum in 1944 also failed to give the Commonwealth the powers it sought over banking, employment, trade and commerce.
  • Curtin was overseas in the lead up to the referendum and also had a heart attack in late 1944 resulting in his hospitalisation for 2 months. When he returned to work in January 1945 cabinet had put up a proposal to legislate for Commonwealth control of aviation.
  • Curtin was criticised for supporting the aviation proposal which many conservative members of parliament and the media saw as quasi socialism. The media believed that public opinion had sanctioned the controls necessary to run the economy in wartime but thought that the government should get right out of industry in peacetime.

The war effort

  • As a result of the success of the Allied landing at Normandy, the Germans were now being steadily pushed back towards Berlin.
  • By early 1945 the front in the Pacific war had moved well north of Australia, the Americans had re-occupied the Philippines and were steadily pushing the Japanese back to their homeland.

The Cartoonist: Samuel Garnet Wells, born Victoria 1885, died Victoria 1964
Wells joined the staff of Melbourne Punch after World War One and later he worked for the Melbourne Herald drawing sporting cartoons. In about 1923 he put out a
book of cartoons based on his work at the Herald called Wells Cartoons. In the
early 1930s he was involved in the drawing of the Ben Bowyang comic. Wells left the Herald in 1933 to work in England on the Daily Dispatch in Manchester but returned to the Herald in 1939 to take on the job of principal political cartoonist, a position he held until 1950. Wells then took a job drawing sporting cartoons for The Age. He died in 1964. He also had cartoons published in the Newcastle Herald.
Information courtesy Lindsay Foyle, Australian Cartoonists' Association

The Publisher: The Melbourne Herald was a conservative newspaper owned by Keith Murdoch. Murdoch helped get the United Australia Party (UAP) under way and supported Joseph Lyons' election to the leadership of the party and the country in 1931. The Lyons Government recommended Murdoch’s knighthood in 1933. Murdoch was close enough to Lyons to offer him advice on the makeup of his cabinet in 1934 but fell out with him later over radio licensing. When Robert Menzies took over the leadership of the UAP in 1939, Murdoch gave him his support. Menzies appointed Sir Keith Murdoch to oversee wartime censorship. Curtin was very critical of Murdoch in this post accusing him of trying to make himself editor-in-chief of every newspaper in Australia through his suggestion for changes to the National Security Regulations.

Interpretation Activity 1

What information can you glean just from this introductory context?

  • For example, do you think the Melbourne Herald supported the Curtin Government?
  • Was the Curtin Government having an easy time running the war effort and were they receiving unqualified support from the Australian people on matters affecting the home front?

Interpretation Activity 2

Focus on train tracks
  train (including ‘Australia’)
  • What does the train represent?
  • What does the divided track represent?
  • Describe the position of the tunnel. What could this mean? Hint
  • Describe the location of the tracks in relation to the large rock on the left. Answer

Interpretation Activity 3

Focus on signal
  signal box
  the man in the signal box
  • What is the purpose of a signal box?
  • What does the signal box represent? How does the labelling help?
  • Who is in the signal box? Answer
  • Describe what is he doing? Answer
  • What do you think he is thinking about? Hint
  • How does the contextual information help you to work out what the Prime Minister is thinking about? Hint

Interpretation Activity 4

Focus on tunnel signage 'nationalisation'
  sign post 'political disunity'
  sign post 'united war effort'
  • How does your knowledge of beliefs of the Australian Labor Party help you to understand the cartoonist purpose in writing ‘nationalisation’ on the tunnel at the end of the left hand track? Hint
  • Why is the track leading to the tunnel labelled ‘political disunity’ and the track to the right labelled 'United War Effort'? Hint

Interpretation Activity 5

Focus on caption 'It's up to him'
  • What is the cartoonist's attitude towards nationalisation (or socialisation of industry)? Answer
  • How is nationalisation different from the provision of social policies such as widows’ pensions? Hint
  • What is the cartoonist’s attitude to the Prime Minister? Hint
  • What is the purpose of the cartoon? (Is it the sort of cartoon that you laugh at?) Hint