Nov 30, 2020

CONDOLENCES – Guilfoyle, Hon. Dame Margaret Georgina Constance, AC, DBE – Monday, 30 November 2020

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (14:09): I rise on behalf of the Australian Labor Party to join the government in paying tribute on this condolence motion for Dame Margaret Guilfoyle. In the maternity wards of Northern Ireland, 1926 was a big year for political pioneers. Among the newborns was Gerry Fitt, who would be the first leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, advocating for a united Ireland. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you had Ian Paisley, firebrand preacher, founder of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of Northern Ireland. In the middle, in the broad ground in between, was Margaret McCartney, the future Dame Margaret Guilfoyle and Australia’s first female cabinet minister. Judging by her actions in later life, Dame Margaret would have been a force for good in her native land—she was someone who brought people together—but it was not to be and, in 1928, Belfast’s loss was Victoria’s gain. Australia was no soft landing, though. As a child of the Great Depression, Margaret lost her father when she was just 10. Her mother was left to raise three children during what was already a time of immense challenge. These were tough experiences, and the lessons that they bestowed never left Margaret.


When political life eventually came calling, she came up against that question that is still asked only of women: how will you manage to be a politician and a parent? Her answer boiled down to, ‘That’s my business.’ We’ve heard so much about her achievements in her different portfolios, but it’s worth going back to her first speech to the Senate, in which she revealed herself to be something of a renaissance woman. She spoke of the disproportionately high infrastructure costs that saddled the mining industry; she worried about the pressures placed on the environment by pollution and population growth; and she argued the case for boosting funding to the arts. The arts, she said, were ‘an enrichment for all the people’. Dame Margaret showed it was possible to be governed equally by head and heart. She oversaw the expansion of child care; she fought for the extension of maternity leave for all women, not just Commonwealth employees; and she showed the Liberal Party’s ‘broad church’ in action, by battling Treasurer Phillip Lynch over cuts that she thought would have a negative effect on mothers.


It is little wonder that she won the admiration of many in the Labor Party, among them Joan Kirner, Robert Ray and John Button. Indeed, on this side of the House, our only regret is that the great blossoming of her career was brought forward by the dismissal of the Whitlam government. It was a career that came dangerously close to an untimely end, thanks to an errant fishbone during dinner in Parliament House. She was turning blue by the time Senator Glen Sheil, a former GP, came to the rescue—one more example of the reminder that our Chief Opposition Whip got recently, that it’s wise for any political party to have a few doctors in their ranks. The presence of the members for Macarthur and Lyne showed that in recent times. How did Dame Margaret respond to this near-death experience? She said, ‘Thank you,’ to her saviour and picked up the dinner conversation exactly where she’d left off.


After politics, she pursued interests as varied as the law, children’s television and mental health. And the honours, of course, kept coming—a richly lived life, richly recognised. It is a sombre coincidence that Dame Margaret’s passing comes just a handful of weeks after Susan Ryan’s—two women who will forever stand tall in the history of our great nation. On the day of Susan’s state funeral last month, I wrote that the doors she opened will never be closed again. The same has rightly been said of Dame Margaret. As Susan herself once said:

If anyone’s performance should have established that a woman’s place was in the cabinet, it was Margaret Guilfoyle’s.


Dame Margaret in turn took a special interest in Susan’s career. As she said of her own achievements, ‘It had to be very important I was not the last.’ She achieved that and so much more. In our pride, in our sorrow, we are grateful for the stroke of good fortune that her family chose Australia, a choice that led ultimately to the enrichment of their adopted country. Our condolences to her husband, Stan, and to all her children and grandchildren. May she rest in peace.


The SPEAKER: As a mark of respect, I ask all present to rise in their places.


Honourable members having stood in their places—