Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022


Ellicott, Hon. Robert James (Bob), AC, KC

3:34 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with deep regret that I inform the Senate of the death, on 31 October 2022, of the Hon. Robert James (Bob) Ellicott AC, KC, a former minister and member of the House of Representatives for the division of Wentworth, New South Wales, from 1974 to 1981.

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Trade and Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its sorrow at the death, on 31 October 2022, of the Hon. Robert James (Bob) Ellicott AC, KC, former Attorney-General and Minister for Home Affairs and the Environment and the former member for Wentworth, places on record its gratitude for his service to the parliament and to the nation and tenders its sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

I rise on behalf of the government to express our condolences following the passing of former barrister, minister and judge the Hon. Robert—otherwise known as Bob—James Ellicott AC, KC at the ripe old age of 95. As I begin, I wish to convey the Senate's condolences to Mr Ellicott's family and his friends.

Born in Moree, New South Wales, on what was Good Friday 15 April 1927, Bob Ellicott had a life that was long and impactful. As a child, he set his ambition to become a barrister, which he set about making a reality by 1950, when he was admitted to the New South Wales bar. In 1964, he was appointed a Queen's Council. Then, in 1969, he became the Solicitor-General of Australia, a role he held until 1973. During that time, Bob Ellicott served as one of Australia's first delegates to the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law, a role which provides a small degree of overlap with the work I currently undertake in the trade portfolio.

Bob entered parliament as the member for Wentworth at the 1974 election. Following the 1975 election, Mr Ellicott was appointed Attorney-General in the Fraser government. As Attorney-General, Mr Ellicott made a big mark on Australian legal structures. In this role, he established the Family Court and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which had both been initiated by the Whitlam government. He was also responsible for legislation which set up the Human Rights Commission. However, his term as Attorney-General came to an end when he resigned his ministry after a disagreement with the then Prime Minister in 1977.

While I did not personally know Mr Ellicott, I think we can get a sense of the person he was from his willingness to give up his role due to a difference of opinion with the then Prime Minister, in line with Westminster tradition. However, in recognition of his ability and commitment to reform, not long after that he was reappointed to the ministry as Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Capital Territory. It was in these roles that he continued to build a legacy which continues to serve us to this day.

One area where Bob made a contribution was in his role—one particularly close to my heart—where he set about establishing the Australian Institute of Sport, following a notably poor performance by Australia at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. His passion for sport continued throughout the rest of his life, and I think it's fair to say that many of our current sporting heroes owe their success to Bob's forward-thinking approach to sport.

Bob left parliament in 1981 after making many significant contributions throughout his parliamentary career. Bob's drive to contribute to Australian society continued. Following his parliamentary career, Bob served on the Federal Court bench and as an arbitrator on the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Over the decades, his efforts saw him awarded with many accolades—too many to list here. This perhaps culminated in him being recognised in the 2017 Australia Day Awards, being awarded the AC in the general division of the Order of Australia. A loving husband of Colleen, who passed in 2020, a loving father of Suzanne, Penelope, Michael and John and an adored grandfather and great-grandfather, our thoughts go out to his loved ones.

In the words of John, Bob was a man of great compassion, love and commitment. We thank Bob Ellicott for the contribution he made to our country through his great life of service. May he rest in peace.

3:40 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to join with the Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate in support of this motion recognising the life and contribution of the honourable Robert James—or 'Bob'—Ellicott AC KC. Bob Ellicott was a scholar, statutory officeholder, esteemed and respected barrister, jurist and parliamentarian. While serving in parliament as the member for Wentworth from 1974 until his resignation in 1981, Bob Ellicott served as a senior minister and significant figure both during and in the years immediately following Australia's greatest political and constitutional crisis. He had, as Senator Farrell indicated, gravitated towards law and being a barrister from a very young age. The age of eight, in fact, is when he said that he had set his sights on becoming a barrister! Bob's success as a barrister ultimately saw him serve as the Commonwealth Solicitor-General from 1969 until 1973, when he was caught by the lure of politics.

