Howard Signals Intention To Accept Colston’s Vote

John Howard yesterday indicated that the government has decided to abandon its previous policy of not accepting the vote of renegade Labor Senator Mal Colston.

The 'venal prick'Colston’s support is crucial if the government is to get its GST legislation through the Senate by the end of next June.

Colston defected from the Labor Party in 1996. He had been denied ALP nomination for Deputy President of the Senate. Following his resignation from the ALP, he was elected Deputy President with the support of the coalition parties. Later, he was forced to resign the position after allegations of irregularities in his travel expenses and other allowances.

The government at that stage had 37 senators, 2 short of the majority needed to pass legislation. Colston and Tasmanian independent Senator Brian Harradine were enough to give the government a Senate majority. This support was crucial on legislation such as the Wik amendments in July 1998. Similarly, Colston’s opposition to the sale of the remaining two-thirds of Telstra destroyed that piece of legislation.

Embarrassment arising from the fraud charges laid against Colston led to Howard announcing that the government would not accept Colston’s vote in Senate divisions. However, an abstention by Colston assisted the government because it effectively robbed the ALP of one of its original votes.

Whilst the Australian Democrats have won the balance of power in the Senate, this does not occur until July 1, 1999. The 6-year terms of Senators are fixed by the Constitution.

Thus, Colston and Harradine remain the crucial players in the Senate for the next eight and a half months. It is a measure of the government’s determination to get its taxation package through the Senate that the Prime Minister has announced the reversal of its stance this early in proceedings. Parliament is not due to meet for the first time since the election until November 10.

Mal Colston’s Chequered Career

Colston’s personal history is one that makes him a particularly hated figure within the ALP. Senator Robert Ray, for example, is reported to have described Colston as a “venal prick”.

Colston’s first came to public notice in 1975 during the term of the Whitlam Labor Government. A Queensland Labor Senator, Bert Milliner, had died and Colston was the ALP’s nominee to replace him in the Senate. Under Section 15 of the Constitution, as it existed at the time, casual senate vacancies were by convention filled by nominees from the same party. The appointment is made by the relevant State Parliament.

The then Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, refused to accept an ALP nomination and appointed Albert Patrick Field to the vacancy. Field was dedicated in his opposition to the Whitlam Government. Together with a similar flouting of convention by the NSW government, the appointment led directly to the blocking of supply in the Senate on this day 23 years ago and the dismissal of the Whitlam Government by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, on November 11, 1975.

In 1977, Prime Minister Fraser proposed a referendum to ensure that State Parliaments were obliged to fill casual senate vacancies with persons from the same party as the departed senator. The referendum was supported by the ALP and passed by the people.

Colston was elected to the Senate at the double dissolution that followed the dismissal and has been a senator ever since. In Labor parlance, he is a “rat”. Given his minor, but symbolic, role in the events of 1975, it is particularly galling for the ALP to see him defect over twenty years later. Many would regard his actions as a betrayal of the party that nurtured him and a betrayal of the important principles that were defended in those eventful Whitlam years.

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