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Sue Bradford - 2008 Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture

Lee Rhiannon 6 May 2008

The 2008 Juanita Nielsen lecture was given by New Zealand Greens MP Sue Bradford on 6 May 2008. Sue was first elected to Parliament in 1999. She graduated from the University of Auckland in History and Political Studies and later obtained a MA in Chinese and a Diploma in journalism. Sue’s speech is titled The Fight for Social Justice in the Age of Climate Change and Peak Oil – an Aotearoa Perspective.

Sue Bradford has been an activist for social justice, peace and women's issues since 1967, protesting against the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons and apartheid and for the rights of women and the unemployed. She has set up people's organisations, amongst them the Auckland Unemployed Workers Rights Centre and then the Auckland People's Centre, a 'union' for unemployed workers and beneficiaries and other low income people.

Good evening, and thanks very much to the New South Wales Greens for inviting me from across the Tasman to be with you tonight.  Before I go any further I would first like to  acknowledge the indigenous people of this place, as I would do if I was speaking at home.

I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.  Greetings to the original peoples of this land, and to your waters and earth, and to all those who have gone before.  Thank you, too, to all those Australians who joined in the recent apology. Your ‘sorry’ was big news in our country where I think we are  at least a little way ahead of you, even at institutional level, in beginning to understand and pay back some of what is owed to Maori whose lands, lives and treasures where seized and often destroyed by the colonizing ancestors of we European settlers.

It was great for many of us in Aotearoa New Zealand to  realize that at last settler Australia is beginning to acknowledge and understand the truth of your history here.  I look forward to hearing what steps the Rudd and future Governments are going to take to offer genuine restoration, restitution  and justice to  the original peoples of this land.

As we’ve found out in NZ, acknowledging  the injustices  of the past is only the beginning of the a long journey towards remedying them.  It is a journey fraught with difficulties but also filled with great opportunities for learning and developing a richer, far more just society.

I felt really privileged to have been invited to take part in this annual lecture honouring a woman activist of whom I had never heard, but who I now realize paid the ultimate price all those years ago for her leadership and tenacity in the struggle for social and environmental justice here in Sydney.

When I first heard something of Juanita’s story I felt a real sense of shock and sadness even though her disappearance happened so long ago.  I am sure that similarly to  some of you here tonight, your first activism, like mine,  took place during the various campaigns and mobilizations of  the late 60s and early 70s.  Becoming aware that one of us lost her life in the struggles of that time is a sobering reminder of what can happen even in the comparatively benign political environment our countries sustain.

I pay tribute to Juanita, and alongside her to all of you here tonight who have kept the flame of struggle alive, no matter what movements you were in then and are in now – I believe every one  who has kept going  and not given up, or sold out is worth their weight in gold.  I also honour all those younger activists who are coming through here and at home, challenging us older ones in our assumptions, and bringing the next generations of passion and commitment to the age old struggle for a society in which everyone has a chance for a  fair go and a fulfilling life, not just some of us.

I am going to turn more formally to the topic for tonight in a moment, but because most of you don’t know me at all, I thought I would tell you just a little of my own story, as I believe my only justification for talking here on an occasion like this lies in where I come from and what I”ve done, not from the fact I happen to be an MP in the NZ Parliament.

I grew up in Auckland, our largest city, and became very active in street politics, especially in the peace and anti Vietnam War movements from 1967 onwards, from when I was 15.  I left school at 16 and was arrested for the first time during an occupation of the American consulate.   I was part of setting up our first womens’ liberation group on the floor of our main student pub in 1970, having been inspired by what we saw movement women doing in other countries, including yours. 

I have really been an activist ever since, with the biggest gap coming in the late 70s when I ended up being a solo mother of twins living on the benefit for a number of years.  I went back to university at the time to try and keep myself sane, and studied Chinese language,  In 1980 – 81 I spent six months studying in Beijing.  Seeing something of China up close and personal at a time of great change and dissent there reenergized my commitment to the struggle back home.

I came back to New Zealand  just in time for the mobilization against the Springbok Tour, when our country came very close to genuine civil war – it was almost a miracle that no one was killed – by the last test match things had got very rough indeed.  I was involved with the direct action squads doing things like taking over television stations and occupying aircraft, and spent a lot of time in cells and courts.

