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The wild life and times of ex-Green MP and constant hero Sue Bradford

Deborah Coddington celebrates a biography of former Green MP Sue Bradford.

When did New Zealanders who loved a good debate morph into silo mentality? Current zeitgeist has us in this curious – not to say alarmingly unhealthy – state that we all must urgently agree over everything: personal opinions, political policies, future predictions, even book reviews (cf my last effort on this organ).

March right instead of left-left, and the liberals get trigger happy, clamouring for the dissenters to be silenced. The far-right are equally nasty, circling the wagons now that Ardern is prime minister, and making spiteful sexist comments.

But we don’t have to agree with individuals to be their friends or to admire them. Little minds might imagine a former Act MP would only buy Constant Radical: The Life and Times of Sue Bradford to burn, but I enjoyed it immensely.

Yes, I do disagree with much of Bradford’s self-avowed Marxist and communist philosophy. But as an Act MP I supported some of the then Green Party’s freedom policies (eg the right for boy racers not to have their cars – ie, property – seized). I actively supported her repeal of S59 of the Crimes Act. What was so diabolical about giving children the same justice as adults when they’d been subjected to unreasonable force, ie violence? Children aren’t “almost people”, undeserving of “one law for all”, as the Act Party seemed to believe.

Stock photo more or less: Sue Bradford protesting at the Sky City Convention Centre on May 16, 2014. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Author Jenny Chamberlain has worked her butt off researching Bradford’s family background, traipsing through early generations landing in the far north, through to Bradford’s domineering, super-intelligent, boozing, womanising, bullying father Richard (Dick) Matthews, founding professor of microbiology at the University of Auckland. Dick, charismatic, chauvinistic, and truly vile to his wife and Bradford’s mother Lois, surely was the catalyst for his daughter becoming a constant radical.

“To Sue,” writes Chamberlain, “and to others, Dick seemed to esteem men above women and, by extension, his sons – especially the most powerfully built and academically bright of his sons – above his only daughter. He embraced the authoritarian paterfamilias role, maintaining control over his family, particularly its female members, through force of will and anger…an intellectual bohemian-peasant – a libertine, with a predilection for nudity and extra marital sex; a rustic, happiest working the land; a serious-minded scientist who mussed his hair and untucked his shirts before walking into lectures.”

As the author points out, his attempts to shout his daughter into submission backfired when she became more famous than him. He was a hypocrite to boot, beginning an affair soon after he married with a woman only identified in the book as “Clare”. Then when Clare dumped him he hit the booze, became violent and a serial adulterer, telling Lois about the women as if she were his sister. Amazingly their marriage lasted 35 years.

No wonder Sue rejected that way of life to be a strong wife to supportive Bill Bradford, with both of them devoted to their five children. She saw feminism not exemplified by corporate bully women, but as nurturing strong motherhood, independent but supported by the State financially so not forced to go out to work.

Sue Matthews was born in July 1952, from the start clever, stubborn and stroppy. She got into trouble at school for selling Mao’s Little Red Book. At age 15 she came second in a Lions’ Club essay competition on world peace. Alan Bollard won. One year later she was raped for the first time when a man grabbed her at a party in Grafton, pulled her into a room and forced her to perform oral sex on him. It was a shattering experience made worse when she went to a women’s conscious-raising group and was “put down, abused and [the women] reduced me to crying. They annihilated me. When I look back it was one of the cruellest things…”

These words would be the only ones in the entire 388 pages that come within cooee of a whinge despite her being raped twice more (she still can’t talk about the third rape). Truckloads of tragedy ran her down: one of her five children, Danny, a twin, takes his own life in 1995 after years of mental illness, then three years later Katie (TVNZ political reporter) was almost killed in a car accident.

But she got up again. Bradford had enormous strength, and used her personal crises to improve the world. Thirty-six years after the first rape she successfully moved an amendment to the 2005 Crimes Amendment Bill (No 2) which saw anal and oral rape reclassified from sexual violation to rape. Hansard records her words: “The time has come when we should stop pussyfooting around and using euphemisms like ‘sexual violation’ to cover over what is rape.”

Many of her critics query her nasal Kiwi accent, an affectation, they say, to cover a ‘middle-class’ upbringing. Firstly, so what? It matters more where one is heading, than whence one came. Secondly, her background is pretty grim. Hardly ‘middle-class’. There were six years of serious addiction to heroin – beginning, of course, with smoking a joint at the Resistance Bookshop, then on to hanging out at the Kiwi Pub (now demolished). The roll call of all those political activists, artists, poets – anyone who frequented that stinking, piss-soaked, graffiti-scrawled cesspool will love this memory jogger.

The book’s chocker with information about those times, a valuable record of what went on, politically and personally, from the 1960s when activists like Bradford were joining the Progressive Youth Movement, graduating to the Communist Party, on to the Values Party and then the Greens – the latter very tame in comparison to what the firebrand, who’d already been to prison and was used to meetings in smokey, smelly dumps. “The Green Party,” she said in 1990, “seemed to really like meeting in cafes.”

What a woman. So much guts and so much open-heartedness. The photo section shows a beautiful young hippy with long straight hair – a shy woman who stood to the side in group shots. When she cut that fine hair and it sprang about her head in that flyaway frizz Jane Clifton said it looked like an “angry dandelion”.

Did I find any fault with this book? Not much. Nit-picker that I am, the editing is clunky – spelling mistakes abound, including Sue Kedgley’s name. The design could have been way better considering how much work went into researching and writing – the cover is such a cliché: white type reversed out of red with a plonky photo of Sue bled across the page. Inside, the lay-out gives off such daunting textbook vibes that any bookshop browser would be tempted to run a mile.

Don’t be put off – not by the images you’ve seen of Bradford manhandled by the cops on TV, not by the cover design, nor because you voted for National/Act. Jenny Chamberlain, feature writer and deputy editor for years at North & South magazine, brings her excellent writing style to this book, making it an absolute breeze to read.

Constant Radical: The Life and Times of Sue Bradford by Jenny Chamberlain (Fraser Books, $39.50) is available at Unity Books.

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