The Holmes Interview: Sue Bradford - a feisty battler

By Paul Holmes

Sue Bradford bustles cheerily out of a Green caucus strategy meeting and checks her emails. She's banging on about Sir Patrick Hogan's controversial gaming website, which is registered in Costa Rica with a betting licence from the Autonomous Indian Territory of Kahnawake in Canada. While the rest of us smell horse, Bradford smells a rat. Internet gambling is specifically banned in New Zealand, she says. Ah, yes, I think, we can't have people being tempted by pleasures that might consume them.

Not that Bradford is dull, though she can look severe in the television shots in the house. Far from it. Her smile is ready and open, and she's earthy - in an earthy mother, not earthy coarse - kind of a way. She has no airs about her.

She is a child of the 60s. A wedding picture when she married Bill Bradford in 1980 shows her standing tall in a blue dress with her hair laid forward neatly on one shoulder. Her face is beautiful. It shows decency, openness and intelligence. "Oh, I loved parties. I always enjoyed having a good time. I was in the 60s generation. I was 16 when I left school and went to university and started going to the Kiwi pub.

"There were a lot of artists and writers and political people. I was well on the crest of the hippy wave, so I was a hard-out hippy for quite a few years."

I've always thought Bradford was, well, very attractive, actually - but I don't tell her this. I ask if she was popular with the boys. "Yes, I had fun when I was young. I've had lots of relationships."

Did the relationships with the boys matter? It's an odd question to ask, odd words to use, I think later. But her eyes crease suddenly and twinkle, "Of course. With girls, too. My relationships mattered with both sexes."

So she's a child of the 70s, too.

If I'd met her in the 70s, would I have liked her? "I hope so, Paul. I think we would have had a great time in the pub together in the 70s. I wonder I never ran into you, really." Maybe, but I'm sure I wouldn't have remembered much of it. In any case, I went overseas and remember very little of that instead.

"I think we would have had good conversations, seeing that we disagree with each other a bit."

You can say that again. But here's one of the fascinating things about Bradford. You might not like her politics and all that protest stuff, you might tire of her perennial defence of the benefit system, but you have to admire her passion, her courage, her loyal adherence to her causes and her determination to make a difference. Even Jenny Shipley told me in 1999, when still prime minister, how much Sue Bradford was impressing her as a person and as an MP.

Most people never saw the hard work. They saw the blonde mane squirming on the ground, the police pulling her up, arresting her again and carting her off again. But the People Centres she and husband Bill set up in Auckland in the 90s remain largely unknown among the public at large. The People Centres were oases of caring and problem-solving for poor families who needed a break in life. They offered free access to a doctor, cheap dentistry, advice for setting up a business, advocacy and help for people on benefits. I was blown away by the downtown Auckland People Centre when I went through the place. I became, I think, one of the first people in the mainstream media to praise her publicly in those days, something she acknowledges, when I suggest this to her.

She's long ago forgotten exactly how many times she's been arrested. "30 or 40 times," she thinks. She once spent "4 or 5 days" remanded in prison.

"Both times I was there, it was fine. I had some of the most interesting conversations in my life in Mt Eden Women's Prison.

"It was mainly Maori women, and I'll never forget being part of, like a little hui in the courtyard, just talking about what's happening for women in the communities and what's gone wrong in the Maori communities, and I learnt more there than in many a hui or on the marae."

Bradford is emphatic that the police had an attitude to her during those years of protest. "They certainly, in the end, it got almost quite perverted in a way. I'd be on a demonstration, one of the more lively ones, and it was like all these police would be trying to grab me, hit me, touch me, do things to me - so that they could say they'd had contact with me. That's what it felt like, and it got quite strange that there was such intense focus on me."

Behind her in her Parliamentary office with its view of the Port of Wellington are two bouquets of flowers from supporters of her campaign to repeal Section 59 of the Crimes Act. Despite the divisiveness of the campaign, or perhaps because of the mad and murderous response of some groups round the country, she's getting massive support.

"Oh, fantastic emails. I'm 1000 emails behind at the moment, and I'm very sorry to any people I don't get back to in a timely way, but the support we're getting over the past week, it's just been incredible."

She's become a major national figure all of a sudden, Sue Bradford. She cannot believe the "intensity and hatred and campaigning and some of the threats made against me, simply because I'm trying to protect children and young people from violence".

So why is the hatred pouring out? Why has the issue ignited such raw, visceral passion?

"It goes very deeply into our personal psychology, and I think [for] a lot of parents, somehow, my bill makes them feel guilty and worried that somehow they're bad parents because they hit their kids. Some are afraid. When I get a chance to speak to parents, they can see I'm not actually attacking them."

She says it's because it goes so deeply into us, it's about how we grew up, whether we were hit, how we were brought up ourselves.

