Satirising the Australian City: Bruce Petty

Bruce Petty was awarded the gong for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Journalism’ at the annual Australian Walkley journalism awards this evening. I first came across Petty as part of my research into Australian urban history. From the 1960s onwards, his political satire appeared across various periodicals including the Bulletin magazine, the Australian and the Age newspapers.

Cover of Petty's Australia Fair, 1967 (Melbourne: Cheshire)
Cover of Petty’s Australia Fair, 1967 (Melbourne: Cheshire)

In the archives, coming across a Petty cartoon always lifted my mood because of his sharpness. One of my favourite 1960s urban sources is Petty’s Australia Fair (1967), because of its vision for the Australian city.

In the 2008 volume Comic commentators: contemporary political cartooning in Australia (ed. Robert Phiddian & Haydon Manning)Petty is elevated above his peers. In his chapter on Petty (and Patrick Cook), Mark Thomas identifies Petty as a ‘humanist’. Petty described his task as ‘add[ing] to the sensitivity of the community’, whilst being motivated by ‘the sort of notion of a more just society’. For Thomas, Petty helped crystallise political thought in poignant ways by toying with the pre-conceived notions of his audience.

Petty and cities

Cover of 'Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme 1954', Victorian State Government.
Cover of ‘Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme 1954’, Victorian State Government.

Petty’s takes on Australian urban life have been consistently entertaining and especially witty. He also possesses a strong historical consciousness, which makes his cartoons a pleasure for the historian to examine.

Let’s for a moment look at Petty’s early years. Born in comfortable suburban Doncaster, Melbourne in 1929, Petty came to prominence towards the end of the sixteen year ‘Menzies Era’. Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ conservatism defined post-war Australia.

When it came to cities, Menzies’ Liberal governments had only a modest interest: pursuing policies to remedy post-war boom housing shortages as well as prioritising road funding (like recent Australian governments). But, this was the era of the comprehensive metropolitan plan. In the optimism of the moment, every Australian capital city had such a plan drawn up. Urban planning was sexy, and freeways and suburbs (with cul-de-sacs) were in vogue.

1967: Petty’s Australia Fair

That cities were on the agenda was reflected in Petty’s Australia FairThis entertaining coffee table book, a brilliant yet irreverent cartoonish take on Australian society, arrived on Australian bookshelves the year after Menzies retired in 1967. Australia Fair placed a strong emphasis on the Australian city and its history.

A page on urban planning from Australia Fair.
Urban planning in Petty’s Australia Fair.

In this urban planning sketch, Petty reflects on the exaggerated claims made by Australian suburban developers in the late ninteenth century, such as during the ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ boom. This commercial boosterism resonated during the post-war era, when the suburbs were again expanding exponentially, with a fair share of questionable construction firms.

Petty subsequently turns to each Australian city. Well, sort of. Tasmania merges Hobart and Launceston into one agglomeration. There is no Brisbane, only Queensland, suggesting that state’s strong regionalism. Repeating an oft-made satirical critique, Canberra is called an ‘Australian suburb’, rather than a city.

Petty brought a particular ‘Melbourne’ sensibility to this subject; urban Australia. For Melbourne, he teases the city’s veneration of its past (‘we strive for yesterday’). Sydney is presented as a kitsch urban theme park of neon and spectacle. Royalist Adelaide includes a picture of the young Queen Elizabeth.

There’s so much going on in Australia Fair, in its urban sketches and beyond, that I can hardly do them justice in this (lunchtime) blog post. Just enjoy these amazing city cartoons.

The Australian city in 1967

The city was certainly on the agenda in 1960s Australia. In 1965, the Urban Research Unit was established at ANU. By 1969, Gough Whitlam was formulating Labor’s urban platform, leading to the 1972 appointment of Tom Uren as a ‘Minister for Cities’. The Resident Action Groups were forming in Australia’s inner-suburbs (some of the earliest dated to the 1950s). While Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) may have furthered the ‘bush myth’ that Australian sensibilities were inherently non-urban, people like Petty contributed valuable nuance into such discussions. He satirised past and present urban (and non-urban) Australia.

Petty ends Australia Fair on an optimistic note: ‘there remains a good-humoured, lean-jawed optimism [in Australia] in spite of the occassional isolated cry of panic’. He then adds, with urban resonances, this is ‘an amazingly special place for ordinary people’. Not only is Petty’s critique of post-war Australia brilliant, his words and images still reverberate.

Appendix: The Public City

Thanks to @places_calling twitter-icon-15x15, who alerted me to this Petty cartoon on The Public City: Essays in Honour of Paul Mees. This is a brilliant selection of essays, dating from 2014, and a fitting way to open them (and close this blog post).


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