Cartoons displace the blame for social consequences of neoliberal policy away from real culprits

Over the last few years I’ve been involved in various public health and health promotion programmes related to healthy eating and weight management (Clinical Guidelines for Weight Management in New Zealand Adults and the Clinical Guidelines for Weight Management in New Zealand Children and Young People) as well as a social marketing strategy called Feeding our Futures. I’ve also facilitated four Asian Nutrition and Physical Activity Fora for the Agencies for Nutrition Action (ANA) since they began in 2008. I’ve also been involved in research with colleagues at AUT University about problem gambling.

It was my involvement in community organisations and governance rather than my own background as a health practitioner with its attendant reductionist biomedical socialisation that prepared me for the sheer complexities of the determinants of health. I understand now more than ever that macro-level health determinants (that is factors that affect health) including socio-economic status, education, employment, physical and social environment affect health and reinforce the unequal distribution of health-related resources. In contrast, micro-level determinants (lifestyle, genes) have modest impacts on population health. However, more individualistic views dominate our understanding of obesity, smoking and problem gambling. Within that frame, food “choices” are linked with moral acceptability and people who eat “unhealthy” food (with “bad” nutritional elements are deemed as less moral. Equally people that smoke and people that gamble are less “good” than people who “take care” of themselves. Such views ignore the systemic, structural and historical origins of inequality.

Which brings me to two cartoons by Al Nisbet, which were printed in New Zealand media. In the first one published in the Marlborough Express yesterday an inter-generational group of people of “Polynesian appearance” wearing children’s school uniforms and joining a queue for a free school meal. The male adult wearing tattoos and a back-to-front baseball cap, says: “Psst! … If we can get away with this, the more cash left for booze, smokes and pokies!”


In the second cartoon published in the Press today, what appears to be a family group of seven large people are shown with Lotto tickets, beer cans, cigarette packets and flash electronics. The man with a back to front cap on his head says: “Free school food is great. Eases our poverty and puts something in you kids’ bellies.”

From the Press
From the Press

These despicable cartoons highlight the media’s role in perpetuating the myth that  responsibility for poor health (whether it’s about people who are obese, smokers or problem gamblers) is an individual and group one rather than linked with broader issues for example colonisation, economic restructuring or the devastating social consequences of state neoliberal policies. The editor of the Marlborough Express Steve Mason has “apologised for any offence”, a phrase that has always struck me as being bereft of any remorse at harm caused, let alone an understanding of the ramifications of the incident. More callously he commented that “he was delighted that it had sparked discussion on an important issue”. But at whose expense? I am so over the casual racism by white male media influencers that shape public opinion so profoundly, the abuse of their authoritative positions to portray and represent vulnerable groups in ways that further marginalise those groups.

Luckily the Mana party have also noticed how the cartoon takes aim at New Zealand’s most vulnerable children in particular Māori and Pacific children. John Minto, MANA party co-vice president contends in an interview with TVNZ, that the cartoon is insensitive to over 270,000 New Zealand children growing up in poverty who will benefit from the Breakfast at School programme and invites the public to further “scorn them as devious parasites.” Equally this cartoon hits out at Māori and Pacific Island people who are hardest hit by gambling related harms. About 50,000 New Zealanders or 1.2% of the population have a gambling problem (defined as patterns of gambling that disrupt personal, family, or vocational pursuits) and research shows that gambling and social inequality are linked. Māori experience high rates of problem gambling and are more likely than NZ Europeans to be worried about their gambling behaviour and more likely to want immediate help. Pacific peoples living in New Zealand experience socio-demographic risk factors that are associated with developing problem gambling, such as low socio-economic status, being young, living in urban areas and having low educational and low occupational status. In addition, Maori and Pacific women have been identified as an at risk group since “pokies”  (Electronic Gaming Machines) were introduced into Aotearoa New Zealand. Tobacco smoking is a leading cause of preventable death for Māori in New Zealand and responsible for 10 percent of the gap in health disparities between Māori and non-Māori. 45.4 percent of Māori adults identify themselves as smokers, –double that of non-Māori.  Māori contribute over $260 million in tobacco taxes each year. Cumulatively as Minto points out, the cartoon “plays to the lazy racism and deep bigotry of many well-off Pakeha”. It also neglects to consider the historical impacts of colonisation on the health status of Māori and punitive neoliberal social policy on both Māori and Pacific people.

