I first meet Helen in the mid 90’s, when I was a young 20-something who had recently started working in the superannuation industry. It was an exciting time back then as it was all relatively new with the superannuation guarantee having come into being in 1992.
Around that time, Helen was working at Jacques Martin which was a precursor to SuperPartners. From there, she went onto become the deputy secretary of Cbus in 1995 under the then Fund Secretary Mavis Robertson, and later became chief executive, a role she held from 1997 to 2004.
Helen made her mark on superannuation reforms while at Cbus and throughout her career and beyond, but particularly by negotiating increases in death and total and permanent disability (TPD) cover and by championing issues around women and retirement and mental health in the workplace.
She was of course passionate about Cbus and ensuring that her members could retire with dignity.
It was in the early days in the 90s that she was instrumental in the formation of Women in Super (WIS). Along with Shirley Clark, Sheridan Lee and Mavis Robertson, Helen was instrumental in getting WIS off the ground by organising breakfasts and other events to bring women in the industry together.
The first Women in Super breakfast I ever attended back in 1994 involved a whole five people: Mavis, myself, Helen, Shirley, and Anne Byrne. Who would have thought that all these years later WIS would have grown to have such a large membership?
I was invited to the WIS Christmas Lunch in Sydney last year, when I had recently arrived back in the country, and was surprised to see that the function was in a large ballroom with hundreds of women in attendance. WIS also developed the Mother’s Day Classic, now Australia’s largest fun run, which raises money for breast cancer research. To date it has raised $40 million and will this year celebrate its 25th anniversary. From little things big things grow.
As I write this, I am reminded of the great concern of many of the men in the industry back in those days that we needed these women only events. “Off for secret women’s business” they would joke, which would bring on much eye rolling from the rest of us. Hopefully, a lot has changed in attitudes since those days.
After her time with Cbus, Helen’s concern for the mental health of the Fund’s members, prompted her to found SuperFriend in 2007, an organisation dedicated to preventing suicide and supporting workplace mental health and wellbeing through partnerships with the group insurance sector.
She told Investment Magazine in 2008: “we are there as trustees to grow retirement benefits for people, but we’re also there to make sure they get to enjoy those times by being mentally healthy and by being alive”.
She was also involved in running the Industry Funds Forum (IFF) for many years which was a vehicle to bring together CEOs of many superannuation funds to work on joint projects.
She was involved in the Conference of Major Superannuation Funds (CMSF) steering committee for many years, and I have fond memories of the first CMSF conference I was involved in, which was in 1995 in Hobart. Helen was on hand to help out behind the scenes and to make sure we got the show on the road.
She always used to joke, that she was glad when I came along as Mavis had someone else to focus her attention on and we would often discuss the ways to navigate “the Mavis issue”. For those who knew Mavis, she was a truly wonderful women, but she could definitely be difficult at times!
Helen was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 2019, an honour she received for significant service to the superannuation industry, to mental health and to women.
At the time, The Daily Telegraph described her as born to working class parents and growing up in a two-bedroom single-storey home in Glebe as the youngest of 10 children.
Helen is from the McDonald family, a family of high-achieving, purpose-driven people, her elder brother Tom was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of superannuation within the construction industry.
Helen and her husband Rex and daughter Peta, moved from Sydney to Melbourne in those early years, and many of us were fortunate not just to get to know Helen, but also her lovely family
When I moved to London, nearly a decade ago, I stayed in touch with Helen and Rex. When they were travelling, we were able to have the occasional dinner in London and we would catch up back in Australia usually down in the beachside towns of Coledale and Thirroul.
I most recently saw Helen in December, at a memorable and fun evening at Peter (Mavis’s son) Robertson and his wife Marjorie’s place. While it was clear Helen’s health had declined from when I had seen her the Christmas before, she was still in fine form, the conversation, laughs, and wine flowed.
Having just moved back to Australia and never having lived in Sydney, I was after everyone’s counsel on where to live and, as it turns out, after terrific advice at dinner, we ended up in Glebe, not far from where Helen grew up.
Helen was active in many organisations aimed at creating a better world, she was treasurer of the Search Foundation, which is built around the need for economic and social equality, environmental sustainability, human rights, and international peace and cooperation. She recently asked me to speak at one of their events on the outcomes of COP26 and Australia’s role in addressing climate issues at the summit.
Helen was fighting the good fight, right up to the end. Many people will have wonderful memories of her, and these are just a few of mine. It is of course hard to do someone justice in a few paragraphs, when they have lived such a big life.
To me Helen was an activist, a mentor, a role model, and a friend always on hand for advice. My condolences to her friends and family, particularly Rex, Peta and Ken.