I believe the two cartoons in the Christchurch Press and the Marlborough Express were a clumsy and objectionable attempt to draw attention and raise debate about an important issue. The approach taken is indefensible and potentially damaging.
The cartoon depicts two stereotypes. The first is that those who access food in schools have the financial resources to feed their children but would rather spend the money on gambling, smoking, booze and a lavish life style. While there may be some people who fall in this category there are many who don’t and who just simply can’t make ends meet either on a low income or on a benefit. These depictions refuse to accept that. The second is that most of those who fall in this category are brown, overweight and irresponsible.
Like all stereotypes the depictions malign those parents who access food in schools most of whom the cartoons depict as Māori and Pacific Islanders. Therefore they are offensive. The defence that the cartoons depict people of different ethnic background is just plain unbelievable. The figures are overwhelmingly brown and overweight, gamble, smoke, drink and have a flash lifestyle.
If the cartoonist’s message was that in New Zealand everyone should be able to feed their children because we are a welfare state, he failed miserably in getting that across. Rather the cartoons accidentally or deliberately discount the fact that for whatever reason a good number of children live in poverty and they come to school hungry and in no position to take advantage of the education offered. Any perspective that had an understanding of the needs of children would not depict the programme to feed our hungry children in this way.
The alternative surely can’t be to let the children go hungry or take them away from their parents? Neither option is realistic and shows little appreciation of the real financial pressures on many families who are not in work or who are in poorly paid jobs.
The second stereotype is even more troubling. Some would say it incites racial disharmony. It certainly does not assist positive race relations. If the cartoons had asked people to take negative action on the parents, who it believes are brown, it would have breached the Human Rights Act for inciting racial disharmony. As such it would have led to the commencement of the process of mediation and even eventual prosecution. I accept that it does not reach that threshold.
The cartoonist does have a responsibility to present issues fairly. Satire is fine but there is a fine line. There are many complex issues behind child poverty. The cartoons should also show an appreciation of the impact of the depictions on minority ethnic groups. Instead they trivialise these two issues and as such the two papers ought to print a retraction. The Race Relations Commissioner should also take a much stronger line to discredit this approach and to caution cartonists who periodically stay into this style.
Dr Rajen Prasad MP