Real Life

Sue Bradford reveals how personal tragedy inspired her to become a politician

Death threats, drug taking and protesting – the former Green MP and social justice advocate opens up about her life.
Sue Bradford and her husband Bill

Sue Bradford and her husband Bill

When somebody first asked Sue Bradford whether they could write a book about her, the lifelong activist and polarising politician said no.

“I always thought I’d write my own autobiography,” she explains, “but then I thought someone else would get a much more objective view – and they’d do all the work too!”

Then a busy MP for the Green Party, Sue agreed. She confesses, “I was nervous knowing the writer was going to bring up some deep issues from my past, but then it went on so long, I didn’t think it would come out until I was dead!”

However, earlier this year, award-winning North & South journalist Jenny Chamberlain secured a publisher for her book Constant Radical, which is out now after 11 years in the making.

“Suddenly I realised the full horror that I’d be alive when it came out and that other family members would have to deal with it just as I would,” chuckles Sue (65). “Fortunately, they’ve been really supportive.”

None more so than her husband of 37 years, union organiser Bill (64), who had been right by Sue’s side at the frontline of the dramatic anti-Springbok tour protests, supported her through the death of their 19-year-old son Danny and feared for her life when she received death threats.

Sue and Bill tied the knot five months after first meeting and have been together for 37 years.

Talking to the Weekly in the kitchen of their cosy beachside home in Long Bay, Auckland, Bill recalls first meeting Sue at Russell’s famous Duke of Marlborough Hotel on New Year’s Eve in 1979, when the solo mother was taking a rare night off caring for her three-year-old twin sons Richard and Danny.

Sporting long blonde hair and a pink dress, Sue was sitting on the floor with a bottle of tequila.

“I liked the look of the woman and I liked the look of tequila, so I thought I should introduce myself,” Bill grins. “I sat down beside her and we’ve been together ever since.”

A self-described “feminist hippie” who had been the victim of multiple rapes and struggled with hard drugs, Sue never dreamt she’d marry, but her connection with Bill was so strong, they tied the knot just five months later.

Sue was pregnant with their daughter Katie – now a political reporter for 1 News – while the pair were at the forefront of protests against the 1981 Springbok Tour. Arrested seven times, she believes she only avoided jail time because she was breastfeeding by the time her case went to court.

Sue says, “I’d experienced some full-on demonstrations, but this was on another level, so it was wonderful to have my partner so close by.”

The couple spent the next decade fighting for the rights of the unemployed. They had little money and were often subject to intimidation, but they were delighted with the arrival of sons Sam and Joe.

Then, in 1995, Danny, who had been diagnosed with acute schizophrenia, escaped from the Carrington Psychiatric Hospital and leapt from Auckland’s Grafton Bridge.

“We’d already had so many years of thinking, talking and worrying about Danny,” Sue says quietly. “It was a final devastation. We had to lean on each other.”

Danny’s death inspired Sue’s move into mainstream politics, which saw her join the Green Party. She was elected in 1999 and regarded as one of parliament’s hardest-working MPs, but perhaps her greatest triumph was the amendment of section 59 of the Crimes Act, which is often referred to as the “anti-smacking bill”.

The self-described “feminist hippie” in her greenhouse.

Before then, it had been illegal to beat your spouse or an animal, but not a child. Supported by both National and Labour, Sue’s bill removed the legal defence of “reasonable force” for parents prosecuted for assault on their children and was described as “a fundamental shift in the moral climate for New Zealand families”.

While Sue was regularly bullied for her appearance throughout her time in parliament, the abuse intensified over the four years she battled to pass the act. People claimed to have seen Sue beat her children and she received death threats.

“That was a scary time for the family,” she recalls. “Fortunately, parliament took it very seriously and the police talked to me about security – it was the first time I’d had that relationship with them!”

After losing a vote for co-leader, Sue quit the Greens in 2009, claiming they had drifted toward the centre. She was devastated about leaving a party she’d put 12 years into but delighted to spend more time at home with Bill, who encouraged her to complete a PhD in social policy and set up a left-wing think tank.

Sue celebrated her 65th birthday with a family dinner last week, but don’t mention “the R word”.

She insists, “I still feel full of life and a desire to make political change. Things are getting harder for people and there’s no real voice for the homeless, or people who are on low or no wages. It’s the same fight I’ve been in all my life. I’ll be chipping away at the man until the very end.”

Crisis help

Services are available for people who may be thinking about suicide or those who are concerned about family or friends. They include: Lifeline 0800 543 354, Depression Helpline 0800 111 757 and Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 828 865.

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