Thursday, 8 October 2009

Interview with Sue Bradford

UNITYblog editor David C spoke with Green Party MP Sue Bradford on Monday, September 28, three days after she announced her resignation from parliament and return to grassroots activism.
DC: Why are you resigning from parliament?
SB: My decision to resign is a delayed but direct outcome of the result of the co-leadership contest which happened earlier this year. Since then I’ve done some serious thinking about what the next steps in my life should be.
[The contest was between Sue Bradford and Metiria Turei. Turei was elected female co-leader of the Green Party.]
The Green Party made a clear and democratic decision about the style and direction of the leadership, and I accept totally the democratic decision of the party. But it left me in a difficult position. After much thought, and discussing the issue with key friends and allies, I decided the best thing would be to make a clear break from parliament, and to look for opportunities back in the real world.
Politically I intend to be fully engaged. I feel like I’m going back to where I came from, to community and union activism. But quite how that expresses itself, you never know until you’re out there doing it.
DC: What did you feel that the leadership contest was about? Where you and Metiria Turei presenting two different visions for the party, or just two different styles or personalities?
SB: It was both. Obviously we’re very different people – different ages, ethnicities, experiences. I’m a lot older than Metiria, and there’s pros and cons on the whole issue of age. It was also about slightly different ideas about where the party could and should go.
When we came into parliament in 1999 – with Nandor Tanczos and myself and Rod Donald and others – we were very fresh and new and challenging. We presented a radical image and a radical reality. We were challenging the existing grey old parties. We had a lot of great policy and new ideas and some big issues to campaign on, both on the social and economic area and in the environmental area.
In the ten years since then, I feel we’ve become a little bogged down in parliamentary routine and the detail, and perhaps we have lost some of that fresh radical edge. Radicalism is not about age, it’s about a state of mind, about always being open to change, and about trying to be out on the edge of the politics that we believe in.
In losing some of that freshness and that willingness to be out there and radical and risk-taking politically, we’ve to some extent lost our point of difference with the older parties.
DC: What are some of things about being in parliament that bogs you down?
SB: Or bogs the party down?
DC: Or individual MPs?
SB: There’s a huge amount of detail to deal with on any piece of legislation, in select committee and in the House. All the legislation we deal with is very detailed and we do have to engage with it and do a really good job on it. Sometimes that can become a little overwhelming and become the primary focus – the detail, rather than the broader picture.
One example of that, where I think that we’ve become a bit bogged, is in the area of climate change, which has to be one of the key issues of our day. But I think that we have tended to get bogged in technicalities, rather than accepting and understanding that it is an economic issue and must be treated as such. We should be presenting a radical analysis of climate change and the solutions to it.
If I had become leader I would have liked us to have been engaging in a really lively dialogue with the young climate justice activists – who have what I think is a cutting edge analysis about climate change – rather than just seeing it as a question of how to compromise on emissions trading schemes.
DC: Obviously the emissions trading scheme being introduced now is terrible, but do you think emissions trading schemes can solve the climate crisis?
SB: No, not at all, I think that emissions trading schemes are just another capitalist game, using a failed market model. There’s not even any accurate way of measuring emissions.
The key thing about climate change is that all countries and all governments around the world have to cut emissions. That comes down to having the political will to do the things that are necessary. While technical issues are important, that’s not the main thing, it’s a question of political will.
And behind that is the issue of in whose interests do we cut emissions? Do we do it in a way where the low income and ordinary people in our society can survive? Or do we do it in a way where it just exacerbates the growing gap between rich and poor?
That plays out internationally where so far it’s the poorest nations that have already copped it the worst in terms of the impacts of climate change, and if we’re not careful that will continue to get worse. So there’s a kind of neo-colonialist thing going on with the response to climate change.
DC: The Green Party prides itself on working in a different way from the other parties in parliament, but one thing where it does seem to be following the model of the dominant parties is that the MPs seem to be the dominant force in the party and the party seems to be largely an electoral machine, would that be fair?
SB: I don’t think so actually. I think there’s always going to be a tendency for any party that has elected MPs for the caucus to be powerful and dominant. The Green Party has always worked very hard to try and maintain as much as a balance of power as possible.
