Activist and former politician Sue Bradford has been called an ‘angry radical’ most of her life. Leonie Hayden caught up with her to find out how she uses that anger for good.
When I was tasked with thinking of women I admire that have been called “angry” or used anger as a motivation in some way, it didn’t take long before I formed a mental picture of Dr Sue Bradford.
Two big profiles on the former Green MP have called her “no ordinary radical” and “the misunderstood radical”. Her biography is titled Constant Radical: The Life and Times of Sue Bradford.
It’s easy to see how Bradford’s legacy is defined.
The woman I sat opposite at the Kōtare Trust, a marae-style “residential school for social change” in rural Wellsford, was warm and engaging. She was confident and welcoming, but not a dominating presence by any measure. She ended each answer with a smile to let me know she’d finished talking.
Is the reputation earned? She’s been a formidable player in activist circles since she was just 15 years old when she joined the anti-Vietnam War movement and started selling Mao’s Little Red Book to schoolmates at Auckland Girls’ Grammar. Since then she’s campaigned for the fight against apartheid, women’s liberation, LGBTQI+ equality, Māori land rights and more.
She told me all the movements she’s been a part of eventually found widespread acceptance, except for one.
“Wave after wave of protests and organisations that I’ve been part of have been accepted into the mainstream of New Zealand politics and society. But where we’ve never won anything, really, is in the struggle of unemployed workers and beneficiaries just to be treated with respect and to be treated as humanely as the rest of society.”
She said the struggle continues. “When you’re up against the heart of capitalism, against the heart of your economic system, that’s the hardest, deepest struggle of all. That’s still the one that matters the most to me, but that’s also deeply entwined with what happens with our planet.”
It’s hard to think of such compassion as “angry” but it’s a badge she’s worn for long enough, perhaps because it’s hard to keep an appeasing smile on your face when a police officer has you in a headlock.
She told me it’s a label she’s found “hard to adjust to” over the years.
“I was first arrested when I was 16 [during] an occupation and I’ve been arrested many, many times since then on demonstrations. There’s been a lot of images in the media of me with the cops. Often the cops have been beating me up. I’ve been locked up many times and I think that imagery has infiltrated the public mind.”
She thought that once she entered parliament, a 10-year career that lasted from 1999 to 2009, that the perception of her as a scrappy protestor might change. And she was right in many respects: Bradford was a very well-respected MP, taking titles like NZ Herald’s backbencher of the year in 2000, the Dominion Post’s politician of the year in 2007, and North & South’s backbencher of the year in 2008.
She also managed to pass an impressive three private member’s bills in that time – including the controversial anti-smacking bill, as it became known (Bradford prefers “anti-beating”), which removed the legal defence of “reasonable force” from the Crimes Act for parents who assault their children. Furious Destiny Church marches and Family First newspaper ads ensued.
“I was hoping that perhaps the images of me being an MP might start to contradict that [angry image]. I think people did start to see me in a different way for a while there when I was an MP, but the fact is the biggest struggle I was part of while I was in parliament was around changing the law which allowed people to legally assault their children. Little did I realise that for such a big part of this country that was seen as much worse than the struggles around unemployment and welfare. That was very bitter. There were death threats and things like that going on, which were pretty nasty.
“In the end, nearly every single MP in parliament voted for my bill. I think that was a testament to that process of working with people over the years, NGOs and groups on the ground, but also some of us in parliament. To keep talking, to keep listening, to get past the anger, and to make real change that was in the interest beyond any of us individually.”
She’s aware that the “angry” label, and the backlash politicians receive, is gendered. “I could see right from when I was very young a huge difference between how we ‘chicks’ were seen very differently to our male counterparts. It was really bad when I was young.
“Male protest leaders who are visible are often seen quite differently – not as angry, but as heroic, I think. I never felt that I was seen that way.”
The veteran campaigner has had her share of private and public loss, including her bid at the Green Party co-leadership in 2009 which saw her beaten by the less radical Metiria Turei (a sentence that probably makes sense only to those who remember the leadership race). Bradford left the party soon after. There was a short stint in the Mana Party, which ended in 2014 after the party’s disastrous decision to join forces with Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party. She gained her PhD in public policy in 2015, adding to her degrees in history and political studies, and her masters in Chinese, and is still a sought-after voice on social change.
She’s buoyed by the advances that have been made for “angry women and minorities”, but recognises there’s still a long way to go. “It’s changed hugely over the years, through all the struggles of women, Māori, gay and genderqueer people. I think it’s wonderful that women like [Ihumātao protest leader] Pania Newton can take their rightful place as leaders much more easily and more acceptably than in earlier times.
“Some of the same issues of exploitation of abuse are still going on though. There’s no question of that.”
If giving a shit is radical and anger helps change the world, then sign me up for a long and productive life of being called an angry radical, just like Bradford. But it can be a lonely road, and she had advice for those wanting to use their anger positively in the world: find your crew.
“Find your whānau, find your rōpū. Find an organisation, or if you can’t find one that already exists, start to work to build one. The key is, whatever the kaupapa is, join with others.”
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