Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 February 2024


Lightfoot, Mr Philip Ross

3:37 pm

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

Senators, it is with deep regret that I inform the Senate of the death on 11 January 2024 of Philip Ross Lightfoot, a senator for the state of Western Australia from 1997 to 2008.

3:38 pm

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 11 January 2024, of Philip Ross Lightfoot, a former senator for Western Australia, and places on record its gratitude for his service to the parliament and the nation, and tenders its sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

I rise on behalf of the government to acknowledge the passing on 11 January of former senator Philip Ross, better known as Ross, Lightfoot. Senator Lightfoot served as a senator for Western Australia from 19 May 1997 until 30 June 2008, being appointed following the death of Senator John Panizza. While he represented Western Australia in this place, Senator Lightfoot was in fact born across the border, in Port Lincoln, South Australia, on 11 August 1936 to John Lightfoot and Thelma Forrest.

Senator Lightfoot's life before entering the Senate was a varied one. He undertook his schooling at the Port Lincoln primary school and high school before leaving at age 13 and eventually undertaking further study at both the Adelaide and the Kalgoorlie mining school. At age 15, in 1951, he joined the Citizen Military Forces, serving as a rifleman for several years, and later found work in the South Australian Mounted Police. During this time he served in the honour guard for Queen Elizabeth during two state visits, events which he later said in his valedictory speech in this place were foundational in developing his lifelong and passionate monarchist views.

Senator Lightfoot later went on to manage and own properties across Western Australia. He also had extensive involvement in the mining industry as the founding chairman of Southern Goldfields Mining Co and as a director of Eureka Minerals. From 1986 to 1997 Senator Lightfoot served in both the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council of Western Australia. Following his appointment as a senator in 1997, Senator Lightfoot served on a large number of parliamentary committees, including the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and the Finance and Public Administration Committee. He also served as a temporary chair of committees throughout much of his tenure in the Senate.

Outside of the Senate, Senator Lightfoot was passionate about a number of issues, including being a patron of the Extremely Disabled War Veterans Association of Australia, and was appointed a Knight of Grace of Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. Senator Lightfoot was a strong believer in the proposal that Western Australia should secede from the Commonwealth, declaring this during his time in the parliament of Western Australia. However, by the time he left this place in 2008 he did express a softening in his views and, despite this, he remained an ardent supporter of his home state throughout his long career.

Senator Lightfoot dedicated a significant amount of his adult life to representing the people of Western Australia in both the state and federal parliaments, and today we recognise that service. On behalf of the government I extend my condolences to his family, including his wife, Anne, and his children. Vale Senator Philip Ross Lightfoot.

3:42 pm

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

I rise on behalf of the opposition to join with the government and support the motion moved by Senator Farrell in honouring and speaking to the life of Philip Ross Lightfoot. Philip Ross Lightfoot, known to all as Ross, was, as Senator Farrell said, born in 1936 to Thelma and John Lightfoot in Port Lincoln, South Australia. He was educated at Port Lincoln primary school and high school before attending the Adelaide and then Kalgoorlie School of Mines. But Ross left the school at the age of 13 and held a number of jobs, including in an abattoir, until he was 16, when he made the decision to up his age to 19 and join the Army under the National Service Act that had been brought in after World War II. He served in the 43rd/48th Infantry Battalion from 1953 to 1956.

Throughout his life, Ross would return to the land, reminding others that he was a country bloke after all. Ross took to being a plasterer and a jackaroo following his Army service for a short time, and in that era joined the local Liberal Party branch in Port Lincoln. Ross then took on service with the South Australian Mounted Police, which he would later describe as the most exhilarating time—in particular, as Senator Farrell mentioned, and one of the most memorable events in Ross's life, being selected as part of the late Queen Elizabeth II's personal escort upon her visit to South Australia in 1961.

Leaving the Mounted Police in 1963, Ross Lightfoot would hold a number of jobs over the decades that brought him back to farming as well as into mining, where his interest in politics deepened and took him firmly into Western Australia. In Western Australia he served in the state parliament, firstly as a member of the Legislative Assembly for the seat of Murchison-Eyre, from 1986 until 1989, until the seat was abolished under redistribution. Such a fate did not dissuade Ross from politics, as he went on to contest the election and be re-elected to the Western Australian parliament as a member of the Legislative Council for the North Metropolitan Region in 1993. This turn in the Legislative Council would be short, as Ross sought and gained endorsement to fill a vacancy in the Australian Senate following the unfortunate passing of Western Australian senator John Panizza in 1997. It is notable that Ross Lightfoot stands among a very small number of Australians to have served in not just one or two but, in fact, three different parliamentary chambers across our Federation.