In 1983 I was part of a group of unemployed people who set up an unemployed workers union in Auckland at a time when unemployment was becoming very high, and basically I spent the next sixteen years of my life working with unemployed and low paid workers and beneficiaries locally and nationally.  Our groups were very active in opposing the far right wing Labour Government reforms of the 1980s, and then continued with even more desperation to oppose what our National Government did to workers and beneficiaries in the 1990s.  The benefit cuts and deunionising Employment Contracts Act of 1991 prefigured, I think, what happened for you guys quite a lot later.

In our work on poverty and unemployment, we had two main goals – firstly to help people survive what was happening to them, and secondly to keep up political activism and lobbying as strongly as we could.  We did things like organizing the first marches against unemployment in Auckland since the Great Depression, occupying the Reserve Bank and erecting a shanty town and swimming in the private pool of one of our country’s richest men in a bid to drive up the contradictions.   We spent more time in police and prison cells.

At the same time we realized that to have any credibility in standing up for unemployed people we also had to do everything we could not just to advocate for  people at the front lines of their dealings with government departments but also to help them with basic survival.  This lead to us setting up the three Auckland Peoples Centres which provided free medical and cheap dental services, educational, small business support, hairdressing, green dollars and other programmes in return for a membership fee of $10 a month per family.  We were grappling with the urgency of building our own form of union for people for whom employed workers unions often had little relevance, while also finding a source of funding that would enable us to continue our out front political activity.

At our peak around 14,000 people were using our services – and within that we maintained our core activist group.  We also got more and more involved in linkages with peoples’ social justice and environmental organizations in other countries, for example working with other groups locally and elsewhere to organise demonstrations  at the time of Asian Development Bank, CHOGM and APEC meetings in Auckland through the 90s.

Through all this I became increasingly conscious that there are three main ways to change the system,  The first is from the outside, metaphorically throwing rocks against the citadels of power; the second is through building our own peoples’ social, economic and environmental bases within the shell of a rotten system, which is what we were doing with the Peoples Centres; the third is by going inside and trying to change it from within.

I never thought I”d end up on the third route, and nor did many people who knew me.  But in the late 90s our Green Party went through some rather necessary changes, and I rejoined it and stood for Parliament in the 1999 election.  Much to my surprise and that of many others I think, I suddenly found myself one of the first seven Green MPs in our Parliament.

So this is where I am for now, trying to change the system from within, but still in touch with my union and community activist origins and well aware that if I survive life as an MP, I”ll be back on the street again before I know it, and happy to be there.

In the nine years I”ve been in Parliament, I have focused above all on doing my best to give voice to the voiceless, those with least power and influence in our society – children and young people, low wage workers, unemployed workers and beneficiaries, and people with mental health problems and physical impairment.  Probably the biggest thing I”ve been able to achieve so far was the success of a private member’s bill which we succeeded in getting through last year, which reformed our laws on violence against children so that it is no longer legal in our country to hit, beat or whack babies and children in the name of parental discipline.

One of the main lessons I extract from our history, and I’m sure it’s the same here, is that for workers, beneficiaries and their families, nothing comes without struggle.  We must not allow ourselves to be lulled into believing that strikes and protests are just an interesting historical artifact, that somehow we’re past all that.

The capitalist media and commercial TV, at least in New Zealand,  keep trying to cocoon us and persuade us that the days of protest and activism are over except perhaps for a few fringe deranged people.   This is just what has happened in the last few days in terms of the mainstream media and political reaction to the activities of a few brave Catholic Ploughshares activists  in our South Island who very visibly deflated the covering of the Waihopai spy base satellite dish.  What all of us here I’m sure have learned, and need to keep remembering and passing on, is that no matter what kind of Government we have, it is essential that the political struggle on the streets and in our workplaces and communities continues.

However, what our forebears in the union and community activist movements fifty or a hundred years ago could not have had any concept of was that by 2008 we would be facing the realities not only of ongoing social and economic injustice but also of peak oil and irreversible human induced climate change.

In New Zealand, petrol crossed the $2 a litre mark just a couple of weeks ago and oil internationally is now $116 US a barrel or more.

Last week  a poll showed that one in four New Zealanders fear that they won’t be able to pay their rent or mortgage in the next 12 months, and even in the short time  I’ve been here in Sydney I see all around  evidence of a housing crisis on a much greater scale than anything we face at home.

In addition, we have almost daily shock horror news stories about rising food prices  caused by a number of factors including higher demand from countries like India and China and simply from the fact that the world’s population continues to grow; the increasing demand for biofuels which are replacing food crops in some parts of the world; the record oil prices which make fertilizer more expensive and which mean it costs more to get food to our tables; and the impacts of climate change, for example in Australia where the long drought has cut hugely into its wheat and rice harvests.

