Flat White

There was nothing like this Dame

20 November 2020

2:45 PM

20 November 2020

2:45 PM

It’s barely raised a ripple in the media, but senior Fraser government minister Dame Margaret Guilfoyle died on Remembrance Day, 45 years to the day when she was first appointed a minister.

The Prime Minister issued a formal statement on Thursday, befitting the death of a former Liberal cabinet minister. But it was a statement clearly written by someone for whom the Fraser years were learned from history books, and not showing more than superficial understanding of Guilfoyle or the times in which her political career flourished.  Unlike his deputy Josh Frydenberg’s dignified and very personal words of tribute, it was not the statement of someone steeped in Liberal history.  To understand her life, one needs to understand her times.

Guilfoyle was one of the declining number of surviving Fraser ministers, and one of the handful of that handful who were both truly capable and committed to economic reform, putting them above the plodders and mediocrities content to be yes men to a domineering Malcolm Fraser. Of the others in the latter category, only John Howard and the Spectator Australia’s own Neil Brown are still with us.

Margaret Guilfoyle was a politician of firsts.  One of the first women in the Senate.  The first woman to hold a cabinet portfolio. The first woman to be minister for finance.  But from her preselection onwards, she rejected being treated differently because she was a woman: she craved, and won, respect, admiration and affection for the way she conducted herself as a politician, senator and minister.

Together with John Howard as Treasurer, and economic dries like the late Jim Carlton who more recently mentored Mathias Cormann, as finance minister Guilfoyle worked hard to sow the seeds of the economic transformation Australia underwent in the 80s and 90s.  She supported Howard in establishing the catalytic Campbell economic inquiry that produced ground-breaking recommendations it was eventually left to Bob Hawke and Paul Keating to implement after the 1983 election.  Having been minister for social security which, as she herself noted, was (and is) the biggest spending portfolio, as the government’s purse-holder she was wise to the tricks of spending ministers.  In 2004, she recalled:

One thing I learnt particularly as Minister for Finance is that ministers are all ‘wets’ as far as expenditure for themselves is concerned; there are no ‘dry’ ministers. I used to marvel at some of the things I’d read in the press about my colleagues and think, well, you should do a bilateral with that Minister and see whether he’s a wet or a dry.

That included Fraser himself. In 1982, with the economy in recession, splits in cabinet and the Bottom of the Harbour tax scandal corroding the government, Fraser wanted to spend big, far bigger than was eventually the case when Labor was left a deficit of a then eye-watering $9 billion (ah, those were the days! One wonders what Guilfoyle thought of the current state of the books).  She also was a member of the then-notorious ministerial review of Commonwealth Functions (aka the Razor Gang) which proposed privatization and other administrative reforms that today would seem trivial but then created a massive political storm.

Guilfoyle never forgot her debt to the Liberal party.  Like Howard, she was an assiduous attender of branch meetings and party functions, even if only a handful of people turned up in the darker days of post-1983 opposition.  She actively mentored aspiring MPs and party leaders, and in 1993 stood for the Liberal federal presidency eventually won by her former Fraser ministerial colleague Tony Staley.

For all her firsts, Guilfoyle chalked up a notable last: the last federal minister to be created a knight or dame while still in office.  It was a title she wore with grace, but it never defined her. But in these times of graceless and populist MPs, the death of this Dame reminds us that you don’t have to be loud, brash and constantly attention-seeking to succeed in politics; that fiscal prudence in government does matter more than chasing votes, and the best man for the job is often a woman.

Vale, Dame  Margaret. We will not see your like again.

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