Protesters accusing Bill Leak of racism interrupted a Q&A panel discussing whether “celebrations” on social media at the cartoonist’s death last Friday reflected a loss of civility in political debate.
The interjections came as panellists, including some whom knew Leak personally, sought to distinguish respect for him and admiration for his earlier work from disapproval for some of his contentious later cartoons.
Kim Williams, the author and former chief executive of News Corp Australia, which published Leak’s work in the Australian, was defending the cartoonist as someone who would not set out to provoke outrage when a group of audience members, largely inaudible and unseen to TV viewers, shouted condemnation and produced a sign.
The host, Tom Ballard, said he appreciated the group’s “passion” and desire to “take a stand at this particular moment”, then asked them to leave.
Ursula Yovich, the Indigenous actor and cabaret singer, said she believed in free speech but was “mortified” at Leak’s cartoon depicting Indigenous parental complicity in juvenile criminal offending through neglect.
She said those who had a platform such as Leak had a responsibility to make amends to Aboriginal people hurt by stereotypes and whose “history is one of oppression and constant racism”.
Yovich cited her own mental health struggles and grappling with being overwhelmed by immersion in traumatising stories for Indigenous Australia as an actor. This included nearly abandoning her role in the play The Secret River because of its confronting material about a massacre at the Hawkesbury river, before being reassured by the director, Neil Armfield.
Armfield, also on the panel, said he knew Leak and enjoyed his company and respected him, but thought “those cartoons in the Australian were despicable”.
He said as Leak grew older his views had narrowed and played into the “attitude of the racist and powerful and that he was ignoring the inheritance of rage and pain that those social situations he was excoriating in his cartoons were the result of”.
“I certainly don’t celebrate Bill’s death,” Armfield said, adding he was unaware of the “echo chamber” of social media but concerned about a toxic level of public debate driven by people who “like the sound of their own voice and the sound of their own anger”.
The author MemFox said she “loved Bill Leak’s cartoons” but thought “Bill, Bill, no, please, no” on seeing the Indigenous father cartoon.
“There is another word for political correctness,” she said. “And it is a simple word. It’s called politeness.” Fox said she found it “very odd we live in a democracy where people fight for the right to be insulting”.
“Why would people want to be insulting and offensive? What is good in that?” she said. “What good did hate ever do anybody? I mean, what country did hate make an improvement in? No country in the world has been improved by hate.”
Martha Wainwright, the Canadian singer songwriter, said she didn’t think Leak “would’ve gotten away with it in Canada” and there was “something going on in this country where you’re a little far behind”.
Wainwright said in North America where there were “some parallel histories … those kind of drawings and satires were kind of given up a while ago”.
“It’s because you get to a certain point where things are, you know, you make a decision as a society to sort of rise above those kinds of depictions … and I think ... you’ll get there soon.”
A disconnect between the worldviews of many in the arts and the sentiments of those championing the rise of populist politics globally was a recurring topic on Monday’s show.
The panel seemed to agree art could be central to bridging divisions in increasingly polarised societies, but also that the life of Donald Trump would be a failure as a musical.
Fox recounted her humiliation and fear while being “interrogated” last month by an “absolutely terrifying” and “insolent” US border official given “turbocharged power” under the president’s immigration crackdowns.
Fox, who was on her 117th visit to the country to speak at a conference, said on Monday she was unlikely to return. She later said she “just can’t understand” those who would express their political disaffection by supporting Trump or Pauline Hanson.
When a questioner asked about a future musical about Trump as president, Williams said it would be “a great big flop”.
“It’ll be a stinker, a one-night wonder.”
Armfield, who directed a musical about the former Australian prime minister Paul Keating 10 years ago, said: “Trump the musical would not work.” Any successful musical needed a hero that the audience can “love for one reason or another, for all their flaws”.
Trump’s “horrific beginning as US president” happened to target Muslims as part of a political swing across the world “based on fear where there is an absolute targeting of difference and the other”, Armfield said.
“The flag has been waving in Australia and waving for some time”, he said, referring to hardline border protection and immigration policies.
“The xenophobic terror of people in this country is equally disturbing and the kind of energy with which both parties have supported these inhuman decisions in our name gives me great shame as an Australian.”
Williams spoke passionately about public investment in the arts, blasting the vacuum in Coalition federal campaign policyunacceptable and previous rightwing thinktank proposals to cut funding to both the arts and sport as “boneheaded and stupid”.
The arts were “absolutely at the heartland of a nation’s sense of self-confidence”, its view of itself and sense of history, Williams said.
“In some ways, seeing this as entirely about commerce reflects the most dangerous thing in modern life,” he said, which was seeing “money as the measure of all things”.