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Dame Margaret Guilfoyle

Speech

Date : 28 November 2020

Author: The Hon Josh Frydenberg MP

Mr Speaker,

I move that the House record its deep regret at the passing on 11 November 2020 of Dame Margaret Guilfoyle AC DBE, a former Minister for Education, for Social Security, and for Finance, and places on record its appreciation of her distinguished service, and tenders its profound sympathy to her family.

Mr Speaker,

Today we acknowledge the passing of a great Australian.

The first woman in cabinet with a ministerial portfolio.

The first woman ever to hold a major economic portfolio.

A trailblazer in every sense of the word.

Dame Margaret often remarked – what matters is not that I was first, what matters is that I am not the last.

If Dame Margaret’s achievement was simply to pry open the doors of the Cabinet room then that in itself would be historically significant.

But that is not the full story.

Margaret Guilfoyle made her own mark as a minister in the Fraser Government and had a lasting influence on those she met.

Every government of consequence has its mainstays – the pillars who are there through its entirety.

Margaret Guilfoyle was one such pillar in the Fraser Government – as Minister for Education, Minister for Social Security and Minister for Finance.

She was: meticulous, authoritative, intellectually rigorous, calm, confident, and no nonsense.

She knew what she believed – but understood why.

Her beliefs were grounded in real life experience.

Margaret was born in Belfast in 1926.

When she was a young child, her family left the city of her birth – and set out for Melbourne.

They were a middle-class family that were somewhat sheltered from the ravages of the Great Depression.

But when Margaret was 10, calamity arrived – with the sudden death of her father.

Her mother was left with three young children and no family within 10,000 miles.

In those hard years, Margaret saw first hand what life was like for a single mother.

It taught her that she had to find the skills for adulthood to protect her from economic adversity.

So Margaret set about getting an education.

She worked full-time all through her secretarial and accounting studies, and finally graduating just as the Second World War was ending.

Her searing childhood experiences were surely in her mind, when as Minister for Social Security she had a number of stouches with the then Federal Treasurer Philip Lynch.

In the new Fraser Government, Philip Lynch was charged with reining in spending.

The largest spending portfolio was Social Security – and it is said the then Treasurer let it be known he thought she was the most uncooperative minister in his work of budget repair.

So uncooperative, in fact, that a Sydney paper carried a headline declaring Margaret Guilfoyle “Minister Unhelpful”.

She said the headline was the nicest she had ever received. It became a badge of honour.

By her calculation 83 per cent of payments made in her portfolio went to women.

Her view was that welfare can be “something that you build upon”.

And that was her guiding light as a minister.

She oversaw major reform of the national child endowment scheme – switching from tax rebates to cash payments, and renaming it ‘family allowance.’

And presided over a major expansion of government support for preschool, childcare, and after-school care.

In what may have seemed an irony to some – the minister who resisted spending control the most – was then made Minister for Finance.

Mr Speaker, a few months ago, we farewelled Susan Ryan.

A trailblazer herself.

She recounted many times how she studied and watched Dame Margaret.

She saw the resistance in that genteel chamber across the way every time Dame Margaret rose to speak.

She watched her calm and measured approach.

Susan Ryan said:“If anyone’s performance should have established that a woman’s place was in the Cabinet, it was Margaret Guilfoyle’s.”

She wasn’t alone.

The late Joan Kirner said that Dame Margaret, “was the kind of politician I wanted to be”.

Dame Margaret knew how to draw out the best in people.

She was a friend of mine for many years.

Along with her husband Stan, the Guilfoyles have given me: friendship, encouragement, and support.

Stan best articulated why Margaret left an abiding legacy.

He says “she was about principle, not politics”. Always principle.

Dame Margaret and Stan were married 68 years.

Stan, a member of the Liberal Party for 74 years, introduced Margaret to the Party where they were both members of South Camberwell Branch – and stalwarts of the Victorian Division.

They had a partnership of equals – supporting each other’s careers as they raised a wonderful family together.

Yesterday when I spoke to Stan he said someone had asked him “When was your last fight with Dame Margaret?

He said “We never had our first. We would always listen to and respect each other.”

Mr Speaker, it is a co-incidence of history that Margaret Guilfoyle died 45 years to the day after the swearing in of Malcolm Fraser as Prime Minister.

A generation has passed since those tumultuous times – many of the titans of that time have faded with the passing years, but Dame Margaret’s memory and legacy grows and grows.

As the Prime Minister said when her passing was announced, Dame Margaret continues to beckon us.

She beckons us as a country, as a government, as a party, and as individuals – to see this place – to see our politics – as reflective, as broad, and as representative as the people we serve.

She pried open those doors for everyone – every background, every gender and every creed.

That is the legacy of Dame Margaret Guilfoyle.

To Stan, and their children Georgina, Anne and Geoffrey, and the grandchildren I extend our deepest sympathies.

May she rest in peace.

Ends.

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