The objection people have, of course, is that the bill would make criminals of most of us. She compares it to the Education Act.

"If I keep my kid out of school because we're going on a family holiday somewhere, I'm breaking the law. I don't get arrested every time I keep my kid out of school, and just about every parent in the country does that. Occasionally, the police get involved, and the Education department, and they say, look, you've kept your child out of school for 10 weeks and he's not getting an education, and justifiably the police get involved at that point." She says the same applies to her bill. Police will only get involved if an assault is reported, and they will look at the facts of the situation and make a judgement.

Yeah, but what's the big deal about a smack every so often? Her reply is brutal and finishes the argument for me. "Because one person's smack is another person's violent assault. I go all the way to James Whakaruru. The person who killed him was trying to teach him how to use the toilet properly, and often the people who bash their kids are really trying to discipline their kids or teach them something. So it's the psychology in this country that you hit kids and brutalise them in the name of discipline."

Exactly. And I've noticed this week, by the way, that when you discuss the issue with people who were thrashed as kids, really thrashed, nearly all of them tell you how much they deserved it and how right their parents were to do it. Isn't that odd?

Bradford's has been a life of politics. She has a burning sense of justice. Her dad was a Professor of Cell Biology at Auckland University, her mother an American her dad met during post-graduate work in the US. In 1965, when Bradford was 13, the family decamped to her mother's home in Madison, Wisconsin, for a year. The Vietnam vortex was building, and Bradford was drawn fiercely into it. She came home and was arrested for the first time at 16.

She did a BA in History at Auckland, trained as a journalist in Christchurch and worked as one in Wellington but by the mid-70s, she found herself "broken," depressed and alone with twin boys.

"I'd lost my career. But there were other factors, which I don't want to talk about right now. I've talked a bit about rape and the things that happened to me when I was younger, and I was really coming out of quite a hard time. I was raped more than once, on two occasions, not someone close, but I know who it was, yes.

"I don't know how to go into that stuff yet. I don't even want to."

Can you go into it on your own?

"Yeah."

Are you OK about it now?

"I wouldn't say I was OK. It still affects me, but I think that's probably a thing for all people who're raped. Your being has been totally violated, but these things happened a long time ago, and I've learned not to dwell on it."

I find myself marvelling at the amount of life experience this woman has had that must enable her to identify so adhesively with the downtrodden, the victims, the less able, those without a voice, those for whom life is an eternal line of closed doors.

Why twice? I ask.

"Twice what?"

Rape.

"Oh."

Are we talking about more than two occasions?

"Yeah, four, to be precise. But that was - it was when I was young. So many young women are very vulnerable to being raped, and there are women being raped every day, just as I was and a lot of my friends were. Heaps of women are and never talk about it."

So, in the mid-70s, alone on the DPB with the twin babies Daniel and Richard, Bradford took herself back to university and studied Mandarin.

"I went back and studied Chinese from the beginning and ended up with a First Class Masters Honours degree in Mandarin."

She went to China on a scholarship, and fell in love with life again.

Indeed, she expresses her role in Parliament in the language of a linguist. She's fascinated by getting to know people from the other side, National Party people, getting to know employers.

"I love crossing lines. I love using dialogue to cross lines. A lot of my work, when I look back, is about translating. Section 59 is about translating the voice of children and young people to Parliament, to the public. With the unemployed, it's translating what really happens to unemployed people and beneficiaries in New Zealand."

In 1995 came a ferocious blow. Danny, one of her twins, diagnosed schizophrenic many years before, escaped from secure psychiatric care in Whangarei and took his own life.

His body lay in a morgue for two weeks. "Even though we'd reported him missing and the hospital knew he was missing, neither the hospital nor the police seemed able to put it together that it was him in the morgue."

I think of the insult she must have seen in this and of the heartbreaking difficulties at home with Danny that must have led her to allowing Danny's incarceration. There is no bitterness in her telling the story of her boy's death, and if there is some anger, it's that of a parent that no one seemed to care or to hurry.

"I'm not over it, and I don't think I ever will be.

"It's just not possible because I loved Danny very much, and he's still part of my, our family and we still love him, and I'm not over it, no.

"Can't imagine being over it. It's a matter of trying to incorporate it into my life."

With that, incorporated Bradford, with all of her life inside that heart, heads back to another meeting to change the world.

Well, you might not like her politics, but if you like people who've trudged in pain up the dark staircase from the well of defeat, not once but many times, and without bitterness found the sunlight again, you have to admire Sue Bradford.

And if you're in the black well of despair right now, if you need a friend and friends just can't be found, or if you're a kid being bashed again and again and you hear about Sue Bradford, I imagine you'd think her burnished gold.

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