Margaret Guilfoyle – unflappable big spender

Margaret Guilfoyle, a Dame, an accountant, a lawyer, first woman to be a cabinet minister and to hold a major economic portfolio (along with education and social security), has died aged 94. 

We acknowledge her significant contribution to the Parliament, the Senate and to the women who followed.

She was a Senator from 1971 to 1987 and for some of that time, the only woman in the Parliament. She complained that the Senate had proportional representation but was disproportionately male. 

She was the quintessential parliamentarian – hard working, wise, a leader in gender equality.

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.

Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, Australian Parliament House

In 2004 she reflected on her time in the parliament:

In the position of Minister for Social Security I was the largest spending minister. It was a time when expenditure was expected to be curtailed. There were the demands through the whole of the early period on looking at restraint of expenditure, where expenditure could be cut and where programs could be changed. I think 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; unhelpful perhaps in not seeking to improve many of the welfare programs that were in conjunction with the states; 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.

I said that experience teaches but I think responsibility educates. Responsibility educates you to know that it must walk hand in hand with authority and indeed with power for you to be able to do the kind of job that a responsible minister needs to do in the cabinet system of government in this country. When we were appointed ministers, the Prime Minister said to us: ‘Use your departments. Use their experience and listen to them.’

Advice on Senate powers, practice and procedures

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