Condolence Motion: The Hon Robert Ellicott AC KC

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I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Bob Ellicott AC KC. He was an extraordinary Australian, as the member for Wentworth has outlined. Bob was a friend, a mentor and personal hero of mind. I regard Bob as one of Australia’s finest Attorney-Generals. Like his cousin, Sir Garfield Barwick, he was what Clive Cameron described as a ‘radical Tory’, someone who believed in Australia, its institutions and its traditions but who wanted to achieve political, social and economic reform, and that is a tradition I would like to associate myself with as well. Bob lived a full and active life and held three of the great legal offices of state. He was the second law officer and then the first law officer. He was perhaps that last echo of the generation of the great barrister parliamentarians who wrote our Constitution.

Bob was born and raised in Moree. He was the son of a shearer turned wool classer. He was a barrister for 67 years. It is hard for most of us to imagine doing anything for that length of time but he genuinely loved the law. He only retired from practice when he turned 90. He appeared in many famous constitutional law cases, even after he had been Solicitor-General, including Tasmanian Dams, Sue v Hill, Project Blue Sky and Smith Kline v The Commonwealth. Ellicot attended Fort Street high School, a school for gifted children from families of modest means. Like many in this House, his political career was fostered at university. He graduated with first class honours in his law degree and with a bachelor of arts. It might surprise those opposite to know that for three months while at the University of Sydney he was treasurer of the Labor club, but the gulf between the club’s philosophy and rationalism and Bob’s Christian faith made him realise he didn’t fit.

When he was growing up, the success of his double cousin, the young barrister Garfield Barwick, was constantly talked about in his home, and of course that same Barwick eventually became Chief Justice of the High Court. As a child of the war, Ellicott became transfixed by the powerful oratory of Winston Churchill and John Curtin in radio broadcasts. An instinctive fascination with public affairs was no less enduring.

In the end, it surprised no-one when Bob entered politics. When he was appointed Solicitor-General of the Commonwealth in 1969 at the age of 42, his career as a great law reformer began. He was a member of the Kerr committee, which established what was then called the new system of administrative law in Australia, including the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act and the Freedom of Information Act. These proposals were radical and far-reaching at the time and were significant in improving the rights of citizens in relation to the government. They are a great legacy of that generation of law reformers. He argued Australia’s case at the International Court of Justice opposing France’s nuclear testing in the Pacific. He unsuccessfully sought preselection for my seat of Berowra in 1972 when Tom Hughes QC—who, incidentally, turned 99 last weekend—retired. He eventually was chosen by the Liberal Party to be their candidate in Wentworth in 1974.

In the 1975 constitutional crisis, Ellicott issued a legal opinion saying the Governor-General had the power and the duty to dismiss the government if it couldn’t obtain supply. As he was a former Solicitor-General, his opinion carried great weight. Throughout his career, Ellicott strongly defended the actions of Sir John Kerr and Sir Garfield Barwick during the Whitlam dismissal.

Ellicott served in a number of ministerial portfolios in government. He’s perhaps best remembered as being a reforming Liberal Attorney-General from 1975 to 1977. What makes Ellicott such a hero of mine is his greatest contribution during this time: the extraordinary political achievement of three successful changes to the Constitution. It has to be remember that on only eight occasions has the Constitution been changed, out of 44 attempts. Three of those belong to Ellicott as Attorney-General. What he said was the secret was that he had a series of constitutional conventions in advance of the referenda going forward. Given Australia’s history of referendum failure, to have achieved these three amendments is extraordinary. He ultimately resigned as Attorney-General on a matter of principle following a dispute with Malcolm Fraser over what he regarded as interference in his ability to exercise the discretionary powers vested in the Attorney-General alone. Ellicott went on to serve in other portfolios in government. Among his disparate contributions, he helped advance self-government for the external territories—if you visit the external territories, they still regard him as the father of those territories—and he established the Australian Institute of Sport. As the federal member for Wentworth, he was also influential in the establishment of the Inner City Legal Centre.

After politics, Ellicott served an all-too-brief tenure on the Federal Court from 1981 to 1983. He was regarded as a very good judge, and in my view it’s disappointing that he never graced the office of the High Court, where his talents would have been welcomed and celebrated. After this, he returned to the bar, where he practised till the age of 90.

I got to know Bob through the republic referendum in 1998 and 1999. He was critical of the model that was put up by the Constitutional Convention, which favoured a president elected by the parliament as opposed to a popularly elected president. I also got to know him through discussions we had about the law over the years. As conference convener of the Samuel Griffith Society, I invited Bob to give his thoughts on Indigenous constitutional recognition. It’s fair to say he would have adopted a much more radical proposal than I or other members of the society would have been comfortable with. He was a much-sought-after after-dinner speaker given his long experience in the law and public affairs. He embodied the living history of our country. In more recent years, I’ve spoken to Bob about issues dealing with Indigenous recognition. Only a few weeks before his death, he sent me a long paper he’d written about the Makarrata and the Uluru statement more broadly. I’m honoured to follow in his footsteps as shadow minister for Indigenous Australians.

Alongside the impressive legal and political career, Ellicott had a strong social conscience which he showed in community service. Prior to entering parliament, he had worked as a Methodist lay preacher, and his family and faith were very important to him. He attended and contributed to the Baulkham Hills Methodist Church while he was living in the hills district. When he eventually moved to Elizabeth Bay, he worked with the Reverend Ted Noffs and the Wayside Chapel, and he eventually became chairman of Life Education Australia, which is primarily responsible for social and emotional learning in primary schools. Many of us remember our visit from Healthy Harold.

Bob was also a devoted family man, devoted to his late wife of 70 years, Colleen. No matter what variety of role Bob had, Colleen would work hard behind the scenes doing whatever it took to make it a success. Bob was very kind to me over the years. He was a man of great integrity and principle, a man of intellect and forethought. Today I speak of a diversity of achievement and a life well lived. I extend my deepest condolences to the Ellicott family: to Bob’s children and their families, including his granddaughter Madeleine, who has followed in his steps at the New South Wales bar. May his memory be a blessing.

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