John Howard leads tributes to Peter Reith

A loving father and Liberal reformer admired by his colleagues and disliked by his opponents, who believed him to be a political hard man.

These are just a few of the characteristics used to describe former cabinet minister Peter Reith, who was honoured at a state memorial service in Melbourne on Thursday.

The father of four and former defence minister died in early November aged 72 after a long fight with Alzheimer's disease.

Hundreds of family, friends, Liberal Party stalwarts, senior figures in the federal government and members of the public attended the memorial service at St Andrew's Church in Brighton.

Former prime minister John Howard described Mr Reith as a "great all-rounder" of the coalition who was committed to reform, particularly in industrial relations during the controversial waterfront dispute of the late 1990s.

He remembered his former cabinet colleague as a wonderful friend with a laid-back sense of humour and reassuring presence.

"I have lost somebody I admired a lot, who gave enormously to the Liberal cause," Mr Howard told mourners.

"He was (in parliament) to bring about change, and he was an unrelenting person when it came to change."

Mr Reith was the member for Flinders, on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula, for nearly 20 years, as well as deputy Liberal leader for three years.

He served as a minister in the Howard government, having the portfolios of industrial relations, small business, employment and workplace relations, and defence.

Outside of his political achievements, Mr Reith was remembered as a dedicated father, husband, brother, grandfather and uncle who enjoyed relaxing at his farm with loved ones.

Other senior politicians who paid their respects included former governor-general Sir Peter Cosgrove, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and former treasurers Peter Costello and Josh Frydenberg.

Former adviser Ian Hanke remembered Mr Reith as a man who changed Australia, took on the biggest challenges of the day, fought for the rights of the individual and never got angry or lost his composure.

"He drew the best out in people and gave all his staff the chance to do their best," Mr Hanke said.

Mr Reith retired from politics at the 2001 election and was one of three senior government figures involved in the Tampa affair and children overboard incident.

They claimed on navy advice that children had been thrown off a leaky boat, apparently to force HMAS Adelaide to take them on board but the information was later shown to be incorrect.

After leaving politics, Mr Reith was a political commentator and served as a company director.

On Thursday, flags at government buildings in Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory were flown at half-mast in remembrance.