Michele Hewitson Interview: Sue Bradford

By Michele Hewitson

Former Green MP Sue Bradford is loving being back on the 'parliament of the streets', where she belongs. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former Green MP Sue Bradford is loving being back on the 'parliament of the streets', where she belongs. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Sue Bradford originally said I could go to her house, even if it would have to be at the ghastly hour of 7.30am, so that was characteristically obliging of her.

She was catching a flight to Wellington later in the morning and would be away for the rest of the week. Some things haven't changed now she's no longer an MP. But then she phoned back to say she didn't think she could do that to her husband: their house is lacking in privacy and she knows about the "psychology" of mornings - and of marriages, presumably, having been married to Bill for 30 years.

I would later say I wondered what he thought about her going back to the front line of street protesting, as she did last Sunday outside the National Party conference. I thought he might have had a vain hope for some quieter time with his wife after her 10 years as a Green Party MP.

She looked at me as though I'd just accused her of being, say, a capitalist, and said: "He was on the front line with me on Sunday! He's a trade union organiser and we're together in our political beliefs and activities."

This says a bit about her high profile and his complete lack of one - I don't know what he looks like. They did have discussions about her going back to what she calls the "parliament of the streets".

"Sure. That's where we belong." The question had really been about whether her time in that other parliament had changed her. When you looked at those images on the news on Sunday night, it was as though she had never been an MP. So that's one answer to the question: she hasn't changed at all.

She suggested we meet at the airport instead and said she could take me to the Koru Lounge as her guest. That would have amused me as much as it will enrage some people - that bum Bradford, a member of the Koru Club! Still bludging and so on.

So it was a bit of a shame we couldn't have done the interview there - you can only take one guest and there was the photographer - but you'd think the one thing she would have learned is about how that would have played. For all her street smarts she has always had a rather attractive naive quality; a complete lack of guile.

I teased her a bit about the Koru Club. I thought she'd find it amusing that she was still a member, but she said, quite seriously, that her membership was just "a hangover from being an MP. Because I had taken so many flights last year when I was still an MP. It will run out".

She's always had a good sense of humour and been able to laugh (or giggle, actually) at herself. It might seem paradoxical that she seems more serious now that she's not an MP. Perhaps a very public kick in the ego, and yes, of course she has one - standing for and not getting the co-leadership of the Greens - can do that to you.

She's spent the past eight months since she left Parliament "gradually rebuilding my life. And looking to the future and working with friends to see what, politically, is most important in this period. And one of the things that I found quite annoying is people ... who constantly say, 'well, you're retired now, aren't you?' And I'm not retired. I'm too young to retire [she's 58] and I don't really have the money to retire, nor do I want to retire. I'm still just as political. I'm not retired from politics. I'm not retired from life or work".

Was going on the protest on Sunday a very public way of saying: "I'm not retired?" "Well, I'm not retired."

She knows very well what some people think of her so when I asked what she was doing now, (a PhD in public policy at Auckland University of Technology) other than standing on streets shouting and scuffling with cops, she was quick to point out that she is picking up "slivers of paid work". She needs the money. "Yes, and contrary to public opinion, MPs of my generation do not get a pension of any sort, but I'm still putting up with people who thought that somehow I've become a person who receives a pension." She doesn't get any perks. "No, no, no. And the day you stop being an MP it all finishes. But that's fine. That's how it should be."

She was an MP for almost a decade but what people still think about her is, well, what exactly? She looked a bit pained and said, "I don't know how much point there is in going through the negative stereotypes."

She went through the negative stereotypes: "That I'm really stupid, that I'm a bludger, that I don't work hard, that I beat my children ..." That last seems utterly mad to me. Who on earth would think that about her, and why? I asked but she just giggled, so I'm none the wiser.

She went on with her list: "That I'm what some people call a professional protester; that you get paid for protesting, which is something I've never heard of." This seems a shame, a paid, professional protester would be the perfect job for her, doesn't she think? "Ha, ha. And that I'm a very angry person. There's all sorts of strange attitudes about me."

