Margaret was born in 1951 in Melbourne. Her father was a public servant, and her mother was originally a teacher, who took time out to be a full time parent. Margaret is an older sister to three younger brothers.
The family moved to Canberra when Margaret was in late primary school. Concerned about the quality of Canberra’s school system, Margaret’s mother played a key role in the successful campaign for an independent, better education system in the ACT. It wasn’t early enough for Margaret’s own high school education which she describes as dysfunctional and boring, frustratingly so for Margaret who was very keen to learn, particularly the science subjects.
Margaret’s dad was Methodist, her mother was a lapsed Catholic, and the children attended Methodist Sunday school. (Margaret’s main memory of Sunday school is of playing “Pride” in the Seven Deadly Sins performance, wearing a beautiful purple net dress.) Today she has no religion.
Margaret read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring at high school, and immediately “became” an environmentalist. [Interesting how influential this book has been for young women environmentalists.] At the ANU (1969-72), she completed all the ecology units available, but says she wasn’t a real activist at that time.
All Margaret wanted to do when she left University was to work on environmental issues, but jobs weren’t easily available and she ended up in a position in the Pesticides section of the Department of Agriculture. A reprieve came with a more challenging and enjoyable secondment in 1973 to the Secretariat of the Committee of Inquiry into the National Estate, with Judith Wright, Len Webb and David Yenken among the Commissioners.
Back at the Pesticides Branch a year later, Margaret remained unsatisfied with her work, and moved to Germany for a year to work as a part time lab assistant doing research on insect vision.
Back in Australia after another year of travelling, she found herself in the Wheat Branch. In her free time, Margaret was involved in forestry issues and tried to set up an Ecological Studies Association.
Margaret then successfully applied for the position of organiser for the Atlas of Australian Birds, a Melbourne-based job that she held for 7 years from 1976. It was in this position that Margaret started to develop her networking skills, bringing together bird observers who assisted in collecting information for the Atlas.
During this time, Margaret was also involved in the very early days of the Franklin campaign in Victoria, although her work on the Bird Atlas meant that she had to withdraw after a few months to focus on finishing that enormous task.
In 1984 Margaret was the Coordinator of the environment movement response to the Victorian Timber Industry Inquiry. This was one of the first such inquiries in Australia, and it involved getting all the groups together into a common position, and a lot of negotiation and networking.
From 1986 to 1996 Margaret worked in Victoria on a range of environmental campaigns. Her work included doing environment movement reports and inputs into various inquiries, campaigning about the protection of Gippsland forests and the Mallee, raising the profile of plantation forests as a substitute for native forests logging, and some river conservation work. She supported herself with short contracts from environmental groups and a period of time in the public service. During this time she was also a Commissioner on the Inquiry into the siting of an Arms Depot at Point Lilias.
In 1992, Janet Rice and Margaret, together with Peter Christoff, set up the Victorian Greens, and Margaret became very involved in this effort, despite a somewhat inauspicious beginning.
A pattern was beginning to emerge in Margaret’s activities, and a successful model of action for change was emerging.
I see a gap – something that needs to be done – and then if I can I work out how to make it happen. And getting people together to make it happen is certainly part of what needs to get things done.
In 1996, Margaret became an adviser to the newly elected Senator Bob Brown, a position she then held (part time and full time, with 2 periods of time-off) for 10 years. Margaret describes her role as organising the day to day political activities and taking on the Chief of Staff function (although it wasn’t called that), including liaison between the Canberra and Hobart based staff, and supporting the overall work of the growing number of Greens politicians in Canberra.
In 2000-2001, Margaret took a year off from her political adviser position and undertook the organising of the first Global Greens Congress, working closely with Christine Milne, Louise Crossley and Bob Brown
In 2002, Margaret worked on a Strategic Review for the Australian Greens, which involved a six week drive around Australia visiting about the then 30-odd Greens groups around the country. When she got back home in November 2002 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the treatment involved her having to be off work for about six months. However, not content with just concentrating on getting well, Margaret also completed a project exposing the disgraceful conduct of the then Chief Scientist.
After her recovery, Margaret continued to work part time for Bob Brown, maintained her Global Greens work and in 2008 she formally established the Green Institute, a think tank for the Australian Greens, which she has continued to coordinate and direct to this day. http://greeninstitute.org.au/
In the audio extract below, Margaret describes how the Green Institute got established among other priorities, including her mother’s final illness.
Margaret doesn’t have a role model, but admires many of the people she has worked most closely with – Bob Brown and Christine Milne among them – and other people who have managed to stand up and be counted including Queensland Aboriginal activist Cheryl Buchanan.
I asked Margaret about some of the difficulties of the leadership roles she’s undertaken
My impatience that other people can’t see how obvious it is that this needs to be done, and therefore let’s do it. Mostly I tend not to confront obstruction head on I tend to go around, and come back from a different angle. It’s just the time wasting that’s involved in trying to find a way through. That’s both in dealing with people and the practicalities of the fact that there’s never enough money, there’s never really any money. There’s never enough resources – no offices, no computers. There’s often no know how – there’s nobody to ring up when the computer goes bust.
I also asked her what she saw as the differences between women and men leaders in the environmental movement.
I think women are prepared to put up with a lot more. It’s quite extraordinary watching key male leaders who never have to wash up, put away chairs and so on after a meeting. I find it really hard just to walk out without doing it. Men are more prepared to demand their rights – pay and conditions for example – than women, particularly women of my generation. I tend to put up with things rather than demand.
Men are more prepared to put themselves in the front row of representing the group or being recognised And that’s society’s expectation too, I think it’s very deeply embedded – still.
Like other interviewees, Margaret describes the disparity between her income as an environmentalist and an income she might have received as, say, a senior public servant, as her choice to pursue her interests and passions, and she has no regrets about this.
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. Because I don’t have children or a partner, I can make decisions, choose to forego income or whatever. I’m comfortable enough financially. I was never desperate to have children, to have a partner. It didn’t happen, and I don’t particularly regret it. And it means that I’ve been able to do a whole heap of other things – I’ve had an extraordinary time.
Finally, I asked Margaret whether there were any reasons why women would not become involved in the environment movement or the Greens.
It’s bloody hard work. To get anywhere you’ve just got to keep pushing, pushing, pushing. There’s not a lot of support. There’s no money. You can’t underestimate those practical things of having a computer of one’s own and a place to put it. It’s like Virginia Wolf’s A room of one’s own. You need an office of your own that’s equipped and functional to be really effective. You just need to have a lot of determination.
Margaret’s ability to both be involved in starting up new initiatives and then to pursue those initiatives, making sure that they succeed, is highlighted in this profile. Other interviewees have also frequently talked about her importance as a mentor to younger environmentalists, particularly young women.
Link to Youtube video of Margaret presenting at the Global Greens 2008 conference. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrycXtzIRcw