A battler under the makeup

By Michele Hewitson

The last time I saw Sue Bradford she was wearing a checked woollen shirt, jeans and muddy gumboots. It was true that we had met on the farm she and husband Bill and the kids then shared with a Marist priest, a nun and assorted mates from the unemployed workers' movement, but this was pretty much what she always wore. That was 1989.

I'm keen to see how she has scrubbed up because she's been an MP for five years. That is not the prime reason for going to see her - her anti-smacking private member's bill is. But I think that how she looks now might provide a clue as to how Parliament has changed her.

She rushes into the hall where she will later be part of an MPs' forum organised by the Child Poverty Action Group, in a flap of black from head to toe, having driven from the airport.

She's running late and is flustered and it's our fault for taking her only free hour of the day. You'd forgive her for being grumpy, but she's wearing a big grin and she offers a hug and a kiss. I rather suspect that it is Green policy to offer hugs and kisses, but I also suspect Bradford came to it naturally.

The grin is understandable. She's got her bill - although she certainly doesn't take too much credit for it; that wouldn't be very Green - through to select committee stage. For an MP outside government that is certainly grin-worthy.

I'd forgotten what a giggler she is. She has always been, despite the tomboy get-up and the pictures of her with jaw clenched in headlocks, quite girly and certainly mumsy. Oddly, now that she wears lady's clothes she somehow manages to look more tomboyish than ever. She looks like a little girl who has reluctantly been persuaded to play dress-ups, and to get into mum's makeup. At the scrubbed-up she giggles madly: "If you can call it that."

It is Bradford who brings this topic up. I'd asked her whether Parliament had changed her, expecting she might talk about compromise and learning diplomacy and so on. "Oh," she says," "I've learned a lot about sitting at the table of power."

"Learned what ?" I ask, and she says, "Aah, a little bit about clothes and things like that 'cos I had no idea how to wear proper clothes or makeup before I came to Parliament."

She does now. Well, a bit. But she has no interest in the performance - other than to acknowledge with detached amusement that it is a performance. She set out to learn.

" I felt when I was campaigning that to earn the respect of people on an election platform or public meeting, if I turned up in jeans and a T-shirt like I did in the unemployment movement, well, that would be showing disrespect to those people. Because I'm trying to present myself as a serious candidate for Parliament. I'm asking for their vote and that's a really serious thing to do. So I had to make the effort to appear as a serious person."

Isn't that funny, I say, that she had to take seriously something that she doesn't take at all seriously in order to be taken seriously? She says, "It's one of the compromises I've had to make but I can't see any way around that." So she chooses to be amused by it instead.

I ask whether she thinks the Greens are perceived as being nice, but earnest and humourless. "I think probably, yeah. To some extent we don't do humour that well." Why is that? I ask, and she puts on a mock pious face and says, "Well, it's a huge stress: saving the world." Then, properly serious, "I can't stand up and make a funny speech about people who are homeless or have a mental illness. I mean, it's quite hard to make a funny speech about those things."

She is, however, very funny on the topic of our last meeting, which involved her running for mayor and a bonkers features editor deciding I should go and interview candidates and their pets. She was bitten, quite badly, on the hand by a calf which then galloped away up the road. "What became of that calf?" I ask. "Something nasty happened to it," she says gleefully.

And she says people think she's thick. She's not sure why, unless it's because they also think she was a lazy bludger for most of her life. She couldn't give a toss about people thinking she's stupid, but she gets cross - that jaw juts - when she believes that anyone who knew her would probably say she's a workaholic. Besides, the whole point of her work with the unemployed "was to have everyone in work; it wasn't to have everyone bludging. So those kind of contradictions do bother me."

Her background in street politics and protest action is the one people remember. And because of it "they have very strange ideas about me." They think she is, "Oh God ... they think I'm violent and that I'm rough and tough."

I tell her while Parliament tends to toughen people, it seems to have had the opposite effect on her: she seems softer. She thinks that's something "other people would have to answer", although she has "relished the chance to talk with people ... I would never have had the chance to talk to." People like Roger Kerr, who she would once have called "the enemy."

Swimming with crocodiles

But "internally you have to become tougher in some ways." This is because of living away from the family and learning to live within "the quite alien culture [that is Parliament.] I call it swimming with crocodiles." You wonder why she does it. Actually, you wonder why she's stuck to what looks to have been a hard path of conflict and the inevitable disappointment which are the rewards of fighting for the underdog.

She says it's all a means to an end, and that end happens to be the one she made a commitment to when she was in her teens: that everything is political. And, it follows, public. The death of her son, Daniel, a psychiatric patient who died after falling from Grafton Bridge in 1995, was very public. This year she spoke for the first time about being raped, as a young woman, a number of times. She says, yes, she did feel some sort of responsibility to speak about these things, and her voice shakes here, "there is the realisation that everything in your life is political, but it's really hard".

She is, quite obviously if you had had any dealings with her before she became an MP, much more comfortable now in her own skin. She is, she says, more socially composed, "but I'm still not real good at it".

I thought she must have chosen to become an outsider because she came from a solid middle-class home, but she thinks she was born that way. She was an odd, awkward kid, much given to worrying about "the big issues. I didn't get on well with most other kids. My earliest memory is of wanting to be an adult."

Once she became involved in street politics, "I found there were actually a lot of other people in the world like me."

When I ask how she thinks she's doing as a politician in terms of achievement, she says brightly: "Oh, not too well so far." She's a pragmatist. This is her third private member's bill and "the others have been around the benefit system ... but they both cost money. For the first time we've got a bill that wasn't about money, and of course that's got more chance of success".

Her own success might be measured by this: she hasn't given up hoping for change. If you do, you might as well go home and do something else. "There are other things in life." Just not for her.

When I told people I was going to see Bradford, the response was mixed. Some people said incredibly rude things. Quite a few thought she was incredibly hard working and one said she was a hero. He's an old Lefty, so he would say that. But it's not a ludicrous thing to say. You have to admire her sheer determination to stick for so long to what now look like old-fashioned principles. They don't make people like Bradford anymore.

And there is something endearing about somebody who hates wearing makeup, is so useless at putting it on, but who continues to wear the stuff because it has become part of the costume of the struggle. Now that, I think, really is beyond the call of duty.

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