The threshold for racism under the Human Rights Act should be changed if a controversial cartoon published in a regional newspaper is not considered legally racist, MP Te Ururoa Flavell says.
The cartoon, published in the Marlborough Express yesterday, depicts two overweight adults dressed in children's school uniforms joining a line for free school meals.
One of the adults, wearing apparent ethnic 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!"
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Race Relations Commissioner Devoy said at a press conference this afternoon while she thought the cartoon was offensive, it did not exceed the the Human Rights Commission's threshold for racism.
"It does not reach the levels of racism within the inquiries and complaints process within the commission."
Dame Susan said the commission had to look at what would incite racial disharmony under Section 61 of the Human Rights Act 1993, which makes it unlawful to publish material which is "threatening, abusive or insulting".
Maori Party MP Flavell said today the cartoon was "way out of line" and that the threshold for racism should be lowered.
"We've got to change that threshold and bring it down," Flavell said.
"Because on the face of it, most fair-minded New Zealanders would suggest that it is racist, and it has no place to be delivered in newspapers in this country."
Speaking on radio this morning, Marlborough Express editor Steve Mason apologised for any offence caused by the cartoon, but said he was delighted that it had sparked discussion on an important issue.
Dame Susan said New Zealanders had a right to freedom of expression and speech.
"I was told on talkback (radio) this morning that a lot of people agree with [the cartoon], and that's why people are entitled to their opinions," she said.
"People can say what they like and print what they like even if we find it really offensive."
The Race Relations Commissioner encouraged those who found the cartoon offensive to write to the editor of the Marlborough Express, the Press Council or make a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.
The cartoonist, Al Nisbet, had a similar illustration published in The Press today, depicting a large family sitting around a table littered with Lotto tickets, beer cans and cigarettes, a big television and other devices in the background. An adult says: "Free school food is great! Eases our poverty, and puts something in you kids' bellies!"
The Press Editor Joanna Norris said the newspaper considered whether the cartoon was fair.
"When we look at the cartoons, we consider whether its fair and whether it crosses a line into hate speech.
"This cartoon clearly doesn't do that."
There was a strong backlash on social media, with Twitter users saying the cartoon was an embarrassment to New Zealand and harked back to a racist past.
Many called on people to flood the Marlborough Express' social media feeds with complaints.
Media commentator Martyn Bradbury posted a blog on the subject with a tweet saying: "There is no place in NZ for this kind of disgusting f***ing racism - for shame Marlborough Express, for shame!"
He also added: "I'm just so ashamed of the Marlborough Express - who knew such racism could exist openly in 2013 - we have all been embarrassed as NZers
Comedians Ben Hurley and Chris Bain also took to their Twitter accounts to slam the cartoon.
Bain said: "It seems that Marlborough is so express it's a time machine. Straight back to 1952."
While Hurley branded the cartoon an "absolute shocker", and added: "Marlborough express; for your racism in a hurry."
Green Party MP Catherine Delahunty tweeted: "Thanks Marlborough Express 4 reinforcing racist, anti poor people and larger people meme - we really needed that!"
Other users disputed Mason's opinion that it would spark discussion on an important issue and help tackle racism in society.
@DidzLife said: "How does racist stereotyping stimulate discussion on anything other than racism and stereotyping? #racist #cartoon"
She also called the cartoon "racist, decisive and callous", later tweeting: "Anything that incites hatred against other human beings is just plain wrong."
Bradbury also said: "...playing to the worst of our natures isn't 'sparking discussion'."