Colma Keating

Colma was born in 1960 in Three Springs, in the Western Australian wheatbelt. She comes from a very strong Catholic family. The family of six would go to church every week and say the rosary every evening at home.   The kids went to mostly Catholic schools and her father attended mass every day. Today, Colma describes herself as a lapsed Catholic – probably an atheist.

Colma says that this intensely Catholic family background has had a significant influence on her and her brother and sisters – all of whom became active in a range of social change areas – the environment, unions, social justice and in Aboriginal rights organisations.

Colma sees her time at Catholic school as giving her the impetus to think of others, but also the understanding that women are not second rate citizens. She says the nuns instilled in her a sense of being capable of doing things in the world.

Her father’s religious devotion and workaholic tendencies had both positive and negative impacts. It meant that the children were encouraged to be concerned for others and generous to those in need. On the other hand, Colma’s father was often away from home, worked very long hours, and was not particularly attentive to many of his fatherly duties – for example attending school functions or graduations.

Colma’s mother had followed her father out from Ireland, moving from a glamorous life as a nurse in London, to the tiny town of Three Springs in outback Australia. She had four children in five years, and started working as a secretary when the family moved to Roebourne and then Perth. Colma describes her family as very close and connected today – perhaps as a result of the fact that the family was such a focus in her parents’ lives.

Colma was interested in biology at school, and became involved in environment groups at university studying for her BSc in Botany and Geography. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Colma became involved in a range of environment groups, including the Australian Conservation Foundation and particularly the WA Conservation Council, where her first experiences were as its delegate from the Amateur Canoe Association of WA.

A campaign in 1987 to protect the Trigg Dunes was a great learning experience for Colma. “That was the campaign I got arrested for. I learned huge amounts about campaigning and people and politics and skullduggery.” Unfortunately, that campaign was lost, and as Colma says, “Silly as it may sound I still haven’t driven on the road they put through the dunes – yet I can drive on other roads that have probably done similar damage and also had better transport and development options.” Another important campaign for Colma was the nomination for World Heritage for Shark Bay, which these days she sees as being a significant victory for environmental interests.

Colma’s work life began in the mid 1980s as a contractor working for government and non-government organisations doing botanical surveys, but her commitment to environment organisations was the major focus of her personal and social life at this time. “I spent all my time [on environmental work], environmentalists were the people I socialised with and who had similar interests”.

In 1988 Colma began working for the Department of Agriculture, and also started taking on roles representing environment interests on government committees. “The nice thing about being on some of those committees is that you had more influence, and, that this influence could ‘ripple’ more easily out into decision making.”

Colma also went on the Executive of the Conservation Council including being the Secretary, and she became a Councillor for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Click below to listen to an audio extract in which Colma compares her experiences in the environment movement in the west her time on the ACF Council.

One of the issues Colma raised in the interview was the tension that resulted for her being seen as “the greenie” in the Agriculture Department, even to the extent of not infrequently being accused of leaking documents and information to the environment movement. For Colma, this was never a threat or a temptation: “I can hold incredibly strong loyalties to both my employer and the environment movement – and not talk to the environment movement about government issues, and not tell anyone in the Agriculture Department about any environmental campaigns that might impact on government. I have that ability to compartmentalise.”

In 1991 Colma became the Landcare Liaison Officer in the office of the WA Agriculture Minister – “my role was to assist the Minister with Landcare/NRM issues and be the link with the Department on those issues”. This job allowed Colma to use her skills in networking with the conservation movement. Then in 1992 Colma was seconded to the Federal Department of Primary Industries in Canberra for a year.

Since then, although Colma has worked in a range of positions, both as a consultant/contractor, and in the non-government and government sectors, the time she has felt she can allocate to her voluntary environment movement work has changed.
On returning to Perth, she was happy to see new faces in the environment movement, and chose to put her energy into some of the governance and skills development activities that the Conservation Council needed at that stage, rather than campaigning. She was pivotal in setting up Environment Matters, a Conservation Council networking and skills development initiative.

This movement towards a less politically active role in the environment movement has resulted in large part because of the impact that high pressure campaigning could have had on Colma’s relationship with her partner Grecian.

It was a difficult decision [to move away from campaigning] – sometimes I sat down by myself wrote out the pros and cons down, and other times it was the realisation that I’ve already given significant time and energy into the environment movement, sometimes to the detriment to other people in my life. Because I spend time with people outside of the environment movement, some of whom have never put any efforts into any cause, I’ve been able to put the amount of work I’ve already done for the conservation movement into better perspective.

Click the icon below to hear Colma talk about the type of leadership that she now demonstrates within the environment movement, and then about the need for recognition of environmental leadership, and the sacrifices that activists make in undertaking their leadership roles.

Colma admires women leaders who remain strong and true to themselves, even though they get bombarded from all sides.

Sometimes such women have personalities that put people off, but they are needed to get groups up and going. These women might be seen to have more conventionally masculine traits – being very directive, very obstinate, unyielding – but to actually get things happening, you do have to have this element of bolshi-ness.

Colma’s interview highlights the impact of Catholicism on her and her family, and also describes some of the decisions she has made about her environmental campaigning.  Colma also talks about “supportive leadership” and how that has become a key aspect of her work in the environment movement. For me, the interview highlights the way that women move in and out of different leadership roles – depending on a whole range of factors including the commitments they’ve made in their personal lives.  

Comments welcome.


About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this
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1 Response to Colma Keating

  1. Judy Lambert says:

    Thanks Jane. Colma’s interview highlights for me that, like several other women I know who are environmental leaders (most n otably Christine but others as well), Catholicism and particularly the influence of the nuns in getting young women to beleive in themselves and their ability to do thigns, played an important role. I wonder whether these women became active at an earlier age than those of us who did not have that influence?

    The otehr thing I find interesting is Colma’s comment about “bolshi-ness” (or the perception of it) and the role it plays for several women leaders, probably not just in the environmental arena but in other change activity as well. Is it something women have to use to get somewhere in predominantly male-dominated places?

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