Despite what some people will always think of her she had genuine warmth, an attribute not found in too many MPs but which many attempt to replicate. She thinks she can mostly turn around people's perceptions when she meets them. She's friendly.

I've always wondered how much work she had to put into looking friendly, or at least approachable, given those stereotypes. I remind her that when we last met I had remarked -because how could you not have? - on how well she had scrubbed up since becoming an MP. She giggled and said, of the scrubbed up, "if you can call it that!"

Is she still dyeing her hair? I asked, peering at it. "I still get my hair done, thank you very much!" I thought she might have discarded such frivolities when she left national politics; they don't come naturally.

I also wondered if that transformation had come about because of any pressure put on her about changing her image. I meant from the Greens. She said, "well, Parliament itself forces you to. You had to 'scrub up' as you say. There's a dress code at Parliament so I had a lot to learn about that. I was never into grooming. I've lived outside the mainstream all my life. But I actually enjoyed learning about that."

But why did she? "I'm a woman too!" She had neatly side-stepped a question about the Greens, so she has learned some politicians' tricks.

I asked, mischievously, but I honestly thought she'd laugh at me for trying it, what she thought about Russel Norman's Tibet protest. A bit wimpy by her standards, surely? She turned into the MP she never was. "I'm not going to make any comment about that." So that's a yes. "No. Don't take that as anything like that. I'm just not wanting to get into critiquing my former colleagues, either in that respect or any other."

I asked about whether the Greens had made a change, based, superficially, on image and whether she was a casualty of that. She stuck her bottom lip out and said: "Again, I don't want to get into commenting or critiquing my former colleagues. I'm really looking to the future very much in the study that I'm doing, in the political work I'm doing and I think it's very important to go forward ..." And so on.

She wouldn't tell me which Green MPs are friends. "I really don't want to get into naming people." I tried again to ask about the Greens' image. This was as profitable as asking a question of a clam. She wants to be "constructive and loyal". Well, honestly, you might argue that she'd be excused for having a bit of a go at the party that didn't want her as co-leader. This elicited absolute, stony silence.

Her current involvement with the Greens is that "at this stage, I'm feeling detached". And hurt? "Yes, well, the party made a choice." A personally hurtful one. "Umm, that was very deep."

So you can see why she might have scurried back to the streets. She likes the "solidarity" of direct action as well she might, and, obviously, believes in its effectiveness. She'd have been guaranteed a warm welcome. It's nice to be wanted.

But it must be odd, to say the least, to go from getting on pretty well with Nats to shouting at them, or wanting to.

Actually, the protesters were at the wrong door at the conference. She says, "well, it was the right building! I would have hoped that if I'd been one of the organisers it would have been the right door". She says she could have a cup of tea with Paula Bennett in the Koru Club. "Absolutely. Sure."

Still, she says by the time she decided to stand for the Greens she had got "actually, really fed up with just being seen as a street protester. I felt many people, and many good people from the Labour Party and others had just seen me as someone who ... was doing this stuff, that I was getting arrested and being punched by the cops over and over again, even though I was doing lots of other things as well. That was the image".

So why she'd want to go back to having that image (she says she is, as she always was, doing other things) is interesting. Asking just gets you slogans about the effectiveness of direct action and it being "an honourable thing to do".

Oddly, she is more like a politician - at least she sounds more like a politician - than she did when she was one. That's simply a method of dealing with her very real hurt. And who'd want to air it?

I doubt she can keep it up. She's always had a sense of humour about the very notion of her being an MP. As she was leaving she told me about having been in the supermarket the other day and "a woman called out, 'Hi Sue. I remember you from prison.' I thought that was lovely!"

Then she went off to the Koru Club. And you really can imagine her having a cup of tea and an amiable chat with Paula Bennett - while sketching ideas for placards slamming the Nats, perhaps.

- NZ Herald

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