There are still a few people around who believe that climate change is not man made, that it is just part of nature and we should simply get on with the business of making money and looking after ourselves.  However, the weight of international research and experience makes it very clear that this is not some future apocalypse we’re talking about, but a present reality for many of the world’s people.

For example, the World Health Organisation estimates that climate change is responsible for 150,000 deaths a year, and it is widely recognized internationally that the impacts are falling – and will fall -  disproportionately on people in tropical and island nations. 

At the same time we’ve got peak oil – the point where half the oil in the world has been extracted and global maximum oil production is reached.  This is not the end of oil, but it is the end of cheap oil, as we see every time we go to fill our cars up at the petrol station.   

Runaway global warming now seems inevitable – the only question is how fast we can work to mitigate its impacts.  Most of the world is addicted to oil, including us here in Australia and New Zealand.    Endless economic growth cannot continue, whatever form of ideology it’s based on – capitalism, communism, socialism of any of their manifold permutations.

Peak oil is imminent or is likely to have already passed.  The desperate search for oil and gas continues, but there will be a continuous decline in supply.  Biofuels will not replace oil in most parts of the world without taking up arable land needed for food, or destroying forests badly needed as carbon sinks.  If we focus on coal as a prime energy source as long as it lasts, we’ll only cook our planet and ourselves even faster.

‘Climate shocks’ as they are called, oil shortages, and rising prices of fuel, food and transport are all happening.

So are the beginnings of global recession. We were fortunate to have Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz visiting NZ recently.  He is saying he expects the situation precipitated by the crisis in the US financial markets to get a whole lot worse as banks hold tight to what they have, restricting lending and deepening the downturn – while of course the war in Iraq is draining billions out of their economy at the same time.

This is the rich world beginning to wake up to the crisis.  In the developing world it’s already happening.  There the cost is counted mainly in hidden suffering, with disasters often gradual and underreported, if they are noticed at all.  Poor people in Africa and Asia and Latin America are already adopting emergency coping strategies – and suffering huge loss of life.  Droughts have driven 14 million people from their homes in Africa in recent times.  George Bush’s home state of Texas, population 23 million, has a bigger carbon footprint than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, population 720 million.

Last year American farmers diverted 20% of their maize crop, one of the world’s main food sources, to ethanol. Rich nations continue to keep other countries’ agricultural exports out of their markets, ensuring more of the poorest people face starvation at home.  Food riots have broken out in Italy over pasta, in Mexico over tortillas, in Indonesia over tofu products – and there is food unrest in many other places too.

Poor countries are hit hardest because people in poverty spend a greater proportion of their income of food – and of course there is the same impact even in our comparatively well off countries in terms of the percentage of their income low wage workers and beneficiaries have to spend on core survival, compared to the percentage spent by the better off.

Our dairy industry is benefiting hugely at present from the growing demand  for its products in places like India and China, with the price of milk powder doubling in the past year.  However at home, we all see the impact of this in the supermarket each week with our  own milk, butter and cheese well on the way to becoming luxury items that only some can afford.

Low and middle income earners,  beneficiaries and superannuitants  cannot hide from what is facing us any more than farmers or employers can.

We all need to face that future head on, with a clarity of thought and purpose which is not evident as yet, at least in the places I come from. 

Much of the discussion around these issues in our country so far has been focused, for example, on the science of climate change and our responses in terms of mitigation – and of course the ascendancy of emissions trading schemes as a big part of the answer.  Now that’s a big topic  - but what I’d like to concentrate on here tonight  is not the technology and science  - and capitalist takeover - of all this, but the fact that what has been missed in most public discourse are the  impacts of peak oil and climate change  - and their friendly sidekick global recession - on ordinary people in countries like Australia and New Zealand.

This is an area that only the Greens appear to have put any thought into at all.  At home, even the workers’ traditional ally, the Labour Party, seems almost completely stuck in an economic mindset that was first embraced by Roger Douglas in our far right Labour revolution of the 1980s and has been entrenched as mainstream thinking in our country ever since.   In all honesty I don’t think the situation is much different here, given the performance by some in the NSW Labour Party over the past weekend, and their commitment to the privatization of your electricity system.

