Rod Emmerson did his homework before he took up his job as cartoonist with the New Zealand Herald in 2003.
Kiwis and Australians can be like blood brothers, but he says the New Zealand population is more diverse and that means he has to keep a watch on his own preconceptions. He learned that early on with a controversial cartoon about Maoris and violence against children, during a legislative push against smacking.
It caused an uproar, to the point where it became a problem for the paper. But as it turned out the furore was resolved in his favour. An influential Maori elder stepped in and said Emmerson’s work may have prevented a child being assaulted and that it opened up a valuable debate.
Journos and media execs have been crisscrossing the Tasman for years. Kiwi cartoonists including The Sydney Morning Herald’s Alan Moir are household names. But Emmerson is a rare beast – an Aussie cartoonist who has moved here.
He had worked out of provincial Rockhampton drawing for APN daily papers in Queensland while selling images to non-competing titles in Australia, the US and Europe. He was poached by APN’s New Zealand Herald.
“Other cartoonists asked what I was doing when nothing happens in New Zealand. But they were wrong – it’s a very newsworthy country and it plugs into the rest of the world very well,” Emmerson told Mediaweek.
After 14 years at the country’s biggest paper, Emmerson has built a strong profile. Initially Kiwi cartoonists did not like the Australian taking the Herald role.
“I played that with a straight bat and let my work speak for itself. I did not get into fights and ignored the smartarse comments,” he says.
He says that New Zealand audience has a “dark and intellectual” humour that is different from Australians.
“You have to look to John Clarke – where it is about satire – humour’s ugly brother.
“It’s hard to feel homesick when you are only three hours’ flight way.”
In cartooning, he laments what he says is a trend in Australia to copy the US and become divided into left- and right-wing camps.
“That is what happened with Bill Leak,” he says.
Emmerson and Leak were friends. He admired his courage, though he said he would not have drawn some of the cartoons Leak did. He believed that Leak had made a mistake. “You follow the news and the story and you don’t become part of the story.
“That is probably the one place where Bill got it wrong. He was a very passionate guy. But I don’t think he should have become the story,” he says.
There is always the danger the publisher might want to do that, he said and a cartoonist had to be aware of that. “I think there is nothing in it for cartoonists,” he added.
“I like being a loose cannon accused of being both left-wing and right-wing.
“It keeps them guessing,” he says.