Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP pays respect to Dame Margaret Georgina Constance Guilfoyle AC DBE

1 December, 2020


I rise today to acknowledge the passing of Dame Margaret Georgina Constance Guilfoyle AC DBE. Dame Margaret I didn't have the pleasure of meeting, but she's one of the many women from all sides of politics who have paved the way for a greater gender balance in parliament. I note my gratitude for her service and her legacy and, on behalf of the people of Warringah, I convey my condolences to her loved ones.

Typically, I would say we've failed to properly promote and highlight her trailblazing achievements until just now. It's important that we tell the story of women such as Dame Margaret and their many achievements. We need to do this more to set the example and encourage more women.

Dame Margaret's family migrated from Belfast when she was just two years old, settling into their new life in Melbourne, but tragically this new beginning was shattered when her father died when she was just 10 years old. Her widowed mother was left to raise Margaret and her two siblings with no immediate family to assist. The experience showed Margaret the importance of education and careers for women. She later said that she became aware early in life that at any time a woman must be capable of independence—wise words, indeed.

At the age of 15, Margaret was working as a secretary while continuing her studies in accountancy at night. By 1946, Margaret was a qualified accountant and chartered secretary. A year later she was head office accountant at Overseas Corporation Australia Limited, a firm that promoted Australian exports, and was clearly already a trailblazer.

In 1952 she married Stanley Martin Leslie Guilfoyle, and the couple had three children—two daughters and a son. Moving into private practice gave her more time with her family although she reportedly preferred working for a large company—an early example of dealing with a challenge that still confronts many women of being the primary caregiver for children and a qualified professional.

Dame Margaret ran for preselection for the position of Liberal Party senator for Victoria in 1970 in a field of 20 candidates. In an extraordinary and well-reported exchange during the preselection interviews, Mr John Jess, the Liberal member for La Trobe at the time, asked Guilfoyle who would look after her three children if she became a senator. Her response was:

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.

Sadly, those questions still get asked quite frequently, I would suggest, of female members of parliament today.

Guilfoyle was successful in her preselection and was elected to the Senate with her term commencing in July 1971. In her first speech to parliament, Senator Guilfoyle referred to a range of topics, including those related to her financial and economic expertise but also the problem of pressures placed on the environment through pollution and population growth, and the need for increased funding for the arts.

Then began a 16-year term in parliament that, perhaps unwittingly, laid the foundations for generations of female parliamentarians to follow. As noted in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Dame Margaret took committee roles that were in line with her own professional experience but perhaps at odds with the expected policy interests of a woman at that time. She was offered the opportunity of joining the Senate Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, but Guilfoyle believed that, because of her accounting background, she could do better as a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations. She also joined the Public Accounts Committee and served on estimates committees. Over the course of those 16 years, Dame Margaret Guilfoyle achieved many noteworthy firsts. She was the first woman in cabinet with a ministerial portfolio, she was the first woman senator in cabinet and she was the first woman to hold a major economic portfolio. She was the Minister for Education in 1975, the Minister for Social Security between 1975 and 1980, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister in Child Care Matters in 1975-76 and the Minister for Finance from 1980 to 1983.

After her time in parliament, Dame Margaret took on a number of board appointments in the health and welfare sector, including as deputy chair of the Mental Health Research Institute from 1988 to 2001 and the Infertility Treatment Authority from 1996 to 2002. She was president of the Royal Melbourne Hospital Board of Management from 1993 to 1995 and a member of the National Inquiry into the Human Rights of People with Mental Illness from 1990 to 1993. It was an incredibly busy and distinguished career, truly a life of service, and I thank her for it.

Her service highlights one thing—the increasing role of women in parliament. Dame Margaret would no doubt be very pleased to see the number of women in parliament today, but there is still much work to do. In this 46th Parliament, there are 45 women in the House of Representatives, just under 30 per cent. In the Senate, Dame Margaret's former workplace, the numbers are slightly better, amounting to nearly 50 per cent. The reality is that Australia is still only fifth worst in the OECD for inequality in political participation, above only Lithuania, Japan, Israel and Hungary. I was so dejected when I read that, but I was also dejected to read that a recent survey by Plan International of 2,000 young Australian women found that, among those aged 18 to 25 years old, zero per cent expressed an interest in politics as a career. Clearly we need to do a better job of highlighting the legacy and the stories of women like Dame Margaret and their contribution so that these young women can aspire to also make their mark. We must do better. We owe it to Dame Margaret to do better. In her own words:

Equal participation of women in the Parliament, in the whole of community life, can only lead us to a better understanding of humanity and to the fulfilment of the aspirations that we would have for a civilised society.

So we must do better to increase female participation and representation in the political process. I commend groups like Women for Election Australia, who aim to inspire and equip women to run for office and to sustain them once elected. The team there have identified that the reasons for women's underrepresentation in politics fall under the 'five Cs', and some of these resonate with Dame Margaret's own journey in politics. The first is confidence. Women are less likely to step forward for selection. No. 2 is cash. Women have less access than men to resources. Then there is culture. A gendered culture is often prevalent within major political parties. Then we have child care. Women are more likely to have this responsibility. Finally is candidate selection procedures. The processes by which political parties select candidates pose a significant obstacle to women's political participation, as Dame Margaret's own story would show.

I commend the work of Women for Election and I wish them all the best in their endeavours to inspire and equip 2,000 women to run for political office by 2022. To do so would ensure that the legacy of Dame Margaret and the many others like her is not only respected but is endorsed, built upon and celebrated. It's the least we can do to honour this trailblazer who quietly and humbly dismantled so many barriers and opened up doors to those of us who followed.