Peg Putt

Pic from ABC News Online

Peg was born in Sydney on 5 June 1953.  Her family was Church of England, and her mother was quite devout.  The children went to Sunday school or fellowship every week.  Now Peg describes herself as having a spiritual sensibility but is not part of an organised religion.

Peg’s mother grew up in a remote area of New Zealand and didn’t attend school until high school, then qualified as a librarian in New Zealand.  After marrying Peg’s father (an industrial chemist) and moving to Australia, she focused on raising her four children. However, Peg says her mother has always been very interested in ideas and learning.

Peg’s father was a mountaineer and explorer, frequently away in isolated parts of the world undertaking extraordinary adventures, leaving behind his wife and the 4 children, one of whom had challenging disabilities.  Peg says her mother was dedicated to bringing up a family, and working within a kind of pioneer tradition that she had experienced growing up in a very isolated area of New Zealand.

Both of her parents were “conservationists of the old school” and as a child, family friends included influential conservationists such as Marie Byles and Dorothy Butler (both of whom have profiles in this blog)

Peg says that her parents and her schools were all significant influences on her.  She attended a selective primary school for grades 5 & 6 and then went to Hornsby High School, where she was very musically oriented.  Peg says that the fact that it was  girls only was probably a good thing for her.  [Interestingly, the boys in the family got to go to private school, but her parents didn’t have enough money to send her, and it was seen to be less important for her to get a good education because she “wouldn’t have to support a family”. ]  Then at 16 she left Hornsby High having received a Commonwealth scholarship that enabled her to attend the Australian International Independent School.  This was a radical school for its time, where the students were allowed to take part in running the school, and the curriculum focused heavily on international issues.  At this time, Peg was also part of organising High School Students against Vietnam.

After school, Peg decided she didn’t want to go to university in Australia, so applied successfully for a position at Sussex University in the UK.   Peg graduated with a  BA Hons in International Relations.  Following graduation Peg (still in London) applied for and did various exminations to become part of the Australian diplomatic corps, at the end of which realising that she wasn’t suited for diplomatic life.   She says “I would find it hard to represent political opinions of the government rather than political opinions of my own”.

Peg travelled back to Australia through Asia, and in 1975 got a job with ICI developing pollution control programs at Botany, at a time when the NSW Environment Protection Agency had just been set up.

In the late 1970s Peg moved up to Nimbin, and camped at a commune.  She discovered some areas of the nearby forest were to be logged, and tried to get the new Nimbin residents interested in protesting. In the extract below, Peg describes how she got involved in environmentalism.

Peg’s first child was born when she was 27, and having just left Nimbin. Her next activist activities took place at the protest against a sandmining proposal at Middle Head – Peg says her daughter learned to crawl at the protest camp.  Peg describes that protest as being fairly male dominated – and she said that women tended to be treated dismissively in decision making, especially women with small children.   However, Peg says that this was a learning experience for all of them in undertaking direct protest actions, particularly demonstrated on the day where many of the parents were arrested, and the distraught children were left without organised care.

At this time Peg also became engaged with the Aboriginal issues associated with the Middle Head protests, and this led to her travelling to work in north east Arnhem Land  where her second child was born. One of Peg’s first political activities was to set up a display in support of the Franklin outside the local polling booth in the 1983 election, as well as scrutineering for the Labor Party.

Peg split up with her daughter’s father while living in Arnhem Land and moved to live on Dangar Island in the Hawkesbury, NSW.  After some years, Peg met her long term partner Alistair Graham, who had come to Australia from New Zealand to work on environmental issues for Fund for Animals.

Peg and her family moved to Tasmania in 1987, when Alistair got a job coordinating the conservation movement input into the Helsham forests inquiry.  They moved into a house on the Huon River, and Peg became involved in a campaign in opposition to a proposed woodchip mill.  Peg became a spokesperson for the Huon Protection Group and I asked how this came about.

Peg went on to become the first Coordinator of the Threatened Species Network in Tasmania (1990-91), and then became Director of the Tasmanian Conservation Trust in the 1991-92.   The administrative tasks she confronted for that job were a little daunting – particularly filing.  Before this Peg said she just used to remember everything!  She also undertook a post graduate degree in environmental science.

In 1992, Bob Brown asked Peg to be a support candidate for the Green Independents at the election after the first Labor-Green accord collapsed.   Then in 1993, Bob resigned, which led to a countback (as opposed to a by-election) and Peg became the Member for Denison in the Tasmanian parliament.

Peg’s children were 12 and 9 at the time.   I asked Peg how she and Alistair managed their family lives when she became a parliamentarian.

