When Penny Bright rang to say she had been dying and might yet continue to do so, her voice was weak and she struggled at times.

"David Bloody Fisher," she said, her usual greeting, but it was faint. Her Warship - as she likes to call herself - usually bellowed down the phone.

She was about to turn 64. The day of her birthday was the day she was supposed to die, according to doctors when she turned up at Auckland City Hospital on August 31.

As if Penny Bright ever listened to anyone with authority.


But here was Penny fighting a battle that everyone loses eventually and she knew it.
"I've never felt less energy or more tired in all my life," she says.

But who's going to do our democracy now, I asked her. For years I had watched with bafflement and some wonder at Penny's determined fight against infringements on citizens' rights.

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It didn't matter if it was hot, cold, pouring with rain - whatever the heavens might throw down, there was Penny battling local government, central Government and anyone who deviated from her absolutist view of what democracy is.

Sure, Auckland has elected board and council members, MPs and ministers.

But we're not Wellington with its political obsessions. For the bulk of Auckland's 1.5 million people, it was Penny Bright who did the heavy lifting.

Who will do our democracy now? "It can't be a singular occupation," she replies. It needs others. "The more the merrier."

Activist Penny Bright during a 2015 meeting on Dominion Rd. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Activist Penny Bright during a 2015 meeting on Dominion Rd. Photo / Brett Phibbs

When Penny Bright was told she would die today, September 5, she realised time was running out.


A while back, she tells me, she had a tip from an "impeccable source" about the cost of Auckland Council's campaign to seize and sell her house to pay those rates she refused to pay. She had held off digging into it, for fear of revealing the identity of her source.

Then, "told six days to live - I thought, f*** that".

So there she was in hospital, dying, rattling out another Privacy Act/Official Information Act request to demand, insist, the council surrender its secrets.

"So that's in the sausage machine," she says, knowing the law offers government agencies a maximum response time of 20 working days.

Penny, a former sheet metal worker, blames her rates fight with council for her illness. I had told her, "Just pay your bloody rates," but who does Penny ever listen to?

It was a long, drawn-out saga in which Penny refused to open her wallet before the council opened its books.

Speaking from her hospital bed, Penny Bright comments to the NZ Herald on the 'persecution' she has faced from the Auckland Council regarding unpaid rates.

I had told her I thought Auckland Council was becoming increasingly transparent but Penny, absolutist that she is, wants every transaction, contract, memo and email out where the public can see it.

So she dug her heels in, fought in court, argued at meetings and protested until her body and fate conspired to break her and she signed a postponement order to halt the seizure of her home.

It would have been galling for Penny had she not been trying to stave off death. That was a much bigger battle.

"Last Saturday night everything started turning to shit. Acute pain. It was just a major change."

There was already inoperable stage three ovarian cancer. That's what brought an end to the rates revolt.

When she arrived in hospital six days ago, Penny was told she could add ketoacidosis, pneumonia and a perforated bowel.

"Next thing, you've got six days to live."

Activist Penny Bright interrupting former government minister Rodney Hide in 2009 during the march towards a unified Auckland. Photo / Wayne Drought
Activist Penny Bright interrupting former government minister Rodney Hide in 2009 during the march towards a unified Auckland. Photo / Wayne Drought

Pause. "My poor stomach. Poor messy stomach," she says. "I was Penny the Pig. Miss Piggy. I'm transformed into Miss Picky. I haven't eaten in 12 days."

Pension next year, Penny. "Bastard," she says, but not at me. "Get the pension next year. We shall see."

Then: "She hasn't quite finished yet."

Not quite, no. That dire prognosis was followed by dire and worsening health but she has reached a plateau, of sorts. "I'm stable and improving," she says, because Penny always seizes the slimmest of victories from impossible campaigns.

She's written a will and made her peace. Her plan involves staying in hospital - and that's it. "I'm used to occupying places," she says with a laugh. Occupy Auckland veteran Penny Bright spent a month sleeping in Aotea Square.

"Activists get things done, David." She paused and in the background hospital machines beeped.

"That needs to be the epitaph on my gravestone," she said. "She gave it arseholes."