Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Street activist Bradford puts her thinking cap on for tomorrow's protesters

Sue Bradford.
Sue Bradford.

Life-long street activist Sue Bradford has turned to the academic world in a bid to overcome the "mindless activism" of much of New Zealand's protest movement.

The 62-year-old former Green MP, who became a grandmother last year, has completed a doctorate and is a lecturer in social practice at Unitec.

Her doctoral thesis, published this week by AUT University, says many of the 51 activists and academics she interviewed see "a rise in mindless activism, actions undertaken without sufficient collective analysis and planning".

She believes the answer is a left-wing think-tank - or perhaps several of them - to develop well-researched policies for the left in the same way that the business-funded New Zealand Initiative and the Christian-based Maxim Institute do for the right.

"Despite the worldwide proliferation of think-tanks since the 1970s and the development of a small number of think-tanks locally, no substantial left-wing think-tank exists in Aotearoa," she says in the thesis.

"A major left wing think-tank in Aotearoa - an impossible dream or a call to action?"

She analyses reasons for this gap such as New Zealand's small size and lack of funding, left disunity and a national tradition of anti-intellectualism.

But she concludes that a left think- tank would be feasible if a group of people simply decided to make it a priority.

"I have been part of building many organisations over many years," she said.

She and her husband Bill Bradford helped found the Auckland Unemployed Workers Rights Centre in 1983 and the Kotare Trust, which runs educational programmes for activists, in 1994. She also helped set up the activist group Auckland Action Against Poverty in 2010.

"You start small and you just build. A lot of people I talked to talked about crowdfunding, there are really good websites for crowdfunding.

"In effect that is the most likely way, gradually more and more people putting something in every week."

Dr Bradford's move to Unitec, where she teaches students in social work and community development, is a return to the academic world she grew up in. Her late father, Professor Dick Matthews, was a cell biologist at Auckland University.

She did a master's degree in Chinese language in the early 1980s, spent six months in Beijing on a joint China-NZ scholarship, and had planned to teach Chinese in schools.

"But there was no Chinese teaching in New Zealand schools at that time," she said. "I was ahead of my time."

Instead she plunged into left-wing activism and has been arrested many times, most recently in an occupation of the Social Development Ministry head office last year.

"I'm still a street activist, but only in a mindful way," she said.

Although she has been accused of the same "mindless activism" that she sees among some protesters, she said she had always thought strategically.

"If you go into something where you might get arrested, you don't do it without thinking and without being clear of why and what the purpose is to get the message across," she said.

She said she wrote the thesis to do something for the next generation of activists.

- NZ Herald

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