A Labour MP is appealing a Human Rights Tribunal decision by arguing two Fairfax Media cartoons displayed racist tones.

The cartoons by Al Nisbet were published in Fairfax New Zealand newspapers the Marlborough Express on May 29, 2013, and in the Press the following day.

The images portrayed the issue of the food in schools programme, "a measure intended to mitigate some of the worst consequences of child poverty", the Human Rights Tribunal decision from May reads.

Labour MP for Manurewa Louisa Wall took exception to the images and claimed the cartoons breached the Human Rights Act by promoting racial disharmony.

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She said the cartoons were "insulting, ignorant and a put down of Maori and Pacifika" and provided negative stereotypes at the expense of vulnerable Maori and Pacifika families, contributing to a negative sense of self-worth.

Fairfax, which also publishes the news website Stuff, denied the allegation and said its cartoons were consistent with the Bill of Rights which affords every New Zealander the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.

The tribunal concluded that while the cartoons were insulting they were not likely to "excite hostility against or to bring into contempt Maori and Pacifika on the
ground of their colour, race, or ethnic or national origins".

The cartoon which appeared in <i>The Press</i>. Photo / Human Rights Tribunal
The cartoon which appeared in The Press. Photo / Human Rights Tribunal

However, Wall appealed the decision and the case was brought before Justice Matthew Muir in the High Court at Auckland today.

Wall was in court for the hearing.

Justice Muir said the appeal displayed a "huge amount of public interest" and was probably the most interesting case he's seen in the past three years.

He said he was "very, very wary" and wanted to be "careful we don't put a foot wrong on this" given the "huge public implications" of what is a test case.

The judge expressed "some reservations" about whether he held superior qualifications to the members of the tribunal who deal with such cases on a daily basis.

He adjourned the appeal in an effort to have the hearing heard before himself and two additional lay members of the court.

Fairfax's counsel Robert Stewart said the allegation has already had a "significant chilling effect" on his client's cartoonists with how they now present their cartoons.

The Marlborough Express cartoon itself shows a group of four adults and four children dressed in school uniform heading to school with bowls in hand.

In the background is a sign pointing the way to "Free school meals".

"The male says to the woman 'Psst! ... If we can get away with this, the more cash left for booze, smokes and pokies!' The three primary or intermediate school children who are just in front of the adults are shown reacting to this comment by raising their eyebrows," the tribunal's decision reads.

Labour MP Louisa Wall. Photo / Michael Craig
Labour MP Louisa Wall. Photo / Michael Craig

The Press cartoon depicted a group of two adults, five children and a dog around a table.

Addressing his family, the male adult proclaims: "Free school food is great! Eases our
poverty, and puts something in you kids' bellies!"

Following public criticism Nisbet explained the cartoons in a June 5, 2013 column in the Marlborough Express.

"I actually intended to draw the characters as all white, but while working on the cartoon, I saw on telly that a lot of the school breakfast programme was to be undertaken by schools in Northland," he wrote.

"At the eleventh hour I darkened the two central characters' skin and lips to balance
the ledger. The others were white."

He said the Press cartoon depicted a mixed-race family, "hopefully encompassing a bit of everything, hence the ginger hair".

"When I discovered the critics had focused on the race card and ignored the dorky Pakehas and gingas, I was surprised," he wrote.

"The whole point was overlooked ... that being of a system that gave something for nothing which could be exploited by a few - how that some could plead poverty while surrounded by the unnecessary luxuries of life like booze, gambling and fags, comfortably ensconced within an obesity epidemic, while their children starved. I was having a go at the stereotype of bludgers. Race had nothing to do with it."

Nisbet described cartooning as like "playing practical jokes" and having a crack at all sides, while provoking and firing debate.

"I'm often asked why I draw so ugly. It's because that's what I see. The human race is ugly and does ugly things. Maybe I'm jaundiced," Nisbet explained.

Justice Muir said of the cartoonist today: "He's obviously got a particularly cynical view of humanity."