Alistair said he would support me in it for five years, and that he would try and restrict his international travel to times when I was available to look after the children.  This was really important – particularly as I was driving up and down from Huon Valley.

The children grew up quite self reliant from an early age.  They could cook dinner, and were good at organising themselves.  They just didn’t have my undivided attention.  Whenever we went out, I’d be assailed by all these people who would want to talk to me about politics.  In Tasmania that’s expected of politicians but my oldest daughter would insert herself between the person and me and say: “This is my mum and this is my time with my mum.”

Childcare was an issue for Peg and other women in the environment movement in the late 1980s – weekend meetings were frequently held, for example, excluding many women with childcare responsibilities.

The other thing that was difficult was when I had a high media profile – my daughters got a fair bit of discrimination and teasing from other children.  It certainly put them off taking a public role in the environment movement.

I asked Peg about the differences she experienced in working in the environment movement and in being a politician.

Peg was in the parliament alone for 4 years, as the only Green, which had a number of challenges.  I asked Peg about these experiences, and how she got through it.

During this time, her staffers Cath Hughes and Rosemary Bennet were also enormous supports to her, as well as her family. Peg says that during that 4 years she was able to establish a presence in parliament, and was frequently asked for comment after the major parties, almost like a third parliamentary party would have been.   Then in 2002 three more Greens got elected, and Peg became the Greens parliamentary leader for the next 6 years.

By 2008 Peg’s Greens colleagues and their staff were highly experienced and Premier Paul Lennon, who had been on the other side of environmental battles to Peg for many years, had resigned.  Determined not to over-stay her time in the job. Peg decided that it was time to move on.

She immediately left the state for a long holiday “just to let the new mob get on with it – I didn’t want to be interfering in any way”.  Since then Peg has focused on international work – mainly with The Wilderness Society – on UN forest and climate change negotiations.  She has recently been recruited to work for Global Witness, representing this organisation at UN climate talks, and the situation of about forests in Pacific Rim.  Peg sees this work as almost bringing full circle back to her early interest in international affairs, with the added benefit of many years of political activism – “a wonderful conjunction” says Peg.

I asked Peg how working for the environment had impacted on her financial security.  She said that environmental movement work is usually paid at about ½ the rate she might be able to get in the private or public sector.  While a parliamentarian, she tithed money back to the Greens party, and comments that quite a bit of her income went to buying the type of clothes that are necessary for politicians.

Peg has had no training in leadership.  Her biggest challenges has been “organising a bunch of people other than myself, doing that collaboratively, bringing everyone with you, and getting the resources to do the work.”  Peg has always been interested in putting in place systems for doing work as efficiently as possible.  She says it was not always easy being Greens parliamentary leader with “four strong minded blokes”.

She did experience discrimination from other quarters – “being called ‘Peggy’ was particularly irritating – but she’s not sure if it’s because she was a woman or a Green, or whether it was discrimination at all,  and not someone’s unfortunate idiosyncracies.  She has developed her own strategies to “take control and behave in a way that asks people to respond to you appropriately”.

Peg admires and respects Christine Milne, from whom she learned a lot about leadership and about Tasmania politics.  Peg says Christine has a strong and clear perception about what a leader should do – including an ability to see the big picture, beyond the political party to the needs of the whole community.  Peg cites Christine’s work in encouraging a cross party response to the Port Arthur crisis as a particularly good example of Christine’s leadership.

Peg’s last comment to me was “I’m not finished yet” – and with her children grown, and travel a lot easier, she is clearly finding her international work a challenging and fascinating phase of her life.

In 2011 Peg was placed on the Tasmanian Women’s Honour Roll.  The citation read in part: 

Peg has been a tireless advocate for many who felt they did not have a ‘voice’ in the Tasmanian political system, as well as an advocate for our natural environment and biodiversity. Peg continues to be an outstanding role model for women from all walks of life.

Comments please!

About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this
This entry was posted in Putt, Peg, Women leaders in the environment movement. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Peg Putt

  1. Jenny Weber says:

    Peg is an amazing woman, I watched and admired her efforts as a Tasmanian parliamentarian. And could only wonder how hard it would have been in the same room as Paul Lennon, David Llewellyn, and the ongoing list of pro logging men and women of the labor and liberal parties. And now to know she is on the international scene advocating for such important recognition of climate change and forests. Thank you for sharing Peg’s inspiring story. What a woman!!!!

  2. Peg was a fantastic part of my time with TWS. Whipcrack smart and lots of fun, too. Deep sense of integrity. You have captured her essence really well. We need more like her!

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