The success of our economies is judged by a narrow set of indicators that have more to do with the rate of profit being made by a handful of financial institutions than the well-being of ordinary people.  There is no doubt in my mind that, whatever government is in power,  these parasitical institutions and  their colleagues among the hyper rich  will be expecting to make ordinary people pay for the adjustments we will have to make.   

We need to stand up to these people and institutions so that our Governments don’t again act in the fine old tradition of privatising the profits and socialising the losses.  What we don’t want to see  is what the US government has done during their financial collapse in the last couple of months, in which they stand by while thousands of families lose their homes but come up with zillions of dollars of taxpayer money when the rich in the shape of Bear Stearns gets into trouble.

We need collectively, in all the places we live and work, to start thinking ahead about how we are going to deal – again – with the old issues of rising unemployment and poverty, alongside others like the high price of fuel and power, the rising cost of basic food, and increasing housing accessibility issues and homelessness.

Some of you here today may remember, or at least remember your parents’ stories of  that even earlier era, the Great Depression of the 30s. Overseas commentators are already talking about the current US slow slump of the markets as potentially being even worse than the stock market crash of 1929, and without wanting to be unnecessarily alarmist I think in fact we could be facing a similar situation again in the medium term future.

This is a reality that is hard to contemplate in the comparatively well off economic environment our countries enjoy at present.    Yet just a couple of weeks ago we in New Zealand saw over 900 job losses announced in one day, among them  iconic manufacturer Fisher and Paykel taking 450 jobs out of Mosgiel to Mexico, Thailand, and Italy;  and ANZ National announcing they were taking between 400- 500 backroom jobs offshore to Bangalore.

The ANZ  National Bank made over a  billion dollars in New Zealand last year, yet they say to make a decent return on investment hundreds of call centre jobs in this country where they are making so much money must go.  

I believe our task at the moment is to work as hard and as fast as we can - not only to act much faster on things like greenhouse emission reduction, switching to renewables, and striving for energy efficiency – but also on preparing our industrial relations and business environment, transport, housing, health and welfare systems for what’s coming at us at a rate of knots.

We have to start integrating the environmental and human aspects of climate change and peak oil impacts into our political as well as our personal lives.  We need to pull out the contradictions and debate them without tearing each other to pieces.  

One example of the relevance of this sort of debate which is going on right now at home came  when Matt McCarten, a key leader in my own union Unite!,  appeared in the media recently opposing a regional fuel tax for Auckland.

Matt’s comments absolutely epitomize some of the contradictions we face.  He was saying that we shouldn’t have a  regional fuel tax because it would hit low paid workers and beneficiaries the hardest, which of course it will.  The Green Party on the other hand supports the tax, because we are fighting for it to go towards the electrification of Auckland’s rail system.

We know how urgent it is to get the trains running from a renewable energy source, and to get them operating a lot more frequently - so that the citizens of our largest city can get around in a future where many will be unlikely to be able to afford to take their cars to work or study or play, even if they wanted to.  

Alongside this  - and like Matt - we believe that it is urgent for the gap between rich and poor to be decreased, and that measures to address this are equally urgent.

However, what we in the Green Party believe is that we have to do both – lift wages and welfare payments and improve for example the ability of unions to collectively bargain for better wages and conditions – while at the same time also doing everything we can to future proof our towns and cities so that low and middle income people can actually get around when they simply can’t afford to run their cars any more. 

This may not seem so relevant here in Sydney where you have such comparatively advanced public transport systems – but back home, as anyone who has lived in Auckland knows, we are  in the dark ages with a very limited rail network and irregular, complex bus services – and in many parts of provincial and rural  New Zealand there is no public transport at all.

There are a couple of other relevant debates I’m involved in at the moment that I thought I”d share with you tonight as well.

The first is around biofuels.    The right in our Parliament – the National Party - seem to be pushing the line that there is no future for biofuels in New Zealand at all because there is no such thing as a sustainable biofuel.  Well I am not an expert in this area but I am convinced that actually we are comparatively lucky  in New Zealand in that we have at least several sustainable biofuels very much to hand   - tallow from our meat processing industry and, in future, waste wood in abundance from our forestry.  

We in the Greens are supporting the current Government strategy to increase the use of  biofuels while demanding absolutely that  it come from sustainable sources only – that is, we must not accept biofuels like corn based ethanol or palm oil biodiesel – but we can look forward to a future where second generation biofuels like ethanol from woody biomass and biodiesel from algae in sewage ponds become a reality.  It is misleading oversimplification from National to say that just because some biofuels are destructive of human and environmental well being, all of them are.   

