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

Gambling: Causing more harm than good

First published in the Goanet Reader Tue, 26 Sep 2006
I read with dismay about the establishment of ten new offshore casinos in Goa in an item in the latest Goan Voice UK and thought I would share my thoughts. I’ve just spent the entire week facilitating an annual International Gambling Think Tank and a follow up International Conference on Gambling examining the impacts of gambling in particular perspectives from practice, policy and research.

The Think Tank saw the world’s leading authorities on problem gambling examining current international developments in gambling research and practice. It was co-hosted by the New Zealand’s Gambling Helpline and AUT University where I work.

The helpline has 18,000 contacts each year and is a world leading resource for problem gamblers. While the conference was hosted by AUT University and the Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand.

Have a look at this statistic, 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 the poor, Maori and Pacific Island people are hardest hit.

Quite often gambling and social inequality are linked and with many migrants and indigenous communities being found in the lower social strata of communities, they are at risk.

Maori 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. There are sub-groups at risk for problem gambling such as youth, women, elderly Maori and those with mental illnesses or other addictions.

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 in urban areas and having low educational and low occupational status.

Studies show that adult Pacific peoples were most at-risk of all ethnic groups for developing problem or pathological gambling behaviour. They are thought to be six times greater at risk of problem gambling than New Zealand Europeans.

Increasingly high rates of gambling have been noted among Chinese communities, particularly new migrants and restaurant workers. It is thought that this is precipitated by loneliness, isolation, cultural and language barriers.

International Asian students are also vulnerable groups as in addition to the factors mentioned earlier they can also have access to considerable amounts of cash. Migrants are thought to be at risk of gambling problems because of acculturation which makes them more likely to be conditioned to the dominant practices of the receiving community or because they are struggling with the acculturation process.

The historical gender imbalance in men being the key users of problem gambling services has changed since the introduction of electronic gaming machines which have made gambling more accessible and acceptable, leading to an equal if not greater number of women presenting to problem gambling services for help.

Not only is the gambler affected but Australian research has found that each problem gambler is likely to directly affect at least seven other people including children through family dysfunction, problems at work or crime. Problem gambling also has economic and social costs to families and communities.

Problem gamblers are more likely to experience other problems as a result or in combination with issues such as relationship issues, isolation, poor physical and psychological health, and be hazardous drinkers.

So what are communities doing about gambling? Responses are mixed. Some view gambling as criminal, while others view it as a social activity and for some governments and communities it is a source of funding.

In New Zealand the Gambling Act of 2003, includes a focus on preventing and minimising of harm caused by gambling, including problem gambling. The Act has an integrated public health approach and sets out a number of obligations for gambling operators in prevention and minimisation of harm.

Under the Act, gambling venues are penalised if they allow people who have self-excluded into their venues and the notion of host responsibility and duty of care are paramount.

The government views gambling as a source of economic development, revenue generation and a source of funding for community initiatives and programmes. The industry view is that gambling is entertainment and that people are free to choose. However, in 2004/05 gamblers lost more than $2.02 billion on gambling activity in New Zealand and that this was derived disproportionately from those living in high deprivation communities.

Psychological aspects: Though many participate in gambling as a form of recreation or even as a means to gain an income, gambling, like any behavior which involves variation in brain chemistry, can become a psychologically addictive and harmful behavior in some people. Reinforcement phenomena may also make gamblers persist in gambling even after repeated losses. Because of the negative connotations of the word “gambling”, casinos and race tracks often use the euphemism “gaming” to describe the recreational gambling activities they offer.

The harms that gambling causes are not incidental harms, they are grave harms that result in domestic violence, crime, incapacity, and children going without food. Industry operators rely on harm causing losses and are casual agents of harm

So I conclude this diatribe with some questions: Can Goa afford to have ten new offshore casinos? Does it need to be a “gambler’s paradise”? Will these casinos create wealth for Goans and Indians or will they cause more harm? Can industry operators provide a safe product? If not is it better to not have casinos at all? Will more casinos lead the way to the installation of electronic gaming machines?

These are issues that need healthy debate; it is hard to put the genie in the bottle when it has already been unleashed. As James Doughney said in his presentation today: “The harm is more unjust, more unconscionable because governments have a duty to protect.”