Given that the wider community depend and receive their knowledge of raced and classed ‘others’ through the media, often in the absence of direct experience with those ‘others’, I am grateful for Media commentator Martyn Bradbury and the Daily Blog for alerting me to the cartoon and broadcasters like Marcus Lush, a thriving blogosphere and social media which enable the wide dissemination of alternative discourses. As I’ve said in other blogposts, the racist soup of Pakeha media culture not only excludes particular groups but it also reproduces pathological, deficient and destructive representations of groups that are already discriminated against and marginalised. Take the “common sense” racism of Paul Henry, Michael Laws and Paul Holmes who all compete for New Zealand’s top racist. And now Steve Mason who claims in the New Zealand Herald that “Cartoons are designed to stimulate discussion and obviously that has worked in this case. So that’s what it’s all about.” He obviously missed the hard work that former Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres and others did after the publication by the media of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in 2006 (the New Zealand Herald took a leadership role and declined to publish them). At the time de Bres asked what media purpose was served by their publication and pointed out the tensions between “the principle of the freedom of the press and the responsibility of the press in exercising that freedom”. His leadership led to improvements in the relationships between media and communities, in Auckland I took part in a forum and in Wellington religious leaders from Muslim, Catholic and Jewish faiths met with the editors of The Dominion Post and The Press.

Let’s hope our new Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy can similarly  take a leadership role in clearly articulating why publication of the cartoons is morally wrong and propose a way forward. But, she is only one person. We also need to address the other forces that reinforce casual racism and classism in our society. The media, the smug comfortable people reading the newspaper and feeling affirmed in their righteous anger by the cartoon, all of us I’d like to leave you with last words from another cartoonist and a cartoon representing another marginalised group. In an in interview in December 2012 in the Age about the role of the cartoonist as being “not to be balanced but to give balance”. Leunig said:

As a cartoonist I am not interested in defending the dominant, the powerful, the well-resourced and the well-armed because such groups are usually not in need of advocacy, moral support or sympathetic understanding; they have already organised sufficient publicity for themselves and prosecute their points of view with great efficiency.
The work of the artist is to express what is repressed or even to speak the unspoken grief of society. And the cartoonist’s task is not so much to be balanced as to give balance, particularly in situations of disproportionate power relationships such as we see in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a healthy tradition dating back to the court jester and beyond: to be the dissenting protesting voice that speaks when others cannot or will not.


Leunig in the Age Wednesday 15 August 2012
Leunig in the Age Wednesday 15 August 2012

Postcards From The Edge

Postcards From The Edge: Exploring the confluence of Bollywood, the Indian diaspora in New Zealand and neoliberal multiculturalism

One of the highlights of May was getting mail (remember that? with stamps and everything) from New Zealand containing a fabulous catalogue and postcards created by Bepen Bhana for his solo exhibition. The envelope was beautifully wrapped in cloth and sewn, rather like mail you used to get from India.

The envelope the catalogue came in.
The envelope the catalogue came in.

Bepen, an Auckland-based artist had asked me last year if I would contribute to the catalogue for his solo exhibition. It is the first time I have written something for an artist and I have another in the pipeline. Catalogues usually contain images and descriptions of the pieces being exhibited by an artist or artists with essays written by the exhibition’s curator and other specialists in the topic which provide context and a way for people to understand what they are seeing.

Bepen’s photorealist paintings superimpose Bollywood actors and scenes onto New Zealand composite landscapes. If you haven’t seen the exhibition already, get yourself to Te Tuhi, it’s on from 04 May 2013 – 14 July 2013.

This is the most exquisite artist catalogue I have ever set eyes upon.
This is the most exquisite artist catalogue I have ever set eyes upon.

Bepen has kindly given me permission to reproduce the essay I wrote for him below, but I think it would be even better if you went and checked out the exhibition and the exquisite catalogue. You can also watch this Nightline report about the work by Ali Ikram.

This is the image for my piece.
This is the image for my piece.

First published in May 2013: Postcards from the edge by Bepen Bhana.

