Activist, iconoclast and serial mayoral candidate Penny Bright is an indefatigable, unmistakable fixture in Auckland politics. River Lin joins her for a day on the campaign trail
The “heartbeat of the revolution”, says Penny Bright, begins in a ramshackle home in Kingsland.
My body sinks into a worn-out couch in a corner of Bright’s house, accompanied by a plush dog with a top hat, three clocks running at three different times, several stacks of books on gardening, a ball-jointed doll with a tiny grey afro, a pack of senior nappies used for cleaning the stencils for her campaign signs, a collection of wooden horse figurines and two TVs propped on a pile of mattresses a metre high. The smell of burnt potatoes lingers in the air.
It’s 4pm. I’ve been with the activist and mayoral candidate most of the day, over the course of which all I’ve consumed is a prune, two Weetbix biscuits and a coffee topped with a dead bug and golden syrup. I’ve quickly come to the realisation that I may just be starving to death. But to explain how I’ve found myself wasting away on Penny Bright’s couch with a Bratz doll drilling its eyes into the back of my head, I need to rewind back to 9:30 this morning.
I first meet Penny Bright, self-styled “corporate nightmare” and serial candidate for mayor of Auckland, during a meeting on glyphosate poisoning in the Auckland Town Hall.
She tells me, by way of greeting, that she had spent the morning making campaign signs, showing off the spray paint which had streaked her hands black and red. “Because unlike [John] Key, I can nail a signboard.”
Bright spends the first half periodically nudging me, smiling and reciting paragraphs of an obscure government act from 1956 which are far too long to meet the criteria for Things Which Should Be Whispered. The second half is spent making her rounds across the room as she joins the audience in heckling the councillors seated at the round table in front of her.
I spend the entire meeting wishing I could leave for the bathroom and never come back.
At noon, we travel from Auckland city to Kingsland, where Bright says a friend of hers has agreed to help her put up campaign signs across South Auckland. As we drive out into the suburbs, she amuses herself by calling out “Clutter!” at the clusters of signboards which dot the area.
We travel first to a home in Ōtara, then to a store in East Tamaki. She jokes about me being her assistant, laughing all the while. Bright’s supporters, though they may not be great in number, are loyal to her and her radical leftwing approach. Many have known her for years – since long before her time as a candidate in the Auckland mayoral elections.
Bright grew up in the Wairarapa town of Carterton, moving to Auckland in 1981, aged 27, where she found work as an apprentice metal fabrication engineer. “I’m a tradie, and I’m not stupid – I can read,” she says. “Part of what you are is what you’ve been through… What the public hate is flash cars and overseas trips.”
Her anti-corporate campaign, aimed at greater transparency, preventing corruption and the needs of middle New Zealand, is driven largely by the intent of “capturing that anti-Brexit feel that’s out there… that Brexit feeling.”
In between stops, the “investigative activist” takes the time to rant about the other, “spectacularly clueless” mayoral candidates and their policies. John Palino is a “one trick pony” invested in “satellite cities”. Phil Goff is “a safe pair of corporate hands”. Chloe Swarbrick lacks experience, in contrast with Bright’s own “20 years of experience” and “proven track record”.
One of the more glaring issues to come out of what she sees as a failure in her fellow candidates is the “mainstream media demonisation” of her role as an activist. Bright says isn’t too concerned with the negative connotations attached to the label but, rather, their censorship of her voice, as she explains, “If you didn’t have activists, you wouldn’t have progress.”
Her face soon turns dark as she thinks of the media’s portrayal of her highly-publicised fight against paying some $34,000 in rates – what “her warship” refers to as a “one-person, nine-year pay rates revolt”.
The reason behind the revolt, she says, is simple. When questioned on her refusal to pay, she replies, “I would ask them, ‘Have you heard of the Public Records Act?’ and they say, ‘No.'” She looks at me expectantly. I don’t really see what she’s getting at, but I smile and nod my head anyway.
If anything, Bright is incredibly optimistic – to a point of naiveté, even – but she’s earnest in her desire to do what she believes is best for the public.
“It’s not how you start the race, it’s how you finish,” she says when asked about a long list of failed campaigns – the detritus of which sit forlornly in her front yard.
“I’m really allergic to people telling me what to do,” she says. Even if that means having to “do a Penny Bright, stand on my hind legs” or “do a Winston [Peters] and cause a major upset”.
This “furious independent” is undaunted by her critics. “Whether they like me or loathe me, I know they respect me because they know I get things done… I’ve got facts and evidence coming out of my ears… Gosh, what will it be like when I become mayor?”
In three-and-a-half hours, we’ve managed to put up three signs. At 3:30 pm, we travel to a local store in Onehunga to stock up on spray paint before heading back to her home. She pays in a handful of loose change.
At 4:30 pm, we leave Bright’s home in Kingsland for two final meetings in the city; the first for resource management, the second for a living wage. As we make the drive back into town, I feel a wave of dread and exhaustion wash across me. My eyes glaze over at the thought of another two hours as Penny Bright’s “assistant”.
As we drive along Queen Street, she points at the clock above Farmers and declares, “When I’m the mayor, the clock will be fixed.” I’m fading, jotting her enthusiastic remark in my notebook in a barely legible scrawl.
It’s almost 5 pm as I walk, dazed, into a building to join a tireless Bright for what will inevitably be a long, long meeting. I receive a worried call from my editor. I call out to Her Warship, one foot already in an elevator door. I’m so sorry, I cry, but I simply have to go.