Federal parliament has farewelled the late Liberal Senator Jeannie Ferris, describing her as a feisty, gutsy, warm and lovable soul who was a stalwart for rural Australia.

Colleagues from all sides of politics paid tribute to Ms Ferris, who died in hospital in Canberra last month after a long battle with ovarian cancer.

The South Australian senator and government whip was hailed as a tireless representative and advocate of women's issues and rural Australians.

Prime Minister John Howard said Ms Ferris was an intensely practical and passionate woman who did practical things to help people in the bush.

He said he liked Ms Ferris immensely and was saddened by her death.

"She was courageous, she was very gutsy, she was very forthright, she was a lovable soul, she cared about her duties and we all miss her terribly," Mr Howard told parliament.

"It's a sad thing when you farewell a serving colleague, taken long before her time and claimed by a terrible illness.

"But she left behind a wonderful example of courage and adversity, a determination to help other women facing this terrible illness and to all of us, of her former colleagues, the memory of a loveable soul and someone who cared deeply for her country."

Ms Ferris' death came just five weeks after she helped secure federal government funding to establish a national centre for ovarian, cervical and other gynaecological cancers.

Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd spoke of Ms Ferris as a person of quick wit who was devoted to public service.

"That's what drove her, that's what motivated her and that's what inspired her - to make a contribution, to serve and to make a difference," he told parliament.

"Jeannie was feisty, she was gutsy, she was warm, she was gregarious and she drew people to her.

"You couldn't help but respect her, you couldn't help but like her actually, you couldn't help admire her.

"Jeannie lost her personal battle but leaves a legacy which anyone would be proud of."

Ms Ferris was 66 and leaves behind two sons, Robbie and Jeremy.

Her former husband, Bob Ferris, with whom she maintained a close friendship since their divorce in the 1980s, was killed in a road accident three days after her death.

Senator Nick Minchin said Ms Ferris touched the lives of everyone she came across.

"Jeannie was loved, respected and admired by an extraordinary range and number of Australians," Senator Minchin told parliament.

"When you think of Jeannie you immediately picture that engaging smile, the cheeky glint in her eye, her wonderful sense of humour and her take-no-prisoner approach to life."

Senator Minchin, who shared a house with Ms Ferris for nearly 10 years, told parliament about his long friendship and admiration for Ms Ferris.

He said her life was cut short by a battle which the senate previously believed she had won.

"Our optimism was unfounded.

"Saddest of all is the enthusiasm she had for her post parliamentary life which she planned following her decision to retire at the next election.

"Now that is not to be.

"For Jeannie it can be truly said she touched the lives of everyone who knew her," Senator Minchin said.

Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile told members of a trip he'd taken to Baghdad with Senator Ferris in February 2006 to raise the case of Australian wheat growers with the Iraqi government in discussions about wheat trade.

Senator Ferris had just completed a lengthy course of chemotherapy and travelled against the advice of her oncologist.

"That visit was the epitome of her commitment and tenacity," Mr Vaile said.

He recalled how they travelled in military helicopters, wearing helmets and flak jackets.

"Running across the tarmac it was exhausting for all of us, but the only thing that Jeannie was concerned about was that her wig would stay on straight underneath her helmet whilst the cameras was on us."

Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer also paid tribute to Senator Ferris, telling how he got to know her while living as a tenant in her Canberra home.

He described how Senator Ferris came home one evening and started talking to him about the stem cell debate.

"She started harassing and cajoling me and telling me that it was enormously important for the future of humanity that I supported this piece of legislation. I didn't dare resist her and I did vote for the legislation.

"Her advocacy was very important in terms of making up my mind on that issue."