Under Prime Minister Fraser, Bob Ellicott became Australia's first law officer as Attorney-General, taking on the role as a man with a reputation for integrity and honesty, hallmarks which would also ultimately see him stand down from that position. In becoming Attorney-General, Bob Ellicott became—and, indeed, remains, as I understand it—the only person to have served as both Australia's Solicitor-General and Australia's Attorney-General. Bob believed his discretion and independence as Attorney-General were paramount. When he felt they had come into conflict with Prime Minister Fraser and members of the cabinet in relation to the Sankey v Whitlam and others proceedings, which as many others would be aware is a case intrinsically linked to the events preceding the dismissal and those events known as the Khemlani loans affair, Bob Ellicott chose to resign as Attorney-General. This was a bitter end to what at the time was the peak of a legal career of great eminence and achievement. But it was also the act of a man who was true to his oath and commitments, who put his principle of respect for and belief in the law first. And, for that, he was respected, including by the Prime Minister with whom he had disagreed.

With a softly spoken and mild-mannered demeanour, Bob was renowned for his belief in the law and the legal system. In 1975, leading up to the dismissal, he had spoken of and written of the role of the Governor-General with a legal opinion just weeks out from that eventful day of 11 November 1975 which the then respected National Times called the most thorough, tightly argued and prophetic legal opinion. Despite his departure from the coveted position of Attorney-General, Malcolm Fraser rightly lauded Bob's achievements during his time in that office, pointing to his role in the restructuring of the Federal Court and the expansion of the jurisdiction of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and his work to establish the Human Rights Commission, all within just two years in the office of Attorney-General.

Despite the loss of the position of Attorney-General, Bob Ellicott was back in the Fraser ministry within two months, reflective of the respect that Malcolm Fraser had for him, and continued to serve as a minister right through until his departure from politics in 1981. One of those roles was as Minister for the Capital Territory. It was Bob Ellicott who led the charge towards the first referendum on self-government in the ACT. The result of that 1978 vote was for the status quo, but there is no doubt that Bob Ellicott can be considered as one of the founders of the self-government movement for our national capital. It would take another decade for the ACT to take on self-government and, even then, with many doubters, but that foundation was laid in part by Bob Ellicott.

As many will have seen from the many tributes paid to Bob since his death on 31 October this year, at the age of 95, it was Bob's role—as Senator Farrell referenced—in establishing the Australian Institute of Sport that is perhaps his greatest legacy. Bob himself said it was his proudest achievement and one of the great privileges of his life. He described how, gradually, the AIS took off in full flight—like a 747 on its first flight, he said. It is a legacy that set Australia on a path towards being competitive in the world of high-performance sporting endeavour in the years and decades following the establishment of the AIS. Generations have since benefited and will continue to do so.

It had been driven by the bitter disappointment of Bob and many others at Australia's performance at those 1976 Montreal Olympics, in which, though it's hard to believe in this day and age, Australia won no gold medals—just one silver and four bronze medals. This drove him towards the establishment of the AIS. Famed athlete Robert de Castella said after Bob's death that he was the one who turned the whole high-performance approach around.

In 1981, Bob decided to return to law, leaving the parliament to be appointed to the Federal Court bench. He had hoped to be appointed Chief Justice of the High Court, and, indeed, discussions had occurred about that potential appointment. But his publicly stated views and opinions in relation to the dismissal saw him deemed too controversial a figure for the role. His time on the Federal Court was to be short, like his time as Attorney-General—just a couple of years. But it was equally impactful. Jack Waterford, writing in the Canberra Times following Bob's decision to leave the Federal Court, described him as having proven himself to be an outstanding judge who would be a great loss to the Federal Court. He said Bob had particularly demonstrated his ability and his radicalism in his work in administrative law.

Jack Waterford went on to highlight specifically some of that work in administrative law and the fact that Bob Ellicott had brought an interpretation of administrative law, particular in terms of the rights of members of the public and public servants themselves, to natural justice in their dealings with the bureaucracy and in terms of the right of public servants to the review of bureaucratic decisions made affecting them. He said they were landmark decisions in relation to the new administrative order.

Ultimately, Bob Ellicott's love of the work he had undertaken as a barrister saw him decide to leave the bench. He had a desire to be able to speak out on the issues that mattered to him more, and he returned to the bar. He remained active as a barrister and also in a range of other ways, including, as has been referenced, as a judge on the Court of Arbitration for Sport of the International Olympic Committee from 1995 all the way until 2015, when he was nearing his 90th year. His induction into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 2016 was a fitting tribute to a person who gave so much to the development of Australian sport.

On behalf of the coalition, I add our condolences to those expressed in the House earlier this month to Bob's family, friends and many colleagues across politics, law and sport but, most especially, to his children, Suzanne, Penelope, Michael and John, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. Now reunited with his beloved wife, Colleen, who died just two years ago, we thank him for his service and them for sharing him. May he rest in peace.

Question agreed to, honourable senators joining in a moment of silence.