Keith Suter’s Global Insights

What on earth is going on?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Margaret Holmes

Campaigning for peace is good for your health. That seems to be the message of the life of Margaret Holmes, who has just turned 100.

On May 9 2009 I was a speaker at a commemorative event organized by the NSW Branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) - which Margaret created 50 years ago - to celebrate Margaret's life and achievements. Margaret unfortunately could not be there because she was having a holiday with one of her sons and his family on the NSW North Coast. Margaret is in good form for a 100 year old but she is not as active as she used to be.

Margaret is the subject of an excellent recent biography by historian Michelle Cavanagh ("Margaret Holmes: The Life and Times of an Australian Peace Campaigner", Sydney: New Holland, 2006). Michelle was another speaker at Saturday's event.

Margaret was one of the first people I met when I first came to Australia in January 1973. I had been involved in the British peace movement and I got to know Sybil Cookson, who was very active in the UK WILPF. Sybil told me to contact Margaret as soon as I got to the University of Sydney (where I was to do a PhD) because she knew all the peace activists in Australia.

By the way, Michelle spoke of Margaret being bugged by the Australian intelligence service, who were intrigued that a woman of Margaret's elite pedigree and social standing (daughter of a doctor and wife of one) should be involved in anything as disreputable as the peace movement. After all she was a member of the Establishment - she shouldn't be a critic of it.

Sybil had the same problem. British intelligence agents used to raid her home to steal her address books (she lived in Trelawney's Cottage, Sompting, Sussex - a location well known to lovers of English literature and a rambling national treasure). The agents were not allowed to do any damage (other than break into the historic building). They were not allowed to steal money or works of art. When she complained to the local police station they did not bother to investigate because such a theft had all the hallmarks of an intelligence operation and so little would be gained in trying to investigate it.

About 30 years ago the then WILPF International President American Kay Camp visited Australia with her husband. Margaret noted that her husband was a WILPF member and so suggested that I also join. I remain one of WILPF's few male members.

Some of my contacts with Margaret are recorded in Michelle's biography. For example, in October 1973 Margaret and I went to Canberra to give evidence to the Parliamentary Enquiry into the proposed US Omega Base in Victoria. Margaret drove me there and back in her car. When I reviewed this book on Brian Wilshire's Radio 2GB Show - which is sponsored by a car company - the listeners were fascinated to hear that Margaret was one of the first drivers in Australia (starting at the age of 16) and when she eventually decided to hand back the licence in August 2003 she had never had an accident! This was pretty well an Australian record.

One of Margaret's main characteristics is that she is well read. This is brought out very well in Michelle's biography of her. She had a good university education and she has applied her fine mind to campaigning for peace. She and her late husband "Tag" (Thomas Arthur Glennie) have also raised a very bright collection of children and grandchildren.

A second characteristic is that Margaret is well travelled. This began as a child, when the family went to the Middle East in World War I, where her father was a doctor in the Australian forces. Aged 50, with the children off her hands, she went for a long international trip and came back with, among other things, the idea of creating a WILPF Branch in NSW. WILPF is one of the world's oldest movements for women's rights and opposition to war. It was born in 1915 and it is truly international by virtue of its diverse membership.

Third, as reflected in Sybil's advice to me, Margaret is a good networker - well before the phrase was invented. Her wide-reading and extensive travelling, plus using the large family home as a place of hospitality for visiting speakers, meant that Margaret knew just about everyone in the various social justice movements with which she has been involved.

Finally she has been persistent for peace. It is amazing to see just how right she has been in her campaigns over the decades: opposition to nuclear weapons and to chemical and biological warfare, opposition to apartheid in South Africa, support for Australia's Indigenous Peoples and for an independent East Timor. This is an amazing track record - and much better than successive Australian Governments, who lagged behind for so long on all these issues. For example, Australia was the last Western Government still supporting South Africa at the United Nations in opposing any international investigation of its apartheid policy (Malcolm Fraser in the late 1970s was the main Prime Minister for changing that policy - though he got little support for it from his Liberal colleagues at the time).

A great benefit of living so long is that Margaret is living long enough to see herself vindicated on so many issues. Hopefully the Australian intelligence agents learnt some good ideas while bugging Margaret's home and telephone. She was more correct on more issues than the Government for which the agents were working.

Keith Suter

Posted by: Webeditor at 12:13 AM

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