Most postcards or promotional brochures of New Zealand foreground the natural beauty of the country, its pure unspoilt assets of snow capped mountains, pristine beautiful lakes, and isolated beaches— there for the enjoyment of tourists. Bepen Bhana’s seven large scale landscape paintings in a simulated Graphicswallah hoarding style are juxtaposed with iconic highly visible Bollywood couples who are lush, colourful, and passionately engaged with each other drawing the eye to themselves and to these hypothetical landscapes. Bepen Bhana’s work has a special resonance for me as a twice migrant (now thrice having moved to Australia in January). These images combine my own nostalgia for the glamorous and beautiful aspects of an imagined Indian culture that I’ve always been displaced from— and been on the periphery of— with the clean, tidy, orderly New Zealand landscape, a place devoid of roaming animals, where everything in its proper place. Bepen’s work also provides a welcome opportunity to begin to explore the confluence of Bollywood (a huge and diverse film industry made up of a range of Indian cinematic traditions), the Indian diaspora in New Zealand and neoliberal multiculturalism. Different members of the Indian diasporas negotiate belonging through Bollywood differently for example Being Goan or Tamil in Kenya, Fiji or New Zealand in the context of diverse viewing practices and diverse mediated identity constructions (Punathambekar, 2005).

Reterritorialization refers to how migrants recreate their cultural identities in new contexts and locales (Punathambekar, 2005). In the Nairobi of the seventies, Indian cuisine, Indian sweet shops and massive Bollywood billboards/hoardings were ubiquitous. Not so much in New Zealand when we arrived, nothing in the mainstream media or landscape reflected my inherited cultural experiences nor the difficulties of migration (Punathambekar, 2005).

The New Zealand Indian experience has been shaped by legislation in response to political and economic factors. Indian people first arrived as deserters from British East India Company ships in the late 1800s (Swarbrick, 2005). Despite being British subjects they were subject to hostility and exclusionary legislation including the 1899 Immigration Restriction Act aimed at restricting Indian and other Asian immigration (Beaglehole, 2002). Indian migrants who were largely men (because of the legislation) were perceived as a threat, both as competitors for jobs and threats to sexuality and morality (Leckie, 1995). Anti-Asian feeling directed at Chinese and Indian communities continued to increase after World War I. Anti-Asian organisations including the White New Zealand League, formed in 1926 on the basis of the apparent threat Chinese and Indian men presented through miscegenation, alien values and lifestyle (Cormack, 2007). The New Zealand Government introduced restrictions under a ‘permit system’ in 1920 (Museum of New Zealand: Te Papa Tongarewa, 2004). However, a review of immigration in 1986 catalysed by neoliberal concerns about the ‘brain drain’ and decreased immigration to New Zealand led to The Immigration Act of 1987. This legislation introduced a points system shifting migrant selection from preferred source countries to skills criteria. Subsequently, Business Immigration Policy and ‘family reunification’ and ‘humanitarian/refugee’ categories were introduced which cumulatively increased migration from Asia. These policy changes and the Fijian coups increased the range and number of Indian migrants beyond the historical kin migration from Gujarat and the Punjab.

The New Zealand of the seventies differs from today. There’s been an indigenous Maori resurgence and the changes that I’ve outlined mean that there is a plethora of pan-Asian spaces, festivals and celebrations. This ‘happy hybridity’ (Lo, 2000) belies the weak link between a politics of multiculturalism and a politics of anti-racism. The former is consumptive and makes few demands and all that’s required to engage is superficial and temporary. The fissure is exposed through incidents like attempts to purchase land by Chinese interests which reveal “it is fine for Asians to own the corner dairy, but not a dairy farm” as Raybon Kan quips referring to the Crafar farms furore. Some things remain the same, the media selectively screens the nation (Fresno-Calleja, 2011), representations of ethnically diverse New Zealanders are scarce and draw on stereotypes, reproducing unequal power relations instead of culturally inclusive narratives (Kothari, Pearson, & Zuberi, 2004). Consequently, the inadequacy of mainstream media has led many diaspora to develop their own media. Another reversal is evident in the switch from the diaspora being a market for Bollywood, to now settings including New Zealand extending the cultural imaginary of Bollywood cinema (Punathambekar, 2005).

