Cartoonist's role is to be pithy and to provoke

Al Nisbet's cartoon published in the Marlborough Express on May 29.
Al Nisbet's cartoon published in the Marlborough Express on May 29.
Al Nisbet's cartoon published in The Press on May 30.
Al Nisbet's cartoon published in The Press on May 30.

Cartoonist Al Nisbet proved this week that a picture is worth at least a thousand words and, for this columnist, provided the inspiration to produce at least 750 of them.

The cartoon in question showed four adults, two of whom were overweight and brown-skinned, dressed in school uniform, taking advantage of the just-announced free-school-breakfast policy.

The speech bubble coming from one of the brown-skinned scammers is "if we can get away with this, the more cash left for booze, smokes and pokies".

Now, whether or not the cartoon is funny is somewhat beside the point because the brief for an editorial newspaper cartoon is to be pithy and provoke thought, emotion (ranging from outrage to sympathy) and response from readers. Humour may often be the means to achieve those ends but it is not compulsory.

On most of those criteria Nisbet's offering has delivered in spades and the subsequent controversy has proved his work to be timely and relevant.

Whether you feel it was outrageous, accurate, insensitive, racist or hilarious is entirely a matter for your sensibilities.

The debate that has enveloped the twittersphere, cyberspace, talkback and television suggests opinion on the merits and message of the cartoon is diverse and strongly held.

In truth, Nisbet's work does little more than reflect attitudes and prejudices that are widely held by a fairly large number of New Zealanders - that most kids being sent to school without breakfast in low-decile schools have parents who are Maori or Polynesian and don't buy their offspring food because they spend their money on alcohol, gambling and cigarettes.

The logical development of that viewpoint is that the food-in-schools programme will simply make it easier for such people to rort the welfare system and continue their sponging lifestyles so we shouldn't feed the thousands of kids who turn up each morning too hungry to learn.

Now like it or not, that is what some people think. It may not be politically correct or in accordance with the principles of the Treaty or what you would say in polite company at a dinner party in Kelburn but at least Nisbet's cartoon tells it like many people think it is.

Which is why you might find it a little curious that our newly appointed Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy broke cover and swung her racket at Nisbet and his cartoon.

She said it was insensitive and appalling but not racist or illegal.

Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell has called for a law change to make drawing and publishing cartoons that offend some people illegal.

Now I would say that was a silly idea if the current government didn't have a nasty habit of making just those kinds of law changes.

When oil companies got windy about environmental activists they created new (and potentially unenforceable) offences for protesting at sea; when families who care for disabled kin wanted to get some money for doing so, they removed their right to sue the government; and when our spooks are caught illegally spying, they go the other way and change the law to make it legal.

To stop satirists and cartoonists like Nisbet telling it like it is would be madness, even crazier than paying a former squash champion and mother of two $270,000 a year to tell us that free speech can sometimes be insensitive and uncomfortable.

Sure, Nisbet erred if he was suggesting in his cartoon that every kid who gets fed breakfast at school is Polynesian or Maori and has dropkick parents, but he sparked a debate that shows many of us do actually believe that simplistic, racist and stereotyped falsehood.

If Dame Susan and the chattering classes don't like that then I suggest they come up with a better way of changing the hearts and minds of those New Zealanders rather than calling them racists, rednecks and bigots.

Driving such attitudes underground will ensure they survive and thrive.

The Dominion Post