LILLICO, Alexander Elliot Davidson (1905–1994)
Senator for Tasmania, 1959–74 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Alexander Elliot Davidson Lillico, who served with distinction at all three levels of government for almost forty years, was a forceful advocate for rural Tasmania, particularly for the North-West. He was born into a farming family of Scottish descent, at Ulverstone, Tasmania, on 5 September 1905, the son of Alexander Lillico (later Sir) and Frances Emma, née Vertigan. The Lillico family had arrived in Tasmania in the 1860s and settled at Lillico Beach in 1865. Like his father, Lillico was educated at the Don State School, receiving his high school education in Devonport and as a boarder at Scotch College, Melbourne, though he attended the latter for only two terms in 1921 before he ‘ran away’. The Scotch Collegian recorded that ‘so suddenly did he go that it was two or three days before he was missed’. After a brief period dairying and potato growing, Lillico soon took up land at Wilmot, south of Devonport, where he would become one of the major beef cattle producers for the North-West. On 4 June 1928 he married Gladys Victoria Mayo at Otakiri, New Zealand. The couple would have three children.[1]

Lillico’s political career was launched in 1934 when he was elected to the Kentish Municipal Council; he served until 1960. At a by-election on 19 June 1943 Lillico entered the Tasmanian Legislative Council representing Meander, sitting concurrently for some years with his father who was MLC for Mersey from 1924 to 1954. This is believed to be the first occasion when a father and son sat together in the same house of an Australian parliament.

Lillico was a regular participant in Legislative Council debates, and active on parliamentary committees. Like his father, he strenuously opposed the extension of Commonwealth power put to referendums by the Curtin and Chifley governments in 1944, 1946 and 1948. Underlying this was a passionate defence of the primary producers of Tasmania. He saw the 1946 proposal, which would have allowed for Commonwealth control of agricultural marketing, as putting an end to the potato industry. He was opposed to wages boards unless farmers were assured of guaranteed prices. On the positive side, he was all for improved roads and the extension of hydroelectricity services to the North-West. In the wake of Tasmania’s increasing industrialisation, he affirmed that primary production was the only way to lasting Tasmanian prosperity.[2]

Lillico designated himself as an independent, since candidates for the Council at this time rarely had party endorsement. When Lillico resigned from the Council in October 1958, it was because he had been approached by the state Liberal Party to head the Tasmanian Senate ticket at the 1958 federal election in order to reflect the needs and aspirations of rural voters.

Elected on 22 November 1958, Lillico was sworn in the Senate on 11 August 1959. In his first speech, on 26 August, he spoke against the Commonwealth’s power to levy uniform income tax, and in favour of complete financial independence for the states. Unlike his position in 1948 when he had been highly critical of the role of the Senate, he now applauded the Senate’s safeguarding of the interests of small states. Referring particularly to the plight of Tasmanian potato producers, he urged the expansion of markets to Australia’s northern neighbours and the consolidation of existing markets. Equally important was the need to foster overseas investment in Australian primary industry to the same level as in secondary industry, for ‘we cannot have enduring prosperity … unless the primary industries are prosperous and expanding’. He took a keen interest in the estimates, especially as they pertained to Tasmania, energetically pleading the case of the hard-pressed beef-farmers on the King Island soldier settlements. He was unquestioning in his support of British and American investment in Australia, which was so beneficial to Tasmania. Regardless of which political party was in power, he criticised the impact of high wage levels on primary industry. He harboured the farmer’s mistrust of ‘legal men’, and complained that there were more wigs on the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission than on the High Court.[3]

Lillico also used the Senate’s new legislative and general purpose standing committees, of which he had been strongly supportive, to promote causes he held dear. In 1970 he became a founding member of the Standing Committee on Primary and Secondary Industry and Trade (from 1972, Industry and Trade), on which he expressed his dissatisfaction with aspects of the New Zealand–Australia Free Trade Agreement, as he defended the interests of the Tasmanian bean and pea market. As an active member of the Select Committee on the Container Method of Handling Cargoes, he highlighted the transport needs of Tasmanian fruit and meat producers. He was critical of the operating problems of the Australian National Line and the rising cost of freight, and suggested that the Commonwealth heed the committee’s recommendation to ‘give special consideration to … the inability of the shipping consortia to accommodate the export of the Tasmanian fruit crop’.[4]

Lillico maintained an independent streak that was intrinsic to his character. In December 1965 he crossed the floor to vote against the Menzies Government’s Constitution Alteration (Parliament) Bill, which proposed the removal of the ‘nexus’ provision from the Constitution, a proposal lost at the 1967 referendum. Lillico argued that such a change would result in the ‘voice of Tasmania [being] completely lost’ in favour of New South Wales and Victoria.

On occasion his independence went even further, perhaps stimulated by the different political climate of the post-Menzies era. On 5 October 1967 he joined Senators Wood and Wright, the Democratic Labor Party senators and two independents in voting with the Opposition to pass an amended motion requiring that all papers relating to the use of VIP aircraft by ministers and others over the previous fifteen months ‘be laid on the table of the Senate’. The Holt Government had claimed formerly that detailed records were not kept for long, but twenty days later John Gorton, the new Leader of the Government in the Senate, tabled the documents. After the House of Representatives election of October 1969, fourteen of the twenty Liberal senators reputedly met in Melbourne at the behest of Senator Magnus Cormack, a leading Liberal and a deft political operator, in an attempt to shore up support for the leadership of John Gorton, now the Prime Minister. Lillico was not invited.[5]

