Al Nisbet and his editors have every right to argue 'freedom of the press', but that doesn't make them good cartoons... And the politics behind 'food in schools'
A picture is worth a thousands words, they say. Why? Because an image can convey truth in an instant. But a picture can also distort, like those fairground mirrors, and we've seen more of the latter in the Al Nisbet cartoons about the government's 'food in schools' programme.
Having viewed just the one running on the Stuff website (here), I can say I don't think it funny or insightful. Like Susan Devoy, I find it distasteful. I struggle with the word offensive, however, because cartoonists are supposed to get under our skins and use visual hyperbole to tell a truth.
Heck, cartoonists, like good columnists and sketch writers should sometimes offend – our sensibilities, our prejudices and even our ethics. The pen is said to be mightier than the sword because it can up-end us with an idea so powerful it can change our view of the world, or even change the world itself.
So Nisbet has every right to push the boundaries of taste and convention and I don't think it reaches the bar of being officially racist. To make the point he wanted to make he had to make the people one ethnicity or another. Would it have been racist to cast his cartoon with al Pakeha faces?
That question nibbles at the edge of why, while I defend Nisbet's right to draw these cartoons, I think them poor examples of the craft.
The caricature is indolent and the 'truth' he's trying to illuminate just doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Worst of all, rather than using his craft to challenge power and lazy assumptions, he's reinforced them and picked on the powerless and vulnerable, who are often an ethnic minority.
That makes him, in this case, the cartooning equivalent of the school-yard bully. In short, not his best work.
Of course it's important to add 'never say never'. I'm sure there are times when even the powerless deserve some ridicule, as we all do. And that's not to say he's not a fine cartoonist much of the time. But I can't see how this one passes the test. So he should really just say that he erred. That happens to us all.
Instead, Nisbet has said he makes no apologies because the cartoon is aimed at "bludgers".
"I'm not talking about the average poverty people. I'm talking about the ones who say they're poverty stricken, but they're on welfare getting handouts - they have their tv and they have their fancy cellphones and they have their alcohol and they have their pokies and they have their smokes."
And that paragraph shows a complete lack of understanding of poverty, of addictions and of getting by in the small, small world poverty creates. Of course parents should buy food before they buy a phone or a packet of cigarettes. But without a phone how do they phone the doctor or the school or keep in touch with their child? Do we blame the tobacco addict? And even if we expect more of them, is there no pity for the a small pleasure in a stressed out life? In short, it's just not that simple.
What's great about the 'food in schools' programme is that it doesn't judge. Sure, many parents should be doing better. But feeding the kids is about meeting need without trying to somehow draw a line between the deserving and undeserving poor.
But what bugs me most about the cartoons is that they perpetuate a lazy stereotype – "the bludger". As I wrote a few years ago, the number of "bludgers" in this country is a tiny proportion of the welfare-receiving population. Most people without work are back in work in a matter of months. Most beneficiaries are getting the DPB or sickness benefit to help raise their kids or endure some cursed bad luck. Maybe they lost their job during the global recession – y'know, the one that John Key keeps reminding us was the worst recession since the Great Depression when he's explaining why unemployment is still so high and the economy so sluggish. Or maybe they or their parents lost their jobs in the Rogernomics revolution when government departments laid off thousands. Or maybe they have mental illnesses that we're so poor at treating in this country.
But hey, why wrestle with that when you can just blame the poor for their own misfortune? Yep, that's what bugs me. These cartoons perpetuate the idea that anyone on a benefit is a rubbish parent and are just another example of the small poppy syndrome.
As for the 'food in schools' programme itself, it's an intriguing political move by National, and one that shows they think poverty is an opening for the Opposition. Ideologically, these programmes don't sit well with the centre-right. Like bailing out finance companies, it sends the signal that some people don't have to take responsibility for their own. (And as with bailing out finance companies, it's the right thing to do because it's better to solve the problem here and now than pass judgment and piously reap a bitter fruit).
All the whispers are that cabinet was split on this. Bill English held true to the ideology (which reminds you of the old English-Key split that's been so well managed. Remember when English dismissed Key for jumping from cloud to cloud?). Post-political Key, along with the poll-prince Steven Joyce, saw which way the wind was blowing and seized the opportunity.
For a while now John Key has been, rather defensively, saying that National does care about the poor. Really, really it does. Presumably the polls had been telling him that voters were starting to see National as heartless corporate-types, following the SkyCity and Warner deals and the like.
But actions speak louder than words, so Key, Joyce and seemingly a majority of the cabinet saw the chance to harness the food programmes to their benefit. For a mere pittance of $2 million a year, National could show just how much it cares about the poor. Take that, Hone. Its base will suck it up, or at worst a few here and there might bleed to ACT or the Conservatives, which is no bad thing for National anyway.
While ignoring the vast majority of the Children Commissioner's child poverty report, National has been able to pluck the simplest and cheapest of its recommendations and garner great publicity along the way. That's good politics, and given that it's better than nothing for our kids, I won't complain. Sometimes political calculation and the public good go hand-in-hand.
Now that's something Al Nisbet could try 'tooning about.