Sue Bradford: No ordinary radical

by Jenny Chamberlain / 12 August, 2017

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Sue Matthews in 1970. She married Bill Bradford in May, 1980.

Sue Bradford’s biographer, Jenny Chamberlain, sums up her 10-year quest to capture the life and times of one of New Zealand’s most admired – and most hated – political activists.

In 2006, while interviewing then Green MP and section 59 campaigner Sue Bradford for a North & South story on child welfare, I found myself asking whether anyone was writing her biography. As we talked, it dawned on me that this principled social-justice battler must have a compelling backstory.

The disparity between her scary radical-activist public image and the sincere, engaging person she actually was, puzzled me. How could someone so personally unassuming have such a powerful polarising effect on people? Where did she get the grit to withstand the decades of opprobrium New Zealanders heaped upon her? What turned this family-minded woman into a high-profile activist most commonly in the news being hauled from demos in a policeman’s headlock?

A year later, with Sue’s consent and her generous co-operation, I set out to answer these questions.

Sue’s mother was American (a post-war bride), but she’s sixth-generation Kiwi on her father’s side; her European missionary genes date from 1820s Northland. Despite her grassroots “New Zild” twang, she was raised in Auckland by middle-class, bohemian intellectuals and survived a childhood made difficult by her brilliant but domineering father.

Fast forward through the tumultuous Vietnam War protest era, the 1981 Springbok Tour and 16 years in the invisible community sector where she became, with husband Bill Bradford, a loud voice and a highly effective organiser for society’s marginalised, and Sue suddenly and unexpectedly found herself in Parliament.

From December 1999, as a hard-working and respected Green MP, she managed a hefty portfolio and succeeded in getting three members’ bills into legislation, including her contentious “anti-smacking” bill to amend section 59 of the Crimes Act. Her mainstream political career ended, abruptly and disappointingly, five months after she lost the May 2009 Green Party co-leadership contest.

Activist and academic: Dr Sue Bradford, lecturer in social practice at Auckland’s Unitec, 2014.

Experienced biographers warned that researching and writing about a living person would be difficult because, unless that person is on the point of expiry, they keep on evolving. Sue is no exception and her custom of conscious growth and self-reinvention compounded the challenge. By the time this project was completed, she had completed a PhD and transformed herself into Dr Sue Bradford – activist and academic. Her readable thesis on the need for a major left-wing think tank in Aotearoa has been downloaded in full almost 3000 times, and Economic and Social Research Aotearoa (ESRA) – the infant left-leaning think tank she set up as a result – is growing lustily.

Sue Bradford is still evolving, but in terms of what matters most – her core social-justice principles – she remains constant.

In the extract that follows, she and husband Bill have retreated to Waiake on Auckland’s North Shore, to support Sue’s ageing mother, Lois Matthews, and to seek respite in suburban anonymity from unrelenting vitriol over section 59. The year is 2007 and the bill that caused New Zealand to tear itself apart over the right to hit children is about to be passed…

On winter nights, Auckland’s Harbour Bridge is a fairground ride – a dazzling arc of lights joining the city to the playful Shore. Sue inches her yellow Honda Jazz – 2007’s car of choice for the environmentally-aware – along a north-moving chain of scarlet while the lanes to her right pour dazzling cascades of headlights south.

She’s finished listening to acerbic Mary Wilson on National Radio’s Checkpoint programme and is playing her kind of music, songs that have got her through old times and recent times: Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen.  Neil Young’s “Restless Consumer”: “Don’t need no more lies... A hundred voices from a hundred lands need someone to listen…”

She’s basking in the prospect of a weekend at home with Bill: supermarket shopping, hot showers, slippers, jeans and Swanni, home-cooked meals, early nights. Her Wellington disguise will rest on hangers, the Twink-encrusted Elite Compact diary will rest open on the kitchen table, alongside laptop, landline and mobile phones. What’s constant homework when you’ve got two days’ break from swimming with crocodiles? Wine will be poured to complement the joint of bacon she plans to simmer in a pot.

Heading north always feels right to Sue – though tonight she’s only going as far as Waiake. She and Bill have swapped the untamed Far North for North Shore suburbia and bought a $465,000 house in an anonymous cul-de-sac, a few streets back from the East Coast Bays coastline. Here, in summer, Kiwi kids in blue uniforms walk home barefoot over kikuyu lawns. On bleak winter Fridays like this one, when cold winds rattle the garden flaxes, everyone scuttles home after work, glad to veg in front of the plasma with takeaways and a DVD. Nobody pays any attention to the section 59-battered Bradfords in anonymous Waiake. And that suits them very well.