We have quite a complex structure. We have the caucus and we also have two other parts of the party that are supposed to balance that, which are the party executive and the party’s own leadership – our co-convenors – and then the policy network, which is a policy-making and approval wing of the party. So there’s three branches. The other two branches are really there to try to counter-balance the MPs.
I’m not saying that it works perfectly, but our people are strong on having their voice heard, and if MPs do something that annoys them, they tend to make a pretty loud noise about it. And they do hold the MPs to account if they think they’re going crook.
DC: You gained a reputation – which I think surprised a lot of people – of being someone who could put together deals across party lines, particularly around Section 59, the private members bill that gave children the same legal protection from assault as adults.
Coming into parliament, your opinion say of National Party MPs probably wasn’t all that high, I just wonder, how you found it working alongside the people responsible for Rogernomics and the benefit cuts in the 1990s, and all those things that you’d fought against? Obviously you have to be civil to them... Was that a hard thing to do? Did it change you opinion of those people?
SB: It was certainly a very rapid learning curve during my first days in parliament. Within a few weeks I’d been placed on the special select committee dealing with the Employment Relations Bill and the re-nationalisation of ACC. This was in very early 2000, and that was the ideological battleground of that time. So I found myself sitting on a select committee with people like Max Bradford and Lockwood Smith and Richard Prebble and other key architects of right-wing economics in this country. I had to learn very fast how to operate in that context. As well as being lobbied by major insurance companies, the Business Roundtable and people I’d always just seen automatically as the enemy.
It’s part of the job, learning how to work with MPs from across the House and with lobbyists from wherever. And I came to feel very strongly that even though some of the lobbyists – not just on those bills, but on many others of course – are diametrically opposed politically to where I come from, and from where the Green Party comes from, I still felt an obligation to listen to them, and to be civil and respectful and to try and pick up any points that might be good. The same with submitters. Because if I was expecting the National Party to be civil and listen well to a worker from a Tokoroa timber mill making a submission on the Employment Relations Bill, then I had the same obligation to be respectful when I heard someone from the Employers and Manufacturers Association.
It’s part of democracy to take all the opinions and ideas and experiences on board, and then come to your political conclusion about what you do about that piece of legislation. And I’ve enjoyed, and actually it’s been a privilege, to have that experience of working with people across political lines. Many of whom, in the past, would not have given me the time of day. I think that’s good in a democracy, because I still believe that it’s better that we do our politics with words and legislation, rather than machetes and guns, as happens in some countries in the world. Of course our democracy’s not perfect, but I’ve certainly done my best to try and make it work.
DC: Is there any one highlight of your ten years in parliament?
SB: The highlight was getting three private members bills through in the last parliament. Not just the repeal of Section 59, but the one that lifted the wages for young workers aged 16 to 17 – which has not been rolled back, thank goodness – as well as my bill extending the time some mothers can keep their babies with them in prison. So there were the legislative highlights.
One of the most important things for me has been the ability, because of being an MP, to give a voice to unemployed people and beneficiaries and low paid workers, in a way that I don’t think has happened in parliament for some time. I think it probably happened back in the 1930s or earlier, when the early Labour Party came in, when there was that raw voice of what’s actually happening for real people, with poverty and unemployment.
I’ve tried to give that voice expression in parliament for the whole ten years. And also other voices too, like that of people with mental illness and their families, people with disabilities, children and young people. I’ve really tried to give a voice to the most vulnerable and exploited in our society, to the extent that I could. It’s never enough. I mean I feel bad that I’ve never been able to do enough, but I’ve done what I could.
DC: Are there any regrets? Anything you feel you’ve missed out on because of your time in parliament? Or anything you couldn’t do or couldn’t speak up on?
There have probably been times when I’ve been held back a little bit, in what I could say. But that’s part of being part of the Green Party caucus, with collective caucus responsibility. When you’re part of a political party, there’s a commitment to being part of the group and representing the group, rather than yourself. That’s important to me, I don’t believe in individualism in politics. That’s added to by the fact that you’re a member of parliament and very visible, so at times I guess I would have been a little held back, but not much.
DC: You’ve said in one of your recent statements that you’re still a radical.
SB: Yes.
DC: Are you still a socialist?
SB: Yes.
DC: Did you find it difficult to retain your radical politics in parliament?
SB: No, I haven’t found it difficult at all.
I’ve found it hard, in recent decades, to identify myself with a label. When I was young it was easy, we all called ourselves labels. As you keep maturing in political life, it’s harder. But if anything I think I’d call myself an ecosocialist and a feminist.
