Sue Bradford: Constant Radical

How effective are those who pursue change outside the parliamentary system?

My first memory of Sue Bradford is of the feisty speech she gave to the 1984 Economic Summit Conference pleading that a greater commitment be given to the people she worked with – those on the margins of society: the unemployed, the poor, the mentally and physically disabled. It was so impressive that some businessmen offered Sue a job. She irritatedly replied that they had missed the whole point of her speech for the businessmen were not offering anything to those she represented.

Much of Sue’s life has been spent working in agencies supporting the marginal at an individual  level but, in parallel, she has also been involved in a wide range of community actions and protests demanding better public policies for them. Reading her biography, Constant Radical by Jenny Chamberlain, one is struck by the number of protests but might also conclude they have had little effect. (For instance, the Labour Government appears to have totally ignored her ESC speech.) As much as the agencies she has been involved with have improved the lives of the individuals who approached them, arguably, the group as a whole are, 33 years later, worse off. Is this too harsh a judgement?

In a recent talk, historian Malcolm McKinnon, challenged the standard view that the unemployed protests during the Great Depression of the 1930s had no impact on economic policy. McKinnon points out there were policy changes after the disturbances, which moderated some of the pressures on the unemployed. One might argue they were insufficient, but New Zealand was in a headlock of austerity policies because of its overseas debts. Alternatively, you could argue the policy changes would have happened anyway; it is always difficult to identify what changed policies; there is rarely a smoking gun.

Some protests have had an influence. The list includes the peace movement which in the early 1960s made demands such as withdrawal from SEATO and ANZUS and a nuclear-free New Zealand that few protestors would have thought achievable in their lifetime. The women’s marches of the 1970s emphasised to politicians that not only are women strong but there were an awful lot of voters among them. Anti-apartheid protests may have added a little to the pressures on South Africa to change and they certainly lifted imprisoned Nelson Mandela’s spirits. These movement were all centred on the middle class whose political leverage can be considerable. You would hardly describe the marchers on the Great Maori Land March of 1975 in such terms. But while strengthening Maori resolve, the march also seems to have drawn the Pakeha middle class’s attention to the injustices experienced by Maori, thus contributing to resolving (in part) the grievances decades later. (There may be a lesson here for demonstrators; don’t expect an early effective response to your demands.)

However, I find it harder to think of many similar successes for actions on behalf of the marginalised with whom Sue was involved. Perhaps she might argue that without the protests, their plight would have been even worse.

For the ten years from 1999 to 2009, Sue gave up the community agencies and barricades to be a Green MP in parliament. Although she was never a cabinet minister, the book reports much useful activity, especially her famous shepherding of the ‘anti-smacking’ law though parliament in 2007. This involved repealing Section 59 from the Crimes Act 1961 which gave the legal defence of ‘reasonable force’ for parents prosecuted for assault on their children. (Given there is still a rump that believe civilisation is about to end unless you can do physical violence to your child, it is well to remember that parliament voted 113 to 8.)

Sue left parliament in 2009 when she failed to replace Jeanette Fitzsimons as a co-leader of the Green Party. (The successful candidate was Metiria Turei.) The biography has a description of this and the related struggle within the Greens as to the direction the party should take. It is a complicated story which I have not seen written up in as much detail. Among the dimensions was the extent to which the party should be exclusively concerned with the environment or whether it should also pursue social justice and a better deal for the poor. A related issue is the extent to which it should shift towards the centre to increase its voter share or remain a party of steadfast principle.

I found the biography particularly helpful as a pointer to why, during the recent coalition negotiations, the Green’s leadership ruled out joining a National-led coalition government despite the enthusiasm of some non-Greens. The Greens are the party which is the most consultative with its membership and, whatever its MPs might have thought, it is clear there would have been unbearable tensions among members had the caucus shacked up with National.

After leaving parliament, Sue returned to her community activities but she has also sought, or considered seeking, further positions in the formal political system. I doubt she is interested in the baubles of office. Perhaps she has come to the conclusion reached by many New Zealand radicals that to make a difference one has to command the power of the state. Perhaps the reason that the marginalised have done so badly over the decades is because there have been insufficient in parliament who have really cared about them in the way Sue has.