Determined Auckland activist Penny Bright's Kingsland home will be sold by tender on April to recover unpaid rates and penalties. Back when all this began in 2008, The Aucklander took Bright to lunch and asked what, exactly, was eating her.

She'll have the tapwater, thanks.

Penny Bright and I are sitting down to lunch at Soul Bar and Bistro. On the Viaduct's well-heeled Restaurant Row. Around us, the movers and shakers of capitalism are tucking into their $35 mains.

This is not Penny's usual habitat - she's a self-proclaimed "revolting peasant''. From her modest Kingsland home, she runs the small but rowdy Water Pressure Group, tweaking the noses of the types of people seated around us with official information requests and in-your-face, banner-waving protests.


Despite knowing Auckland City Council chambers and the bureaucrats' headquarters intimately, the processing room at Auckland central police station and both district and high courts, Penny needed comprehensive directions to find the bistro beside the Waitemata. Which, incidentally, translates as "sparkling water''.

Once seated, the 54-year-old quickly finds her voice. She will talk on her crusade for transparency in local councils for more than an hour.

Big business might have her surrounded here. But there will be no surrender.

Granddaughter of a weather-lashed Shetland Island fisherman, Penny believe she was not born to be such a feral political animal. "Having the guts to stick up for yourself, that's developed,'' she avows. "The more you do it, the easier it becomes.''

We choose fish for our mains. Penny selects the salmon because it comes with brussel sprouts and this appeals to her.

A Wairarapa child, schooled at Kuranui College in Greytown, Penny's first job was on the line at a Masterton home appliance factory. She joined the union. Various union roles followed - redundancies, too, as the cosseted 60s gave way to the 70s' economic turmoil.

By 1981, Penny had joined the Halt All Racial Tours movement to oppose the Springbok rugby tour. She moved to Auckland for a job at an electronics factory that fell through soon after. Because of her union activities, she says.

She took a welding course and got a job as a sheetmetal worker. She became New Zealand's first female welding inspector. It took her eight and a half years to pay off her house, and this is how she subsists now, collecting $250 a week from flatmates in the freehold home.


"I'm making all this trouble on less than $15,000 a year,'' she says. "On the smell of the smell of an oily rag.''

She has been a red rag to local councils for as long as I've been a journalist. She's been arrested 22 times at the Auckland council's request. Penny claims she's faced 19 charges and has won all but one, for trespass. "I have a criminal conviction for trespassing in the Town Hall, a supposedly public place,'' she crows.

Frequent brushes with the law haven't done anything other than polish her drive to overthrow her foes. So who is the enemy? "Elected representatives and the unelected bureaucrats who actually run the council.''

On this waterfront terrace, in company of those who've benefited most from the principles she most loathes, Penny will not lower her voice as she rails once more against the system. Her eyes bulge and her arms sweep in wide circles as she describes some of her courtroom experiences:

"I've subpoenaed the Auckland area commander of police, the chief executive of Metrowater, the chairman of the board of Metrowater,'' she avers. "The last thing they want is to be cross-examined by Bitch Bright. Take no shit, that's Rule 101 for me.''

Penny's latest tack, she explains as she works her way through a green salad and fries, is to expose what millions upon millions of dollars are being given in contracts to private businesses from our rates.

Until she gets these answers, she has stopped paying her rates bill.

"If there are efficiencies being made by the local council, why are our rates bills going up?'' She waves her fork. "It's a simple, peasant question.''

Before our lunch ends, there will be several more "simple, peasant'' questions from Penny. Her questions will linger. But the people around us today will lunch longer.

* This article was originally published on July 24, 2008.