The loss of Sue Bradford

Sue Bradford will be a big loss from parliament. Her decision to resign after 10 years as a Green MP removes the strongest voice for the most vulnerable groups in New Zealand.

It’s not a case of another MP stepping up to fill her shoes. There is no-one. Amongst other Green MPs there are sincerely-held concerns about social injustice but they tend to be at a more intellectual level. With Sue it’s about the unvarnished, gritty reality of life for the marginalised. She has her feet close to the ground and advocates with more passion and purpose than anyone else in parliament.

In the last few days her parliamentary career has been summed up with three achievements via the private members bills she introduced and navigated through to law; the divisive Section 59 law change which gives children the same protection from violence as adults; allowing mothers in prison to keep their babies with them for longer and raising the minimum youth wage to the same as the adult minimum.

These are significant achievements but her greatest influence has been in keeping issues of unemployment, worker rights and children in poverty to the forefront. Her mere presence will have cautioned Labour against moving even further to the right and will be having a similar tempering effect on National. If there is such a thing as a parliamentary conscience then Sue Bradford is as close as it gets.

Taking her parliamentary place will be David Clendon who says environmentalism and social justice are two sides of the same coin. This is fair enough but where will the determined advocacy come from?

It’s true the Maori Party MPs also speak with passion for low-income families and they were instrumental earlier this year in having the minimum wage increased by 50c to $12.50 However their strategy focuses on gains for Maori and through Maori institutions. This doesn’t extend across the board to all low-income families and for Maori not connected to their tribal roots little can be expected to change.

Sue Bradford’s resignation shows in sharp relief just how unrepresentative our parliament really is. We often debate Maori representation or how many women MPs we should have but what about worker representation? Or beneficiary representation? Based on our national profile we should have about 7 MPs from amongst the unemployed and half our parliamentarians from jobs earning less than the median income of around $39,000 per annum. I doubt there would be more than five percent of current MPs in that category and not a single MP would have entered parliament from a job paying less than $15 an hour despite 450,000 New Zealanders being in this category.

Our parliament is dominated by professionals, intellectuals and business people many of whom sniffily comment they have had to take a pay cut to come to parliament. I’d hazard a guess that around 90% of MPs entered parliament from jobs in the top 30% of incomes. The result is a parliament of the well-off, by the well-off and for the well-off.

The main parties don’t seem to worry and political debate revolves around the notion that’s what’s good for business is good for New Zealanders. This has never been the case and never will be.

When times are good for business we have booming profits and low wages as we saw over the past decade under Labour. Then in the recession we have redundancies, pay cuts and shortened hours. Either way the lowest paid suffer the most and yet have no effective parliamentary representation. The big parties are there for the middle class while low-income workers are expected to shut up and be grateful.

I can hear a chorus of voices saying we need so-called “successful” people to represent the country in parliament. Democracy says otherwise. I also hear the suggestion that those on low incomes should form their own political parties to advocate for economic change. This is easier said than done because of the huge costs associated with political campaigning. We won’t see a host of corporate donations going in that direction.

We have a deeply distorted system of representation which is government for the corporate and the comfortable. And that is why Sue Bradford’s voice has been so unique and so important. Prior to her election as an MP she was a spokesperson for the unemployed and has spoken out more strongly and consistently than any other MP on behalf of the growing proportion of the population who are struggling.

Auckland Mayoral candidate Len Brown says he’d welcome the chance to work with Sue on the new Auckland super city council to be elected next year. It would be good if she agreed.