WARNING: This article contains strong language and content

Forty years ago Sue Bradford was in Carrington Psychiatric Hospital in Pt Chevalier, trying to kick a heroin habit.

The former MP and activist, then known as Susan Matthews, was an addict for six years, first hooked while she a student moving between "hippie houses" in Grafton and Ponsonby in the 1970s.

"I just feel that it's almost miraculous that I pulled out of that time," she says. "Because there were quite a few years when I was very low and felt unable to do anything much in my life.


"At one level I am still, even now, in recovery. I still crave hard drugs sometimes and dream about them."

Her addiction is detailed for the first time in a guts-and-all biography by Jenny Chamberlain, Constant Radical: The Life and Times of Sue Bradford.

The life of former MP and activist Sue Bradford is laid bare in a guts-and-all biography by Jenny Chamberlain, Constant Radical: The Life and Times of Sue Bradford. Photo / Michael Craig
The life of former MP and activist Sue Bradford is laid bare in a guts-and-all biography by Jenny Chamberlain, Constant Radical: The Life and Times of Sue Bradford. Photo / Michael Craig

At the heart of the book is her Parliamentary legacy, the so-called "anti-smacking" bill.
But the biography highlights that her 10 years as a Green MP were just one stage in a life of relentless activism, beginning with her Vietnam War protests at 16 years old and finishing with her transition into a left-wing academic and intellectual.

Speaking to the Herald ahead of the book's launch in Auckland next week, Bradford said it was "terrifying" and "anxiety-inducing" to have her life laid bare in this way.

It is a life punctuated by almost unbelievable tragedy.

During her chaotic late teens and early 20s, she was raped three times. She was 16 years old the first time, when she was forced to perform oral sex on a man at a party in Grafton. She was raped again at her own 21st birthday party in St Mary's, and on a third occasion which she still can't talk about.

There is a chapter dedicated to her son Danny's suicide in 1995, following years of worsening mental health. The Bradford family's grief was "as fresh today as when Danny died", Chamberlain says.

Bradford nearly lost her daughter Katie in a car crash in 1998, which left her in a coma for days. Katie Bradford is now a TVNZ political reporter in Parliament's press gallery - a job Sue once dreamed of having before drug addiction put an end to her journalism career.

If there is a constant thread in Sue Bradford's life, it is her ability to use these tragedies for good.

"Nothing is ever wasted," Chamberlain writes in the book.

Thirty years after she was first raped, she successfully amended the Crimes Act to have oral and anal rape classed as rape, winning unanimous support from Parliament.

Bradford even describes her drug addiction as a "building block" in her life, because she was later able to relate to the people she came across in her Auckland Action Against Poverty work.

Despite never wanting to talk about mental health again following Danny's death, she took on the portfolio for 10 years in Parliament.

"I can see that really nothing has changed and if anything it may have got worse since the 1990s," she says.

"I often end up thinking that the system is just relieved when people die, because it's one less cost to their budget. It's a brutal system."

It is one her great regrets that she was never able to enact major, structural changes to mental health, welfare or housing while in Parliament.

Never content, she has recently completed a PhD on the absence of a left-wing think tank in New Zealand, and duly set about filling that gap with her own organisation.

Sue Bradford's think-tank, Economic and Social Research Aotearoa (Esra), is actively discussing a new, far-left political presence that could be in place by the 2020 election. Photo / Michael Craig
Sue Bradford's think-tank, Economic and Social Research Aotearoa (Esra), is actively discussing a new, far-left political presence that could be in place by the 2020 election. Photo / Michael Craig

No one to vote for

Sue Bradford is downplaying the possibility of an unlikely political comeback.

But she has revealed that her think-tank, Economic and Social Research Aotearoa (Esra), is actively discussing a new, far-left political party.

The party, or parties, could be in place by the 2020 election.

Bradford said that there was longer representation for the radical left wing in New Zealand, and Esra is hoping the gap could be filled.

"There are so many people in this country now who have no party to vote for," she told the Herald.

"The disenfranchised, unemployed and beneficiaries. People on low or no incomes, people shifting between jobs. They can see that Labour and the Greens are really with business. They're confined in what they will do."

Whether she will lead a new party or run as a candidate is still unknown.

"I'm not young," she said. "I'm really aware of that. And the leadership of future parties must really come from young people."

Bradford left the Greens in 2009 after a decade in Parliament, deeply upset at missing out on the co-leadership to Metiria Turei. She said that was another step in the party's drift to the centre, which began with the sudden death of former co-leader Rod Donald in 2005.

The Greens had "joined the community of suits" she said, pointing to the selection of former businessman James Shaw as co-leader in 2015 and the recently released set of fiscal responsibility guidelines.

Activist Sue Bradford being taken down by police in a 1995 demonstration. Photo / File
Activist Sue Bradford being taken down by police in a 1995 demonstration. Photo / File

The Budget Responsibility Rules were "the last straw" for her, she said.

"And I know some Greens have left the party because of it. Because it was such a signal that they wanted to work completely within the confines of neoliberal capitalism."

