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Condolence motion, Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, AC, DBE, 30 November 2020

Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, AC, DBE, will be remembered as one of Australia’s most significant women. She was committed to her family and she was committed to her country. Dame Margaret was elected as a senator for Victoria in 1970, commencing her term in July 1971. After serving as opposition spokesperson for education and the media, Dame Margaret served as a cabinet minister for much of the Fraser government, commencing in 1975.

As we have heard in this condolence motion, she was a true trailblazer. She was the first woman to be appointed an Australian government cabinet minister with portfolio and the first woman to hold an economic portfolio. Dame Margaret ensured that the voices of women and men were heard at the cabinet table and at the highest levels of government administration. One of her most important achievements was her oversight of the national child endowment arrangements, which ushered in the change to cash payments from the previous tax rebate scheme. This proved to be life changing for families on low incomes. And she campaigned for maternity leave for all women, not just for sections of the workforce such as employees of the Commonwealth.

Despite the best efforts of others she never sought to define herself or her work by her gender. She had no interest in being typecast, despite the fact, of course, that after the 1975 election the Liberals and Labor each held only three women in the parliament. Of course, this is in stark contrast, as we have heard from Senator Payne, to my entry into the Senate last year, which was the first time that men and women were in equal numbers in the Senate.

Born in Belfast in Northern Ireland in 1926, Dame Margaret’s family migrated to Melbourne shortly after that. Tragically, her father died when she was just 10 years old.

With her mother now raising three children alone, Dame Margaret said later that she learned that, at any time, a woman must be capable of independence.

Dame Margaret married Stan Guilfoyle in 1952 and in the 1950s she became active in the Liberal Party, having joined the South Camberwell branch of the party. What good fortune for the Liberal Party and good fortune for Australia that Dame Margaret became so active in politics. She had a calm demeanour, a razor-sharp mind and a fighting spirit which was evident from the moment she contested preselection in a field of 20 candidates. When asked who would look after her three children if she became a senator, as we have just heard from the President—it’s such a good story I’m telling it again!—she politely responded:

‘I’m asking you to make a decision to give me responsibility to be a representative in the Senate and I would ask that you would accept that I have responsibility to make the decisions regarding my family.’

Dame Margaret served in ministerial portfolios for child care, education, social security and finance. She was formidable in and out of cabinet. Perhaps her most famous battles were with the then Treasurer Phillip Lynch over his quest for social security cuts and her refusal to accept these reductions in government expenditure. The then Treasurer had labelled her as ‘unhelpful’, which she wore with a badge of honour. At a conference many years later, she said:

… perhaps the nicest headline I ever had during my time was the one in a Sydney paper that said, ‘Minister unhelpful’—unhelpful in cutting the programs that coherently gave income security to millions of people … and maybe unhelpful in trying to persuade other ministers that there were essential matters that needed to be built upon and not destroyed from time to time.

Dame Margaret’s record of public service to the nation, to this Senate for 16 years and to the Liberal Party will serve as a lasting tribute to her memory. My sincere condolences to her husband, Stan, to her children, Georgina, Anne and Geoffrey, and to her extended family and friends. Dame Margaret was an incredible woman of substance, integrity and compassion. May she rest in peace.

Question agreed to, honourable senators standing in their places.

30 November 2020

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