I think we do have to be so wary of being won over by arguments of emotional simplicity  in these debates – it is important that we pay attention to the science and not be fooled into thinking that just because biofuels have lead to great human and environmental damage around the world, that there is not still an important role they can play as one strand of moving towards a low carbon future.

A third contradiction being driven up in a raging debate in New Zealand at the moment is around whether we should be supporting the removal of GST from fruit and vegetables or from some or all other food products.  Everyone I know is concerned about the impact of food price rises.  A leftwing political party in Auckland called RAM is getting thousands of signatures on a petition to remove GST from food, at the same time as recruiting many of these signatories to become party members.

While on the surface of it removing GST from food is an easy and popular thing to do, the reality of its impact is not so simple.  The two main reasons I have against it is that firstly, removing GST from some or all food items leaves open the question of what falls in or out of approved items – something that has been hotly contested when other jurisdictions do this.   Increased compliance costs  along the chain will also reduce much of the potential  price cut.   Secondly, I believe that such is the pressure on food prices that within three or four weeks of GST being removed the prices would be just as high again, and the ordinary citizen just as out of pocket as before.

I believe that as with regional fuel taxes and as with biofuels, we have to look beyond the simplistic for answers.  We must lift incomes for those at the bottom, whether in work or on welfare.   We should consider whether it would be a good idea to  start looking at subsidies and price controls on some food staples so that people can afford to at least supply themselves and their children with the core food and drink they need for survival.  And should we begin to discuss whether some farmers and growers should be offered incentives for  producing foods that are going to become increasingly expensive or difficult to obtain, like grain for   making our own bread?  In New Zealand there is a problem with this as are hugely dependent on you in Australia for much of our grain for baking – our own grain mostly goes for animal feed.

And is there more Government could do to encourage and enable people to do more to grow their own food, to share surpluses with others in their communities – again beyond the usual refrain of ‘community gardens’? – and expanding out into things like community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets and other initiatives that bring producers and consumers closer to each other.

There are a few last thoughts I”d like to share with you before I finish tonight.

I know in some ways that a lot of this is ‘old hat’ to you long time activists here in this room, but I think we need to be looking at our old issues and old solutions with fresh and urgent eyes.

The first thing is that in thinking about how we might deal more fairly with the human impacts of peak oil and climate change in countries like Australia and New Zealand, we mustn’t forget that the effects are and will be much worse in many other, poorer parts of the world.  We should always be able to feed ourselves.  Others are not so lucky and we must not forget our obligations to be  good international citizens,  for example through giving  our fair share of effective aid proportional to our size - and not taking part in supporting wars for oil disguised as wars on terror.

Secondly, it is critical that if all of us rather than just some are to have a good chance at surviving well what is coming at us, it is important that we do everything we can to strengthen social cohesion and community solidarity in all the places we work and live.

At two ends this is the contradiction between those who are happy to live inside gated communities safe from the ravages of the outside world -  and others who believe that the way forward lies in strengthening and building local organisation and economic and social alternatives from the grass roots up, without looking to a future where a privileged elite go on as before and the rest are left to survive as best they can.

Initiatives that work for social equality and environmental sustainability even within the framework of an essentially doomed paradigm are fundamental. Government and Local Government must play a supportive and enabling role with  community and community economic development, waste reduction, third sector housing, transition towns, alternative currencies  and all the other initiatives which are already creating the shape of a better future.

It is also critical to be part of working for a just transition for workers and industries impacted by the necessity for change, brought out most starkly perhaps for those involved in the extractive industries which play such a big role in your economy right now, but still have a place in ours as well.  

Technology and science are a huge part of the answer but on their own they are not enough.

We have to move beyond seeing endless growth and material acquisition as the be all and end all of life’s journey, and work to create a society in which everyone, including those who have least, has a chance for a fulfilling life.  The business community needs to reorient itself towards the promotion of human and environmental well being as well as towards the bottom line.

We who understand the urgency of the situation must identify clearly who our friends and allies are.  We must debate, organise and mobilise.  We mustn’t forget that the old tactics of strike and picket, demonstration and direct action still have as valid a place now as they ever did.  We need to extend and deepen our sense of solidarity and use everything we can to organise as fast as we can, or the needs of those who have least will be overlooked once again regardless of who is in Government, as we face a future none of us asked for but all of us are going to get.

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