Mana's potential as a far-left party "went to dust" when it joined with Kim Dotcom's Internet Party, she said. She had planned to run as a Mana candidate in 2014 but quit after the merger.

Bradford said she didn't vote in 2014 because there was "no one to vote for". She is likely to do the same thing in September.

"I don't buy the argument that you just go for the least worst party. Because it only encourages them."

Constant Radical: The Life and Times of Sue Bradford
Release date: June 29, 2017
Publisher: Fraser Books


Warning: The extract below contains strong language

On the repeal of section 59 of the Crimes Act:

Sue developed a variety of ways of coping with the verbal lashings she was subjected to. A public platform was different from a personal approach and different again from emails, letters and phone calls. The barrage began the moment she woke and continued daily for two years.

"Get a hair cut!"

"I saw you in the Auckland People's Centre, beating your children."

"Sue Bradford is a communist out to destroy the families and this country."

"You fucking stuck up pig. What would you know with your big salary deciding what's best for us. Go fucking kill yourself."

"You should be ashamed of yourself and I am sure you have not helped your party. In fact I will never vote for them again, and I may add you are only a pathetic list MP and hope you go."

"You disgust me to the very core of my body, soul and heart."

"There are three bullets on the table. One has the name Sue Bradford."

"Evil do-gooder-meddler. Who the fuck do you think you are?"

"You are truly a mindless prisoner of your own self-importance."

"You are one of the most offensive and naïve people that has ever graced a seat in Parliament. Is it a rule of the Greens not to wash your hair/body for weeks on end?"

Sue recalls that, "People would come up in public to abuse me, talk to me, or support me. I got it from every direction. It was a matter of getting clearer each time and dealing with each approach in an appropriate way.

"People got so angry and upset. I think much of the anger was driven by guilt. Because they'd hit their kids. I wasn't trying to make them feel guilty about how they brought up their children.

"What I was saying was, I understand. That is how you were brought up and what you think is best but we are saying there is a better way. I was trying to calm them down, saying, I am not trying to make you into criminals. But how can it be okay for adults to beat children when it is not okay for adults to beat other adults? "Babies and children are actually fully realised humans and should be treated as such from the time they're born."

On losing out on the Green Party co-leadership:

Cautious quotes for journalists, worded to convey dignity in defeat, gave no hint of how Sue really felt. Though she had prepared herself as best she could for possible disappointment the impact of the result was shattering. "It was the worst defeat of my life. I had never before gone for something so important. I know there was a lot of ego involved but it was also a really bad political defeat. The party made a very clear choice about its direction and style. It threw my whole future totally up in the air."

Dark days followed. Even three weeks on, when the shock of losing was lessening, she was still experiencing the roller coaster of grief: "One moment I am calm, confident and happy and the next I crash into this other space, where everything feels impossible."

It seemed to Sue she had lost everything - principally the co-leadership role she had nourished hopes of, even as, month by month, those hopes curled up and died. And, she was told, any kind of leadership role in the Greens would be closed to her.

Far worse was the vesting of control in three MPs who seemed convinced the party's future depended upon remaining open to National. This was a death blow to the Green Left, dealt from the heart of the party in which she had so passionately believed and for which she had worked so hard for so long.

She was expected to remain loyal and continue working with the same integrity and from the same core principles, to continue holding the Left vote and build the party "from scratch in South Auckland. I had no desire to build the party among low-paid workers, beneficiaries and Pacific Island and Maori people and ask them to vote for a party which might end up supporting National."

Her position seemed untenable. "They've made it very clear that they really want me to stay. I'm getting it from everywhere: 'Stay on! Stay on!' But I feel none of these people understand that I cannot go out and stand up for something I don't believe in. That's part of my truth. That's what people respect me for. The minute I have to do that I'm buggered."

On the first time she was raped:

"I was at a party at a friend's place in Grafton. I wasn't taking drugs at this time. I was very innocent actually. I had had sex but I didn't know a lot." Sue had gone upstairs to go to the toilet when a man, a stranger whom she had seen around the Auckland pub scene from time to time, grabbed her. "He dragged me into a room and pushed the door shut and forced himself on me." Using his superior strength and taking advantage of the fact that Sue was young and didn't have a clue what was going to happen, the man forced her to perform oral sex on him. The experience was shattering. "I was shamed, mortified and violated. I was unable to fight back, unable to run. You feel freaked out and that it's all your fault. I didn't want to talk to anyone about it."

Desperate, she later sought help at a women's consciousness-raising group where she was encouraged to disclose what had happened. Mistake number two. "I didn't know where else to go because we didn't have rape crisis or anything like that in those days. I thought I was in a safe place. When I disclosed [the other women] put me down, abused me and reduced me to crying. They annihilated me. When I look back it was one of the cruelest things that ever happened to me."

Thirty-six years later, on 12 April 2005, Sue successfully moved an amendment at the second reading of the 2005 Crimes Amendment Bill (No 2) to ensure anal and oral rape are classed as rape too. As a teenager she had neither been able to find words, nor anyone willing to listen, but with Sue nothing is ever wasted.

Where to get help

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.