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.

Comments (16)

by Ross on May 31, 2013

To make the point he wanted to make he had to make the people one ethnicity or another

I can see people of different ethnicities in each cartoon. That makes it hard to jutify the tag of racist. I don't think it's Al Nisbet who's lazy. That would apply to those screaming the word racist without, it seems, actually looking at the cartoons.

But what bugs me most about the cartoons is that they perpetuate a lazy stereotype – "the bludger".

Maybe they do, or maybe you've taken the cartoons a little too literally. This Tom Scott cartoon made a similar point to Nibett's, but I don't recall any outrage. Of course, no Maoris were depicted which might explain that phenomenon.



by Andrew Geddis on May 31, 2013
Andrew Geddis


By pure coincidence, in both of the Nisbett cartoons the "character" who is gleefully chortling about how the food-in-schools programme will enable them to spend more on "booze, smokes and pokies" happens to be obese, dark skinned and with Maori/Polynesian features. By pure coincidence.

So if it looks like a duck, you'll forgive some of us for pointing at it and saying "there's a duck." If you happen to think it's just a sparrow ... well, then I guess that's your right, too.

And that Tom Scott cartoon is nothing like the same. It's poking the borax at Sue Bradford's take on the Government's proposal. So probably the reason that there wasn't any outrage is because the message it carried wasn't particularly outrageous.

by Richard Aston on May 31, 2013
Richard Aston

Its really unfortunate but these cartoons do represent the narrow opinions of quite a few people. I have read these opinions too many times on herald and facebook comments. I dispare sometimes especially when I rememeber these people have the vote.

Of course these opinions are woefully ill informed. Anyone working in the social services like I do knows this. Yes there are some who abuse the system at the lower end and hey plenty of others abusing it at the upper end.

This sort of potted opinion is usually left at the pub or lunch room and fair enough but when the media start regurgitating ill thought out opinions like these , or yellow peril etc it loses my respect and hey my respect for the media is already pretty low.

I guess it begs the question what is the media’s role, to reflect all opinions, attitudes and perceptions regardless ? Or to make some attempt at informing us of the issues, the context and the names. They is a fine line here somewhere.



by Tim Watkin on May 31, 2013
Tim Watkin

Ross, that cartoon is bagging someone in power, not the poor person trying to make ends meet. Which is really my point.

I admit I'm wary about using the racist word, but it's certainly stereotypical. 

by Tim Watkin on May 31, 2013
Tim Watkin

You're right Richard, it is a fine line. If journalism is the first draft of history, it does have to reflect society... to hold a mirror up to our values. But it also has to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and challenge power. That's one of the reasons media always seems to fail - because it's being asked to do too many things at once and you can always find a failure one way or the other. (ie too reflective and not challenging enough or too ranty and not measured etc).

by Ross on May 31, 2013

By pure coincidence, in both of the Nisbett cartoons the "character" who is gleefully chortling about how the food-in-schools programme will enable them to spend more on "booze, smokes and pokies" happens to be obese, dark skinned and with Maori/Polynesian features. By pure coincidence

So, if the pale skined characters were doing the talking, would you say that was racist?

by Fentex on May 31, 2013

if the pale skined characters were doing the talking, would you say that was racist?

But it wasn't, was it? Why aren't such things about 'pale skinned' characters?

These cartoons are racist exactly to the degree they aren't accurate - for the false belief they reflect is the prejudice invoked by the bigotry displayed.

by Andrew Geddis on May 31, 2013
Andrew Geddis

So, if the pale skined characters were doing the talking, would you say that was racist?

No. I wouldn't. In the same way as I wouldn't say a TV programme depicting a fictional PM of New Zealand as a Maori Woman is either racist or sexist. These things need to be viewed against existing background cultural stereotypes and prejudices - European New Zealanders aren't generally stereotyped as being "bludgers" or "scroungers" in the same way as brown skinned New Zealanders are, so depicting them as such doesn't have the same group insult effect.

But perhaps you should be writing to Al Nisbet and ask him why he made the subjective choice to depict both the main "characters" in his cartoon in the way he did. By coincidence, of course.

by Frank Macskasy on May 31, 2013
Frank Macskasy



Wish I'd written that.


Excellent piece, Tim.

by william blake on June 01, 2013
william blake

The Nat gumment has increased the susidies to private schools to over $40m per annum. Kings College alone gets a bigger subsidy ($2.3m) than the entire weet bix in schools programme. 

Im currently working on a racist comic about this.

by Ross on June 01, 2013
Andrew, I've see a few cartoons depicting white collar criminals. From memory, there are no Maori or females depicted in those cartoons. By your logic, those cartoons are racist and sexist! I haven't seen them that way though they do feature a striking coincidence.
by Andrew Geddis on June 01, 2013
Andrew Geddis


The majority of people who receive a benefit (or who are working poor) are European/Pakeha. Yet Nisbet chose to portray the main "characters" in both his cartoons as he did not because he harbours any prejudice on racial grounds, or was reflecting general cultural prejudices about what the indolent poor look like, but by pure coincidence. If that's what you honestly believe, then this is a free country in which you can do as you wish. I, however, disagree. And there it ends.

However, if you think white males (especially those who serve in positions of authority in companies) are a disadvantaged minority group who are unfairly stigmatised by how they are represented in current media, thereby perpetuating their subordinate position in current society, feel free to submit a post on the topic. I promise you we'll publish it.

by Ross on June 02, 2013


This will be my last comment on this issue.

The majority of people who receive a benefit (or who are working poor) are European/Pakeha. Yet...

That really tells us nothing since the majority of people in NZ are European/Pakeha. On a per capita basis, how does the health and welfare of Maori compare to that of European/Pakeha? We frequently hear how Maori are doing so poorly re employment and health compared with non-Maori. We also hear reports of some beneficiaries rorting the system. Sure, the cartoons were hardly insightful, nor were they inciteful. But they put across a point of view which I imagine is quite popular.

Racism can affect anyone, not just ethnic minorities.

Las year the Press Council received a complaint about a Trace Hodgson cartoon which compared Paula Bennett with Nazi concentration doctor Joseph Mengeles. The complainant found the cartoon "distasteful" and "highly offensive. The Press Council said that:

it strongly supported the right of newspaper cartoonists to express their views, particularly when their work featured on a page clearly labeled “Opinion”.

I'd expect any complaint about the Nisbet cartoons would receive a similar response.


by Andrew Geddis on June 02, 2013
Andrew Geddis


You seem determined to miss the point. Despite the fact that a majority of beneficiaries/working poor are "white", Nisbet on two separate occasions decided to represent the primary imaginary bludgers of his world as being Maori/Polynesian. So, again ... how peculiar that he would twice choose what is actually an atypical individual to represent a "type" of person for the purpose of condemning them. But as you think this was all just an innocent coincidence and nothing more, and there is no way to prove otherwise, then so be it.

I also have no doubt the Press Council would uphold Nisbet's right to draw the cartoon as he sees fit, as well as the editor's right to publish it. As would I. But I also have the right to harshly judge both the message the cartoon sends and what I think it shows about Nisbet's qualities as an individual. 

by Tim Watkin on June 02, 2013
Tim Watkin

Thanks Frank, very kind.

by william blake on June 05, 2013
william blake

At least one government department takes cartoon images very seriously.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.