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'It's up to him' - Cartoon Interpretation: Teachers' Resource

This is a step by step resource for classroom teachers to use with senior school students, based on the concept of 'chunking' as a method of intepreting cartoons. Teachers should familiarise themselves with the 'chunking' process which is fully explained in the freely downloadable JCPML publication Cartoon PD in a Package before using this cartoon activity in the classroom.

Note: Student responses to the questions will vary according to their understanding of the symbols and captions in the cartoon. Due acknowledgement should be given to a range of answers where valid explanations, logically explained and justified are given.

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

Click on the cartoon below for a larger image to use with your class. Use the 'landscape' option when printing the cartoon.

'It's up to him' cartoon by Wells


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.

Copy 1

Highlight Name of cartoonist
  Date of publication

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

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.

  • Ask students about the information they can glean just from the introductory information, especially for questions about CONTEXT.

Copy 2

Highlight 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?
    (The tunnel is drawn in the distance. Things come to mind like 'the light at the end of the tunnel' or 'Is there light at the end of the tunnel?' Tunnels are dark scary places.)
  • Describe the location of the tracks in relation to the large rock on the left.
    (The tracks have to go around this obstacle – they can’t go over it or under it – it's in the way – like a difficult decision.)

Copy 3

Highlight 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?
    (Prime Minister John Curtin)
  • Describe what is he doing?
    (He appears to be thinking as he has his hand on his chin. He has a hand on the signal equipment ready to give a signal to the train.)
  • What do you think he is thinking about?
    (He has to make an important decision about which way to send the train [Australia] – he can take two tracks (two choices) and he is not sure which way to go.)
  • How does the contextual information help you to work out what the Prime Minister is thinking about?
    (The contextual information tells you that the federal government had been trying to widen its powers to deal with the period of post war reconstruction (the extensive wartime powers will end with the conclusion of the war). A request to states to refer the necessary powers to the federal government for five years after the war had been refused. None of the states wanted to give up any of their powers. The Fourteen powers referendum of 1944 received a ‘no’ vote from the people. Now the government was trying a new tack by putting forward legislation to allow it to take control of aviation in the post war period. The cartoon is set against the background that the Australian people had clearly shown they opposed government control (socialisation/nationalisation) of industry. So Curtin is probably weighing up the relative risks and benefits of the routes he must choose between.)

Copy 4

Highlight nationalisation
  political disunity
  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?
    (The Labor Party began as a working man’s party and is described as left wing. Left wing parties support more government control of industry, more interference in the economy and more welfare measures than do most right wing or conservative parties. Nationalisation of industry is a left wing or socialist policy.)
  • Why is the track leading to the tunnel labelled ‘political disunity’ and the track to the right labelled 'United War Effort'?
    (The cartoonist is suggesting that to take the left track is to head towards socialism and therefore nationalisation of industry. The ALP and the conservative parties have worked well together to carry out the war effort but if Labor takes the left hand track, the cartoonist believes it will adversely affect the war effort.)

Copy 5

Highlight caption 'It's up to him'
  • What is the cartoonist's attitude towards nationalisation (or socialisation of industry)?
    (The cartoonist is against nationalisation.)
  • How is nationalisation different from the provision of social policies such as widows’ pensions?
    (Nationalisation implies that the government is going to take over and run industry rather than leave it up to private enterprise. (Government control of industry during wartime was acceptable to most Australians because of the particular circumstances of the war.) Providing social services such as widows’ pensions was a way of looking after the needy in the community. This was acceptable to the community in both war and peace in a way that government control of industry in peacetime was not.)
  • What is the cartoonist’s attitude to the Prime Minister?
    (The cartoonist portrays Curtin as looking harried and indecisive. The cartoonist clearly believes that the prime minister should take Australia down the path of unity and maintaining a strong war effort, living up to his 1943 promise to not socialise industry.)
  • What is the purpose of the cartoon? (Is it the sort of cartoon that you laugh at?)
    (This political cartoon raises people’s awareness about a topical issue - the possible socialisation of industry, and more specifically government control over aviation. Drawing the prime minister as a procrastinating signalman is a humorous way to present a complex and potentially divisive issue.)

At the completion of this process, you may wish students to answer written questions on the cartoon which you can tailor to reflect the teaching points you wish them to cover.