Thursday, April 26, 2018 

FRED PAWLE                     

Humour makes our culture and politics more resilient, and gives a PM an out when he goes skinny-dipping overseas 

Harold Holt was able to laugh and cool off at the same time

The world is officially losing its sense of humour. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Tim Soutphommasane solicits complaints about a cartoon. A Scottish comedian is convicted and heavily fined for teaching his girlfriend’s dog to do a Nazi salute. Actor Hank Azaria apologises for the supposedly politically incorrect character of Apu in The Simpsons. British comedian Matt Lucas says in hindsight it was “extremely insensitive” to dress as a transvestite in Little Britain.

Closer to home, Anzac Day is boorishly trashed by Catherine Deveny, who describes herself as a "comedian". And the ABC routinely confuses juvenile abuse for risque comedy.

The consequences of this will be dire. One doesn't need to be Shirlock Holmes to observe that humourless societies are also miserably totalitarian.


Australians' instinct to resort to ridicule was never more apparent than during our most serious constitutional crisis, the sacking of the Whitlam government in November 1975, which was crashed by comedian Norman Gunston.

“It’s a bit too serious for that,” federal Labor president Bob Hawke says as Gunston approaches with a microphone on the steps of Old Parliament House. “It certainly is, I agree,” Gunston replies. Nevertheless, Gunston is able to later sidle alongside

deposed prime minister Whitlam, who looks ironically triumphant, and burst the dramatic bubble with his naive reporter routine. There are two ways to look at this: either Australia was so stable that even a constitutional crisis was still funny, or that a nation that can laugh at its own flaws will never degenerate into self-destructive acrimony. Either way, humour was an important part of our civilised response. 



Another historically ridiculous moment that has been mostly forgotten involves prime minister Harold Holt facing the media in Sydney on June 22, 1967, after returning from a major international trip. The journalists were keen to raise some serious foreign policy matters, such as: did the US expect Australia to increase its troop commitment to Vietnam, should Australia accept refugees from the Six Day War in the Middle East, was the US going to raise tariffs on Aussie wool, and… did you really lose your bathers in the US President’s pool?

The prime minister confirmed he had indeed had an accidental skinny-dip while on official business. It was early in the visit, and his luggage had not yet arrived. He had “wistfully” told President Johnson he would like to take a dip, so the President offered to lend him a pair of trunks. They did not fit well. Holt diplomatically added: “What would sit sit quite gracefully on his figure was a little ample for me.”

The trunks dislodged as soon as he hit the water. But no harm was done. “I was managing to keep underwater and I was able to restore the situation without too much embarrassment.” At a subsequent dinner in Honolulu, the American Australian Association presented Holt with a tiny pair of new trunks. “I’m hoping they will fit the grandson,” he said.

Politicians are far more carefully managed these days. Even if one were to accidentally skinny-dip in a foreign leader's pool, much effort would be spent trying to hide it from the public. This is a shame. The image of politicians could use a light touch these days.


The right to be offended is usurping the right to laugh. Our culture and our politics will be less resilient if we don't reverse this uncivilised trend. Join our panel - columnist Tim Blair, Liberal MP Craig Kelly and Sky News regular Gemma Tognini - as we argue for the restoration of robust humour in our times. Our leaders have nothing to fear. As legendary American journalist HL Mencken said, "The final test of truth is ridicule. Very few dogmas have ever faced it and survived."


Comedian Norman Gunston crashes the constitutional crisis in 1975.


Cnr Blackall & Macquarie Streets

Barton, ACT, 2600 


T: (02) 6273 5608

  • Twitter Social Icon
  • Facebook Social Icon
  • LinkedIn Social Icon
  • Vimeo Social Icon

2019 by Menzies Research Centre