Liberal senator Jim Molan’s former colleagues have mourned the loss of “a true patriot” after he died aged 72.
Molan, one of the architects of operation sovereign borders and a prominent China hawk in Australian politics, suffered a “sudden and rapid” decline in health after Christmas. He died peacefully on Monday in the arms of his family.
The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, said the nation had lost “a patriot, a decent [and] honourable man and above all and most importantly an incredible family man”.
“Whether you knew Jim or met him for the first time, he drew you in immediately with his warm and captivating quality,” Dutton said. “In turn, you always had Jim’s undivided attention. He always displayed generosity to the views of others, even those with whom he disagreed.”
The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, described Molan as “a man of principle and a politician of conviction”.
“Jim Molan lived his life in service of our country,” Albanese wrote on Twitter.
The leader of the opposition in the Senate, Simon Birmingham, said Australia had “lost a true patriot and serviceman who demonstrated unwavering dedication to the safety and security of our nation”.
“Even in the face of serious health challenges Jim remained diligent in staying abreast of critical issues and determined in his pursuit of actions he believed were critical to Australia’s future security and prosperity,” Birmingham said in a statement.
“Jim’s death will be felt with great sadness by all his colleagues who all valued his abiding commitment to Australia, his diligence as part of our Liberal Senate team and his thoughtful friendship.
“We can best honour Jim’s service by remaining diligent to the enduring safety, security and peace of Australia.”
He offered “sincere condolences to Jim’s wife, Anne, their four children and five grandchildren”.
Molan’s children include the journalist Erin Molan.
“He was many things – a solider, a pilot, an author, a volunteer firefighter, and a senator,” his family said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Most of all, he was an adored husband, father, grandfather, and brother. Our loss is immeasurable, but we are comforted in our memories of a full life courageously lived, devoted to family and in service of the country he loved.
“We thank you for your thoughts and prayers, and for respecting our privacy at this difficult time.”
The deputy Liberal leader, Sussan Ley, said the parliament had “lost an intellectual giant”, while the defence minister, Richard Marles, said Molan had been “a fierce advocate for our nation”.
“We both shared an interest in national security and I’ve had a number of discussions with Jim over the years and he is an honourable and gracious man,” Marles told 2GB radio.
Molan became one of the most prominent voices in Australian politics warning of military threats from China. Last year he said he believed a war with China was “coming within three to five years”.
In his book Danger On Our Doorstep, published last year, Molan argued China’s rise presented a present and growing danger in the Indo-Pacific region.
Molan, who represented New South Wales, was a major general in the army, serving for 40 years.
Molan’s military experience included chief of operations of coalition forces in Iraq.
Molan was one of the architects of Tony Abbott’s hardline military-led policy to deter asylum seekers arriving by boat.
He served as the prime minister’s special envoy on operation sovereign borders from 2013 to 2014. He said in 2016 that operation sovereign borders was “the new normal” and Australia was “leading the world”, adding that thousands of people were “waiting for weakness on our part”.
Molan entered the Senate after Fiona Nash was disqualified for dual citizenship in 2017. He was unsuccessful at the 2019 election after being relegated to the unwinnable fourth position on the Senate ticket, but later filled the casual Senate vacancy caused by the departure of Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos to be the Australian ambassador to the US.
In June 2020 Molan walked out of the Senate rather than joining his colleagues to block a debate on Pauline Hanson’s inflammatory “all lives matter” motion. He argued that all senators should have had a right to air their views on the topic.
He was re-elected to the Senate at the 2022 federal election.