The fact that I’ve got a clear structural understanding of our economy and our society – and have had since I was pretty young, even though it keeps evolving and I keep learning – this is a strength in parliament. Because it means you don’t get lost in the detail. No matter what the issue was, even issues that seem quite tangential, like prostitution reform or gambling or racing, issues that aren’t right at the heart of things. I suppose you could almost call Section 59 that. But I’ve always had an analysis behind what I’m doing, and I’m always clear whose side I’m on in any political debate. And I don’t think I’ve ever sold out.
DC: What does a term like ecosocialism mean to you, both in terms with what’s wrong with capitalism and the sort of changes you’d like to see?
SB: That’s a huge question, you could write a book on that.
I came originally from a communist and socialist background, from when I was pretty young. I kept learning through that. The big thing that traditional communism and socialism missed was what we humans were and are, doing to the earth and the physical environment around us – we just weren’t aware of it. Although I’ve come to realise that Marx actually did have some understanding about it.
[Karl Marx was one of the founders of communism and socialism.]
So in the early ’70s, when the Values Party [forerunner of the Green Party] and some of the Green movements around the world started to raise and talk about it, I began to realise that there’s no way that we can leave the environment out of the equation.
We have to understand that the economy is basically a subsidiary of the environment, and that we humans can’t survive without the planet on which we depend for our existence. That means that environmental and social and economic justice issues have to be brought together into the same basket.
That’s what the Green Party policy and charter are about – caring for earth, caring for people. That’s why I joined the Green Party and stood for parliament, because the kaupapa [philosophy] is one that I support.
We have to do everything we can to redress the damage that we’ve done to the life of this planet, and try and nurture the life that’s on it. To do that well we also have to create a society in which everyone has a chance, and in which the gap between those who have and those who have not is diminished – and that’s the social and economic justice side of the Green kaupapa.
From my frame of reference that’s ecosocialism, but of course to other people in the Green Party they wouldn’t see it within that frame at all. Ecosocialism is just one means, feminism is another. Trying to live as responsible Treaty partners is another frame of reference which the Green Party attempts to live by. So we try to do all these things and Green Party members and MPs tend to have quite diverse lenses through which we see our Green kaupapa, but I see mine through this particular lens.
DC: I know in the Green Party of England and Wales there’s a group called Green Left, who describe themselves as “an anti-capitalist, eco-socialist current within the Green Party”. Would something like that fit in with the way the Green Party operates here?
SB: I’ve been interested in how they do that do that in the UK. But I think that we have a strong culture in the Green Party of Aotearoa not to form factions. Right through the time I’ve been active, since ’98, there’s been a real strong commitment from people not to form either closed or open factions. It’s a big no no, people wouldn’t like it. Beyond that, it may be that our party is too small to sustain that kind of open and clear factionalism that characterises other Green Parties and parties like the Labour Party here. I don’t know what might happen in the future. But it certainly not a direction I’m looking at taking.
DC: Now that you’re going back to the grassroots, what’s the first campaign that you think you’ll get involved in?
SB: It’s too soon to say. I’m very conscious that things change all the time. There are different campaigns happening at the moment and new ones arising. I will build on my current union and community base and probably start going to more demonstrations and more meetings, and just work my way into it. There’s so much work to be done, but to be any use one has to focus. And I’m not ready to make those kinds of decisions yet.
DC: One of the campaigns that’s going on is the Bad Bank’s campaign, and you’re speaking at a public meeting on Thursday night. Why did you agree to speak at that meeting? Why do you think the banks and their behaviour is an important issue?
SB: For the last 30 to 40 years we’ve seen the world economy run to meet the needs of the banks and financial institutions of capital, rather than in the interests of everyone else in society. The role of banks and the financial sector is a key issue, both locally and internationally. It’s important that we analyse what the banks and financial institutions have done and are doing. It’s really important to expose what they’re doing, but also to come up with some solutions, because we still need money as a means of exchange. So I welcomed the opportunity to speak at the meeting and to see what’s going on with that campaign.
DC: One last question. Will the SIS be re-opening your file?
SB: Quite possibly.

1 comment:

Potaua said...

Great interview and really good to see that Sue has retained and strengthened her advocacy of the poor, of youth, of workers and mothers in prison. I'm still a bit vague on ecosocialism - be choice to learn more. Kia kaha Sue and look forward to hearing more.