Wainui Junction sold quickly and for a good price in April 2006. Bill had been unable to find full-time farm employment and hated being economically dependent on Sue. With Sue, Sam, Joe and Katie all in Wellington, the warm Far North seemed lonely and depressing. On their gradual withdrawal south, the Bradfords perched temporarily and happily at the Bay of Islands beach retreat for a few months, until an Auckland inner-city apartment was found on College Hill, but it didn’t suit the garden-loving couple. Bill took off for three months at the end of 2006 – to clear his head and to finish the travel he’d shelved when he fell for the blonde with the tequila bottle that Russell night 26 years earlier. Then he returned to city work attire and a full-time permanent job at the Problem Gambling Foundation.

In Waiake, Bill looks after Joe – who’s enrolled at Long Bay College – and satisfies his inner farmer by tending two large vegetable patches in the back yard. For her part, Sue is glad to be back on the Shore, only a few minutes from the ageing Lois in Long Bay. Lois has health problems and needs lots of daughterly care, and Sue is committed to building up Auckland’s Green support.

Sue and Bill Bradford at Mangataipa Marae in Hokianga, 1984, with children Danny (left), Richie and Katie.

The Little Bill that Meant No Harm 

After 23 months of passionate battling, which dragged the hearts and consciences of a nation first this way, then that; after Destiny Church marches and Bob McCoskrie’s Family First newspaper ads; after anti-Sue Bradford jokes and the vocal opposition of clinical psychologist and TV host Nigel Latta; after death threats and avalanches of email vileness, the woman who climbed a mountain to make New Zealand’s children legally unbeatable, finally reached the summit.

Sue’s Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill 2007 followed its 10-stage statutory evolution. Its second reading took place on February 21, 2007 and was referred to the Committee of the Whole House. The clause by clause debate by the full House, at which time amendments may be introduced by any MP, took place on March 14 and featured opposition stalling tactics designed to delay the final decision, lengthy pointless speech-making and general bluff and bluster. A number of MPs boasted about their child-smacking prowess, or warned parents would have their children removed under the new law.

On March 28, Barnardos advocacy manager Deborah Morris-Travers, a former New Zealand First MP and Minister of Youth Affairs, presented a “Hands Up For Change” calico banner from pro-repeal coalition Every Child Counts on the steps of Parliament.

Prominent citizens and celebrities including Sir Paul Reeves, Dame Silvia Cartwright, Bishop Richard Randerson, Judy Bailey, Suzy Cato, Deborah Coddington, Brian Edwards, Jude Dobson, Robyn Malcolm and many others had pledged their support with paint handprints.

But the day of days when everything came together was May 2.

Mid-morning, in a surprise joint statement to the media, Prime Minister Helen Clark, National opposition leader John Key and Sue announced they had reached an agreement which would allow the passage of the bill into law. The compromise was the inclusion of a statement that police would not prosecute inconsequential cases of light smacking. (Sue had already made it clear she would withdraw the bill if any amendment justifying the use of force for correction, or describing how children might be legally hit, was forced upon it.)

At 11am, hundreds of section 59 opponents gathered in a Destiny Church-organised demonstration outside Parliament. At midday a prayer vigil, attended by Helen Clark and other supporting politicians, was held at Wellington’s St Paul’s Cathedral. A little after that, on the steps of the Parliamentary Library, Sue and Helen Clark accepted a letter in support of reform, signed by a large number of church leaders.

On the evening of May 2, the debate in the House concluded with a vote overwhelmingly in favour of the amended bill.

Two weeks later, on May 16, following its third and final reading, the bill was passed almost unanimously – 113 MPs voting in favour and only eight opposing. Sue and her pro-repeal supporters – many of whom had worked and waited decades for this moment – gathered in the gallery and rejoiced to hear an unprecedented standing ovation from nearly every MP in the House.

On June 21, 2007 Sue’s bill became law – New Zealand’s children finally got the same legal protection from assault as animals, servants, wives and adults.

It has been suggested by more than one political commentator that the pictures of Clark and Key taken at a joint press conference on their section 59 accord contributed to Key’s success at the 2008 election. Right-wing public affairs strategist Matthew Hooton maintains: “By standing next to Helen Clark on a very contentious issue, John Key made himself look prime ministerial, while also diminishing Clark’s stature and authority… he made the election more certain, noting he was already on track to win. Less importantly – but still important – he sent a message to more liberal voters he was one of them.”

Bradford at a 1992 Auckland Unemployed Workers’ Rights Centre protest.

Meantime, the fractious enactment of the little bill that meant no harm turned Sue, briefly, into New Zealand’s most fêted MP.

In August 2007, the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly placed her 20th,  following Dame Cath Tizard at 19, on a list of “75 New Zealand Women We Love” in their 75th birthday issue.

In September 2007, she ranked 18th on the New Zealand Listener list of “50 Most Influential New Zealanders” (Reserve Bank governor Alan Bollard ranked sixth). Journalist Rebecca Macfie called the bill’s passing a “fundamental shift in the moral climate for New Zealand families… a decision that penetrates every home.” Macfie added, “without Bradford’s dedication energy and political savvy, this shift might never have happened.”