Bollywood might represent the export of Indian nationalism or a “feel good” version of Indian culture (Punathambekar, 2005), but I am grateful for this counter discourse. It’s a break from the relentless discourses of people who are backward, deficit laden, poverty-stricken and patriarchally confined that circulate through mainstream media in New Zealand. The stereotype of India as traditional yet modern and prosperous is preferable (Kaur, 2002) but it too needs to be interrogated. It is a double-edged neoliberal sword that Tourism New Zealand wields in its bid to leverage off the powerful marketing influence of Bollywood films. Attempting to increase the 30,000 annual visitor arrivals from India while in the same breath, Indian origin residents have suffered historical discrimination and continue to do so in fields such as employment.

Apart from being beautiful, Bepen Bhana’s postcards from the edge pose crucial questions at a critical juncture in New Zealand’s relationship with India. Who belongs and who is out of place in the New Zealand landscape? Do our exploitative past relationships with India and Indian communities mirror our future neoliberal aspirations for export earnings and tourism trade? Bepen’s work provides a platform for interrogating these and many other social and political questions.




Beaglehole, A. (2002). Refugees from Nazism,1936-1946: The experiences of women. In L. Fraser & K. Pickles (Eds.), Shifting centres: Women and migration in New Zealand history (pp. 81-103). Dunedin: University of Otago press.

Cormack, D. (2007). Once an Other, always an Other: Contemporary discursive representations of the Asian Other in Aotearoa/New Zealand. A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in East Asian Studies at The University of Waikato, Hamilton.

Fresno-Calleja, P. (2011). Reel New Zealanders: Contesting tokenism and ethnic stereotyping in Roseanne Liang’s Take 3. Studies in Australasian Cinema, 5(1), 19-29.

Kaur, R. (2002). Viewing the West through Bollywood: a celluloid Occident in the making. Contemporary South Asia, 11(2), 199-209.

Kothari, S., Pearson, S., & Zuberi, N. (2004). Television and multiculturalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Television in New Zealand: Programming the Nation, 135-151.

Leckie, J. (1995). South Asians: Old and new migrations. In S. W. Greif (Ed.), Immigration and national identity in New Zealand (pp. 133-160). Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

Lo, J. (2000). Beyond happy hybridity: Performing Asian-Australian identities. In I. Ang, S. Chalmers, L. Law & M. Thomas (Eds.), Alter/Asians: Asian-Australian identities in art, media and popular culture (pp. 152-168). Annandale: Pluto Press Museum of New Zealand.

Te Papa Tongarewa. (2004). Indians in New Zealand. AINAA Reflections through Indian weddings Retrieved 28th November, 2005, from

Punathambekar, A. (2005). Bollywood in the Indian-American diaspora Mediating a transitive logic of cultural citizenship. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 8(2), 151-173.

Swarbrick, N. (2005, 11 July 2005). Indians. Retrieved 8th October, 2005, from

Multicultural relationships in supervision

Here’s an excerpt from a chapter I wrote on culture/ethnicity and supervision, the paragraph seems more than apt these days.

“We don’t colonise, these days, through the barrel of a gun, but through the comfortable words of those who change the hearts, minds and spirits of people” (Waldegrave, 2001).

Supervision provides a powerful learning environment that helps in the maintenance of integrity and is therefore a critical factor in practitioner development for learning to work with diversity. Freshwater (2005, p109) suggests that supervision provides a space for the “preservation or restoration of integrity in caring” and as such a supervisor needs to have integrity themselves. Supervision provides us with an opportunity to look at ourselves and resource ourselves so that we can then re-engage with our work in new ways, with new knowledge and skills and strategies. This revitalising quality of supervision allows us to then return to our work refreshed.  With the impact of neoliberal policy and increasing demands for quality and outcomes, the importance of having someplace to replenish ourselves takes on new urgency. Nowhere is this more apt than in working with people of diverse cultures, where policy has not kept up with practice so that few of us are resourced for working with difference in time stretched, resource poor systems. Supervision is one of the most powerful and intimate of learning environments and as such it needs to be a safe one, so that the work of learning can take place and enhance the delivery of care and support. The supervision experience can be a powerful facilitator of the development of knowledge and skills that meets the therapeutic needs of diverse groups. With our changing demographics, supervision needs to be more inclusive, not just in terms of working with diversity but also regarding worldviews from different locations and positions.

DeSouza, R. (2007). Multicultural relationships in supervision. In D. Wepa (Ed.), Clinical supervision in the health professions: The New Zealand experience. (pp. 96-109). Auckland: Pearson Education.