Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 February 2024


Lightfoot, Mr Philip Ross

3:50 pm

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I too rise to speak in condolence of former Western Australian senator Phillip Ross Lightfoot. The West Australian once noted that, if Ross Lightfoot didn't exist, his opponents would be forced to invent him, and I think, 'How true that was.' I think it is safe to characterise Ross as a genuine WA rogue with a big heart; however, he had very strong and often controversial opinions that few in the Senate today would find appropriate. But he did have longstanding passions for the monarchy, for the Federation and, very vocally, for Western Australian secession. In fact, I think it's still a sentiment that is held by more than a few Western Australians. He once said of Western Australia that we should treat the Nullarbor as a big dry moat to promote secession.

He was a country boy at heart, and he'd always say that he was far more comfortable in Moleskines and his R.M. Williams than a pinstripe suit. But, that said, he did become a very successful pastoralist and farmer and, as we have heard from Senator Birmingham, a longstanding three-time politician.

He was born in South Australia in 1936, and in his life he did turn himself to many endeavours, including, in the 1950s, international service as a plasterer, a jackaroo and a mounted police officer when he served as part of the late Queen's escort on her royal visit. After 1963, he began a long involvement with the mining industry and moved to Western Australia in 1968. It was during the first nickel boom. His story of working as a prospector is what outback legends are made of. His innovative work of pegging the entire town of Coolgardie after learning that most of the land in the Goldfields had already been pegged certainly led to his future financial fortune. In his own words he said: 'They like to put me in amongst the silvertails, but they can't, because I'm a peasant. That's what I am. I'm peasant who has had his share of luck.'

Ross had the almost unique distinction of serving Western Australia in three separate jurisdictions: the WA Legislative Assembly, the Legislative Council and also the Senate. So he's one of the few of us who have actually been able to deliver three separate first speeches and valedictory speeches.

Having joined the Liberal Party in 1957, he contested what was then to be the very safe ALP seat of Kalgoorlie in 1983, and his intent was to divert some of the Labor resources from the marginal seat of Murchison-Eyre. It was to be the only time he lost an election. In 1984 Ross was preselected to contest Murchison-Eyre in succession to the late Peter Coyne, who had held it since 1971. It was the largest district in area, with the smallest enrolment—around 3,000—and it included Meekatharra, Mount Magnet and Leonora. In 1986 he won the seat, polling 1,411 votes, with 51.7 per cent of the vote. In 1991 he relocated to Perth because he had a farm in Bindoon, and it was then that he was preselected for the fourth position on the Liberal ticket and he was elected for the North Metropolitan Region in the Legislative Council.

Then, sadly for many of us who remember, the late Senator John Panizza passed away in January 1997, somewhat unexpectedly, and Ross, still an MLC, was one of the many Liberal applicants for the Senate vacancy, which expired in 2002. In May 1997 he was chosen to represent Western Australia in replacement of Senator John Panizza. However, as he describes it, with Western Australia still at the forefront of his focus, he delayed his swearing in to the Senate to stay in Western Australia as an MLC to ensure the Court government's IR reforms were passed. As the history of Western Australia shows, thank goodness he did that. At the time, he said, 'My duty is to Western Australia, whether as a senator or in the microsenate of the legislative council.' As Senator Birmingham has so well characterised, during his 11 years in the Senate he formed a strong interest in defence, foreign affairs and federalism, and he also championed the constitutional monarchy. He also served on a number of important committees, including as Acting Deputy President of the Senate.

Ross was always a fierce advocate for Western Australia. In his inaugural speech in the WA legislative assembly, he said:

So my goal as I see it, Mr Speaker, my charge and responsibility to the people of Murchison-Eyre and my fellow goldfielders, is to act as a watchdog, a guardian against the further atrophying and shrinking of Western Australian rights by insidious and often covert or duplicitous legislation from Canberra, like amendments to the taxation Act, the heritage Act, national land rights, and the most vexatious of all, the misnomer called the Bill of Rights.

It sounds like a week in the Senate today, in fact. He went on to say:

I feel that I am further charged with attempting to hold the scales more evenly, to regain from Canberra some of the decision-making and equity that most of my constituents agree is rightfully within the realms of Western Australia, the largest State of this federated nation.

But, by the end of his time in the Senate in 2008, Ross acknowledged the softening of his views as a secessionist. In his valedictory speech, he said:

The other aspect of that which I brought to this chamber was that I stilled burned, albeit not with the same fierce passion that I once held, for the secession of Western Australia. It seemed to me to be something that was not quite fair, not quite reasonable and not quite equitable to have a big state like Western Australia, a third of this nation, producing a great deal of the national export income and to have that income mainly flow to Canberra and seem not to flow back to Western Australia …

Part of that change was his recognition of the evolution of the Senate itself. Ross's ambition had always been to serve Western Australia exclusively, demonstrated by his 18 years of parliamentary service, but, as he acknowledged in his valedictory speech, he served his country as well.

On my own behalf—and on the behalf, I'm sure, of other Western Australian Liberal Party members—I extend my sincere condolences to his family. I remember his remarkable service to Western Australia and to his country. Vale, Ross Lightfoot.


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