Pillar of strength
Reviewed by ROSS FITZGERALD
Dame Margaret Guilfoyle was a trailblazer whose influence is still felt in federal politics. Some may have forgotten how influential she really was and it’s worth noting that she mentored the current Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.
Dame Margaret, who died in Melbourne in 2020 aged 94, was a pioneer who came from the conservative side of the Australian political divide.
Anne Henderson’s brief but satisfying biography points out that, among her many achievements, Margaret Guilfoyle was the first woman from any political party to hold a cabinet-level ministerial portfolio in Australia.
As a highly competent Liberal Party senator from Victoria from 1971 to 1987, in December 1975 Guilfoyle became social security minister in Malcolm Fraser’s coalition government. Then, in 1980, as finance minister, she became the first woman in federal politics to hold a major economic portfolio.
Guilfoyle was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1926. Two years later, her strictly Presbyterian family arrived in Melbourne. After her father William McCartney – a former head of the sometimes-dreaded Royal Ulster Constabulary – died when she was 10, Margaret and her two siblings were raised by their mother. This led to her important realisation “that, at any time, a woman must be capable of independence.”
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the Japanese import/export firm for which she worked as an accountant was closed and her notebooks were confiscated by the Australian government. She only became politically active after the war when she met the Essendon-born Stan Guilfoyle, who after he left Essendon Grammar School played a leading role in various community groups throughout Melbourne.
She voted for the first time in December 1949 – at the federal election that swept Robert Menzies into government.
A year after their marriage, in 1953 Guilfoyle and her husband joined the Liberal Party’s South Camberwell branch and she became the branch secretary. That began her political awakening and a career that led to her serving as a minister for the duration of the Fraser Government and being a cabinet member from 1980 to 1983.
As Henderson reveals, during her political and extra-parliamentary career, given any opportunity, Guilfoyle capitalised on it. Through her personal example, and her often reformist roles in various forums, Guilfoyle helped substantially to increase women’s participation and representation in politics.
As federal Labor minister, Senator Susan Ryan once wrote, “If anyone’s performance should have established that a woman’s place was in cabinet, it was Margaret Guilfoyle’s.”
But in recent years, the massive nature of Guilfoyle’s contribution to Australian public life has largely been forgotten. So, Henderson’s meticulously researched biography is timely.
Guilfoyle is someone who demonstrated the twin political virtues of party solidarity and singleness of purpose. As well, she had a lively sense of humour. Henderson recounts how, speaking of a bureaucrat who was not up to the job, Guilfoyle said: “It doesn’t matter wherever she stood in a river, she’d be out of her depth”.
In her later years, Guilfoyle became extremely close to Josh Frydenberg, whose blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Kooyong incorporates the Melbourne suburb of Kew in which she lived. Dame Margaret had high hopes that Frydenberg might emulate Robert Gordon Menzies as a federal Liberal Party prime minister from the same electorate.
Margaret Guilfoyle died on November 11, 2020, which, coincidentally, was the 45th anniversary of the sacking of the ALP Government of Gough Whitlam.
On November 29, in a Condolence Motion in the House of Representatives, Frydenberg spoke powerfully about his much-loved mentor:
“If Dame Margaret’s achievement was simply to pry open the doors of the cabinet room, then that would in itself 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.”
He continued: “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….She was meticulous, authoritative, intellectually rigorous, calm, confident and no nonsense. She knew what she believed – but understood why.”
Stressing, as Anne Henderson does, the often-underestimated role of women in Australia, her latest offering, Margaret Guilfoyle, is a very useful companion to some of her previous works, including Enid Lyons: Leading Lady to A Nation and her Menzies at War, which was short-listed for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. His most recent books are a memoir, Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the co-authored Grafton Everest adventures, The Dizzying Heights and The Lowest Depths, all published by Hybrid in Melbourne.
The Weekend Australian, February 19-19, 2022, Review, Books p 18.