The Dominion Post, in its December 2007 Polly Awards, voted Sue joint politician of the year alongside National’s Bill English: “Agree or disagree, her monumental achievement in eventually getting nearly every MP in Parliament to support her [section 59] bill cannot be denied. And she did so without raising her voice or losing her rag, even during some of the most heated exchanges of the year.”

North & South magazine placed Sue runner-up in the community category of its January 2008 “New Zealander of the Year” awards.

Metro magazine for March 2008 rated her third highest ranking MP after Helen Clark (Labour, Mt Albert) and Phil Goff (Labour, Mt Roskill) in the magazine’s “How Good Is Your MP?” survey for “hard work, effective campaigning and adherence to principle”.

Bradford at an Auckland Town Hall demonstration in 1969.

The section 59 story didn’t stop there, of course. Pro-smackers were undaunted. Ahead lay fundamentalist Christian fightbacks, including full-page newspaper ads to get the legislation reversed.

In 2009, an ambiguously-worded citizen-initiated referendum was held, asking, “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”; Nigel Latta, in a July 18, 2009 Listener piece titled “Confessions of a Bad Parent”, declared himself on the same side of the debate as the Destiny Church’s Brian Tamaki, described the “anti-smacking debate” as an “overdone colossal money-wasting hoo-ha”, and complained we are going to “waste $9 million on a referendum that will achieve nothing”.

Early in the referendum process, Deborah Morris-Travers and Simon Barnett participated in a Sunday television interview during which Barnett admitted he physically punished his children and Morris-Travers courageously described her own and her siblings’ experience of harsh discipline, growing up in a household where, when the wooden spoons used for hitting broke, thick, unbreakable colour-coded plastic substitutes were purchased: “brown for myself, red for my brother and purple for my sister. Every child is different and some are not as resilient. [My older sister’s beatings] undermined her self-esteem, her confidence and sense of place in the family.”

National Party leader John Key (left), Prime Minister Helen Clark and United Future’s Peter Dunne (right) flank Green Party MP Sue Bradford at the announcement of a compromise amendment to Bradford’s section 59 bill, May 2007.

In September 2009, Prime Minister John Key appointed Nigel Latta to head a review, following which Latta concluded the law was working well.

But the grassroots story of why repeal was necessary and why “fair go” New Zealand will never go back to legalising the hitting of children, is contained in a dozen large document boxes, all simply marked “s59”, in the Sue Bradford archive in the Manuscripts and Archives Collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, just over the road from Parliament. Pull out at random any one of hundreds of written submissions received by Lynne Pillay’s select committee and you will read a version of this, written by Jean Rodgers of Greymouth:

“I support this Bill as I know from personal experience how destructive physical discipline of children can be. As a child I was often smacked, hard enough to hurt but not hard enough to leave bruises. The more lasting pain was emotional; it destroyed my relationship with my mother permanently and resulted in loss of confidence and self-esteem which has affected me all my life. Although I did very well academically at school, lack of confidence made it impossible for me to establish myself in a career. Furthermore, as a behaviour modification technique it was totally ineffective; pain and fear override the thinking part of the brain and it is impossible to learn anything under such circumstances.

“My mother may have had good reasons to hit me, but if I knew what they were before the smackings, afterwards all I knew was that I’d been assaulted by someone who had total control of my life. I believe physical punishment either teaches children to use violence to solve problems or… destroys the child’s feelings of self-worth for a very long time. This makes it difficult for that child to become a productive member of society.

“If it is made illegal to smack children, at least parents will think before doing it. I found my own children were surprisingly susceptible to reason at a very early age, if I took the trouble to explain things to them.”

If nothing else, Sue’s section 59 battle is the reason those struck dumb as children now feel empowered to speak. In a July 2014 Sunday Star-Times column lambasting the misleading term “smacking”, Grant Smithies wrote of being punched, kicked and thrown against walls by his father during his 1960s Whanganui childhood.

“Under the old law, the sorts of things he did to me were not only legal, but chillingly widespread… To those who would say, ‘Yes, but it never did you any harm, did it?’ I would say ‘Yes, it most certainly did.’ My relationship with my father was so damaged by his heavy-handed attempts at discipline that it never recovered.”

Smithies wrote how he stayed away during his father’s final illness, only returning to his home town “once he was in a box. When his old friends testified at his funeral to the fun-loving drinking buddy they’d once known, I stood up to say his positive attributes had been considerably less visible to his own children.”

Let’s save the last word (here, at any rate) on section 59 for Murray Edridge, chief executive of Barnardos:

“I am confident that future generations will find it grotesque, even bizarre, that we have spent all this energy trying to preserve an outdated right to hit vulnerable children entrusted to the care of adults.”  


Extracted from Constant Radical: The Life and Times of Sue Bradford by Jenny Chamberlain (Fraser Books, $39.50, distributed by Nationwide Book Distributors, PO Box 65, Oxford, North Canterbury). 

This was published in the July 2017 issue of North & South.


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