Essentially Lillico remained firmly conservative. He was virulent anti-communist, and upheld the domino theory in support of the war in Vietnam. In 1973 he vehemently opposed the Whitlam Government’s Death Penalty Abolition Bill, and its purchase of Jackson Pollock’s painting Blue Poles. Lillico had no time for environmentalism—especially when combined with what he regarded as centralist tendencies—describing a proposed federal inquiry into saving Lake Pedder as ‘ludicrous, purposeless and asinine’.[6]

In April 1974 Lillico declared that despite his initial intention to contest the next election, he had decided to withdraw his nomination. In this he probably had little choice, for he claimed that a group of southern Tasmanians responsible for preselection was moving against him, a situation that (as a representative of the North-West) he deeply resented, though he had also lost the support of those closer to Canberra than Hobart. He later wrote to Cormack that he regretted not speaking out more strongly against ‘the mass stupidity which seemed to grip the Liberal Party at Canberra’ in the period leading up to the double dissolution.[7]

Out of public life for the first time in forty years, Lillico returned to his farm, where he would spend the next thirteen years until the death of his wife in 1987. Lillico died at Deloraine on 1 November 1994. He was survived by his children. After a funeral service at St Columba’s Presbyterian Church, Devonport, Lillico was buried at Mersey Vale Memorial Cemetery, Devonport.

Tributes in the Senate acknowledged his advocacy of the rights of Tasmania and its farmers. Considered an ‘identity’ in the North-West, Lillico had engaged in robust exchanges with political opponents, once accusing Senator George Georges of being ‘like a blabbering jackass’, and Justin O’Byrne of having ‘as many brains above his shoulders as a turkey’. But he was capable also of warm friendship, evidenced by the mutual regard between himself and the redoubtable Senator Wood, though this too once suffered a stormy interlude. The journalist Alan Reid considered Lillico ‘a quiet, dignified man … not amenable to intimidation’.[8]

Clive Beauchamp

[1] Examiner (Launc.), 11 Nov. 1994, p. 20; David Dilger, ‘Lillico, Sir Alexander’, ADB, vol. 10; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Faye Gardam, author of Sawdust, Sails and Sweat: A History of the River Don Settlement, North-West Coast, Tasmania, and Jim Mitchell, Archivist, Scotch College, Melbourne; Scotch Collegian, Aug. 1921, p. 117; Mercury (Hob.), 11 May 1944, p. 8, 27 Nov. 1952, p. 16; CPD, 7 Sept. 1961, p. 463; Advocate (Burnie), 4 Nov. 1994, p. 12.

[2] Helen and Dallas Williams, Two Thousand Yesterdays: A Social History of the Kentish Municipality, Kentish Times Press, Sheffield, Tas., 1988, p. 104; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Bronie Furley, Kentish Council, Sheffield, Tas.; Examiner (Launc.), 4 Nov. 1994, p. 22; Mercury (Hob.), 21 Apr. 1944, p. 4, 22 Mar. 1946, p. 4, 6 Nov. 1947, p. 4, 20 Sept. 1946, p. 4, 26 Oct. 1946, p. 5, 11 Nov. 1949, pp. 4, 20, 2 Dec. 1954, p. 36, 3 Nov. 1954, p. 5.

[3] Examiner (Launc.), 1 Nov. 1958, p. 1; CPD, 26 Aug. 1959, pp. 319–23; Mercury (Hob.), 22 Sept. 1948, p. 4; CPD, 18 Oct. 1961, p. 1220, 11 Mar. 1970, p. 228.

[4] CPD, 21 Oct. 1959, pp. 1108–9; CPP, 96/1973; CPD, 28 Aug. 1968, pp. 380–2; AFR (Syd.), 24 Oct. 1972, p. 13; CPP, 46/1968; CPD, 24 Sept. 1968, p. 912, 3 Sept. 1970, pp. 499–500.

[5] Senate, Journals, 2 Dec. 1965, p. 426; CPD, 2 Dec. 1965, pp. 1995–6; Senate, Journals, 5 Oct. 1967, pp. 240–1; Ian Hancock, The V.I.P. Affair 1966–67: The Causes, Course and Consequences of a Ministerial and Public Service Cover-up, Australasian Study of Parliament Group, Canberra, 2004, pp. 39–40, 50–2; Alan Reid, The Gorton Experiment, Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, 1971, p. 355.

[6] CPD, 7 Apr. 1965, pp. 341–4, 28 Mar. 1968, p. 411, 8 May 1973, pp. 1410–12, 14 Nov. 1973, pp. 1775–6; Gough Whitlam, The Whitlam Government 1972–1975, Viking, Ringwood, Vic., 1985, p. 529; CPD, 10 Apr. 1973, p. 937.

[7] Mercury (Hob.), 22 Apr. 1974, p. 3; Correspondence sent and received by Mr Lillico during his time as a Senator in the Australian Parliament, 22 May 1974, 3 July 1974, 12 Aug. 1974, NS1049/1/1, AOT.

[8] Examiner (Launc.), 4 Nov. 1994, p. 22; CPD, 7 Nov. 1994, pp. 2457–60, 15 May 1969, p. 1337; Ian Wood, Transcript of oral history interview with Ron Hurst, 1984, POHP, TRC 4900/84, NLA, p. 11:22; Reid, The Gorton Experiment, p. 355.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 152-155.

LILLICO, Alexander Elliot Davidson (1905–1994)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Tasmania, 1959–74

Tasmanian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Council, Meander, 1943–58

Senate Committee Service

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1962–73

Select Committee on the Container Method of Handling Cargoes, 1967–68

Estimates Committee D, 1970–71

Standing Committee on Primary and Secondary Industry and Trade, 1970–72

Estimates Committee E, 1971–72

Standing Committee on Industry and Trade, 1972–74

Estimates Committee F, 1973–74