Ross reflected in his first speech that he shared many of the interests and aspirations of his predecessor, former senator Panizza, in farming and mining. It was a first speech emboldened with Ross Lightfoot's strong beliefs and fierce opinions on what he believed was in the best interests of Western Australia and ultimately Australia. In what would have been merely minutes into his first speech, Ross stated, to the surprise of some, that he was in fact a republican. Yet he also stated that, if such a debate on whether Australia became a republic or remained within the Commonwealth threatened to divide the fabric of what makes Australia such a successful democracy, he would advocate for the monarchy.

Direct and forthright, Ross Lightfoot certainly was. But he was also a classical farmer gentleman in many ways. His views may have been unfashionable, his approach direct, but, based on all feedback, he was unfailingly polite to staff and those who worked with or for him. During his 11 years in the Senate, Ross made extensive contributions serving on numerous committees, as we've heard, and as a patron of organisations, including the Disabled War Veterans Association of Australia.

Ross Lightfoot also made the tabloids from time to time for his strong views and sometimes controversial stances or actions. A notable headline occurred when he had what some would call a tussle with two Greens senators following US President George W Bush's address to a joint sitting of the parliament. Perhaps it was the old policeman background in him, but Ross Lightfoot was under the impression that there was something sinister afoot, and, therefore, he intercepted an unplanned audience between the Greens senators and President George W Bush, which then apparently broke into a bit of a bigger biff or tussle, as reported by the newspapers of the time. This tussle between members of parliament, later called 'the charge of the Lightfoot brigade', supposedly meant that the President and then Prime Minister Howard avoided involvement with the Greens and their desire to make whatever point it was thanks to Ross Lightfoot's actions.

Following this time, as Ross went to seek re-election to the Senate he found himself in a fierce contest. Though never usually one to back away from a contest, ultimately, with a certain Mathias Cormann challenging him, Ross made the final decision not to re-contest at the 2007 election. I served briefly with Ross, and I particularly recall in this place the presence he brought to his time in the chair as an acting temporary chair on many occasions. He would fill that role with aplomb and, indeed, had a substance and presence in presiding over Senate procedure, reflecting somebody who had provided such long service not just in the Senate but across multiple parliamentary chambers.

In his valedictory to the Senate, Ross reflected what I believe, I'm sure, is the great admiration we all have for Australia's very special democratic system—that Australians of all backgrounds can become members of parliament:

I will close by saying that my first job in my life was in an abattoir and that … my last job will be as a senator … It is testimony not so much to the tenacity that I showed in climbing up that sometimes steep cliff to get to this heady and elevated plateau but more to the system in Australia that allows people like me, from an extremely modest background, to end up in an august and wonderful chamber such as this, amongst wonderful people and great Australians. I have been fortunate enough to do that.

It was a customary flourish, a sign of his gratitude for the opportunities provided to him and the work he was able to undertake in pursuing his beliefs and acting on behalf of his constituents. On behalf of the opposition in the Australian Senate, to Ross's wife, Annie; his children Mark, Belle, Jo, Sam and Alix; and grandchildren: we extend our sincere condolences.

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.

3:57 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too would like to make a contribution on the condolence motion for former senator Ross Lightfoot. I think I'm one of the few who remain in the place that served with Ross. He certainly could be described in today's parlance as a colourful character. As has been indicated by some of my colleagues, he held some views that would certainly not hold sway today. He wasn't afraid of a stoush, and he was certainly forthright in putting those views, but he did have an enormous respect for this place. He did value enormously his role as an elected representative from Western Australia, as difficult as it might have been sometimes to reconcile the views that he brought to this place in respect of some of his perspectives. He seemed to find ways to get into a stoush, the interaction between former senators Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle when President Bush was here being a notable one, and I do recall him appearing on the front page of the Australian holding an AK-47 at one point in time. I think in today's terms, particularly the last photograph, there are not too many that would survive politically having that photograph of them published these days. Ross, though, was prepared to hold his ground before making a decision at the end of the day to retire.

He was great company. He and his wife, Anne, became great friends with a number of us. When he suffered from dementia later in life, that became a very difficult time for Anne, who is just an absolutely delightful person and a great friend. I would like to acknowledge the service of former senator Ross Lightfoot, but pass to Anne and Ross's relatives my condolences on his passing. I think it's clear we're not likely to see the likes of someone like Ross in this place again, But, as he was colourful, the place is more colourful for his part in being here and serving in the three parliaments, which is quite a unique record, he served in both here and in Western Australia. Condolences to Anne and Ross's family.

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