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Feature Story - 'The Courage of Their Convictions'

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Single feature news story for Sunday Star Times, Sept 2013


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Feature story published here:

http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/9184686/The-courage-of-their-convictions

22/09/2013

TAKING A STAND: Activism is a lifelong calling for former MP Sue Bradford, pictured here being rounded up by police at an anti-poverty protest earlier this year.

t's July 25 and Hone Harawira, Member of Parliament for Te Tai Tokerau, is convicted of a crime in the Auckland District Court. There isn't a public outcry, he isn't stripped of his position and his party doesn't condemn him. Instead, Harawira hops in a waiting car and is driven to his next engagement. He is the first MP in years to have been convicted of a crime while in Parliament and no one is surprised.

The Electoral Act says an MP must resign if he or she is convicted of an offence carrying a sentence of two years or more in prison, which means having a criminal record is often no impediment to representing one's constituents.

Although Harawira is the first MP to have been convicted of a crime while in Parliament since Taito Phillip Field was convicted of corruption and obstruction of justice in 2009, politicians with criminal records is nothing new - after all, Peter Fraser went to prison in 1916 and ended up becoming prime minister. Fraser and several other members of the new Labour Party were arrested on charges of sedition after their call to abolish conscription. Fraser received a sentence of one year in jail.

In that style, Harawira is one of a new breed of activists-turned-MPs who have spent their lives both breaking laws and setting laws - sometimes within the same day.

When he was released from court after having been convicted of failing to comply with police instruction, following the occupation of state houses in Glen Innes, Auckland, it was back to business as usual. "I got whipped straight down to Maori TV to do a show about the anniversary of the Hamilton Springbok protest. I went straight from there to the GCSB bill meeting in Mt Albert. That mixes the actions of the past with today. Nothing's changed. The GCSB bill and sale of state assets are exactly the same causes we would have marched against 40 years ago."

Harawira believes the pressure to arrest him this year was politically motivated.

"I'm not fussed about where the pressure came from and I don't care. As an MP and an activist, there are times when you need to make a stand. Being an MP didn't mean bugger all to me . . . I wear my arrests with pride because I've never been arrested for drunkenness, theft, or fraud. Every arrest has been for a political stand. I carry the scars of those."

Harawira seems to respect no judge but himself, anyway. "This isn't even a conviction, it's almost like a parking ticket - it's that embarrassingly low. I've defended myself all my life and only had one other conviction."

The funny thing, he says, is that the other conviction was something he didn't do. "Some union secretary with a big mouth was saying they wouldn't give money to support Maori causes cause ‘Maori would go piss it up against the wall'. Three of us got arrested and convicted [for bashing him.] That hasn't changed anything. I declare it whenever I travel. You don't try and hide those sort of things. That was more than 30 years ago."

He wouldn't say who did the bashing, because he's not a "nark".

Harawira believes that all parties besides Mana would frown on its MPs getting arrested but "Mana recognises getting arrested as an integral part of our movement".

Even the police seem to appreciate this, as Harawira explains that his most recent arrest was first-class compared to what he's used to. "I've been arrested 20 or 30 times. I've been cracked on the head; during the Springbok tour they rammed their batons into my helmet to attack my eyes, I've been kicked in the kidneys, in the head, all of that stuff - it's not a big deal. You get what comes. I'm not crying about it."

At his latest arrest, though, he was treated like an old friend. "I can laugh now," he says, "Because I'm an MP, I had cops calling me Mr Harawira and a Maori cop escorted me so he could speak to me properly. He asked me if the handcuffs were too tight - ‘Can we loosen them for you, Mr Harawira?' "

NOT THE ONLY REBEL

Harawira is not the only rebel in the House of Representatives.

Green MP Gareth Hughes was a professional Greenpeace campaigner before entering Parliament. He's been arrested twice - most recently for graffiti on a ship containing palm oil-based feed, but more famously for getting nicked during a protest over genetically modified McDonald's chicken feed . . . while dressed as Ronald McDonald.

"For police used to dealing with violent crime or alcohol abuse it was quite light-hearted. We did mug shots with makeup on my face. It was something different and fun for them. [But] I think people would respect it when someone has been arrested for doing something they think is right."

It's certainly not just the blokes prepared to risk arrest for a cause. Sue Bradford has an arrest record longer than this article. These days she's a member of the Mana Party but she was in Parliament for a decade as a Green Party MP, and her criminal record was far from secret. Getting arrested, she reckons, is no black mark.

"Not if it's for a purpose and the purpose is in line with the political kaupapa. I come from a background of non-violence - not damaging human life or animal life. Occupying a building or locking-on is OK and I respect people that take that action as long as it's got a purpose or can be understood.

"I think Hone did a very honourable thing in taking the stand he did on the Glen Innes protest. I think in taking a strong stand, Hone was doing his job in representing Mana, which supports the right of people to take radical direct action."

Bradford will appear in court for the umpteenth time this week over the 2012 occupation of a Work & Income branch in Ellerslie. She faces charges of wilful trespass and the case is set down for the Auckland District Court on Thursday.

It's the latest charge stemming from politically inspired defiance going back 30 years. "In 1981, during action against the Springbok tour, a small group of us in a gay and lesbian squad went to Auckland Airport and broke through four security barriers and occupied an aircraft to stop it from flying. That resulted in a High Court case. The first jury wouldn't convict us but the second did."

That same year, Bradford protested while pregnant and ended up getting knocked unconscious, requiring treatment in hospital. Does she now get a first class arrest, as Harawira does? "Sometimes I don't think I am treated differently to the past," she says. "Other times I can sense that police are more careful with me than they used to be."

It's clear that getting arrested is far from an embarrassment for the passionate political left - in fact, getting on the wrong side of police is almost an endorsement.

"For some parts of the radical left, law-breaking is a badge of honour," Bradford says, although for her it's a calculated risk. "Some of us don't want to be involved in mindless activism - getting arrested for things which have no point. We see occupation, arrest, and blockade as a deliberate tactic that you use carefully. It's quite a serious thing to do and most don't do it lightly.

"Most things for which I was arrested later went on to become mainstream policy - women's lib, the anti-nuclear movement and opposition to the Springbok tour. In the end most governments came to see that our take on it was the right one."

Harawira's arrest while still a representative in Parliament didn't make the front page; Hughes and the police got along swimmingly in the aftermath of his Ronald McDonald protest.

So if Bradford - a former lawmaker, representative and veteran of three parliamentary terms - is convicted later this month, don't be surprised if no one bats an eye.

- Sunday Star Times

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