Federal Politics


Parliament's pariahs are lonely

From Mal Colston to Peter Slipper, those out of favour with all sides can find it tough going with little or no sympathy from anyone

BEING the parliamentary pariah is no fun at all.

Even Senator Mal Colston, a man whose appetites - for food, for frequent flyer points and for freebies - was matched only by his complete absence of shame, discovered that there's nowhere quite so lonely as Parliament House when no one wants to know you.

I had a little to do with Colston's eventual undoing and so, in the interests of balance and accuracy, I had cause to speak to him repeatedly about the damning evidence that was coming my way.

Sex was Colston's undoing.

Okay. I'll give you a minute to pick yourselves up off the floor. Yes, sex - and Colston.

Specifically, a letter that the good senator's wife, Dawn, wrote to Bob Hawke's special minister of state, Mick Young, in 1983. In that letter a cheated and angry Dawn said her husband had misused Commonwealth spousal travel warrants issued in her name so that his lover (who I'll abstain from naming here) could travel with him on parliamentary business.


The letter included other allegations about her husband's quite criminally ingenious abuse of Commonwealth entitlements.

Young ordered his department to investigate Colston. The senator was ordered to repay some $10,000 and the department recommended the case be passed to the Australian Federal Police. Labor never pursued that advice.

Dawn, of course, had sent the letter when she was fuming with big Mal about the mistress. They eventually buried the hatchet and resumed their marriage. But Queensland Labor kept the correspondence for a rainy day.

That day came in 1997, six months after Colston quit Labor and - with Coalition support - became deputy Senate president.

After I received the correspondence between Young, the Colstons and the department, I rang Dawn first. She refused to discuss it. This was not a denial.

What most surprised me, however, when I rang Colston was his insistence that a) the situation outlined in the correspondence had never happened; b) that if it had he couldn't possibly remember because it was so long ago; and c) the paperwork in my possession must have been a Labor fabrication. It was all, he said, a conspiracy to which I was clearly a party.

This, as it turned out, was a great insight into the pathology of the man. Mrs Colston's correspondence about ''the other woman'' was just the beginning of Mal's troubles. Soon evidence of his widespread rorting of travel allowances and other Commonwealth entitlements swamped the front pages. He denied it all.

Eventually Colston was charged, John Howard realised a line had been crossed (it was easy to see) and the Coalition had to forgo his vote - but not before using it to secure the part sale of Telstra.

What astonished me about Colston was the passionate, pathological ''veracity'' of his denials in the face of overwhelming evidence - and from a man who'd never been passionate about much except rorting. Anyone else would have died of shame.

Soon, no Coalition MP would be seen with him. Labor MPs muttered vitriolic abuse when they passed him in the corridor. Eventually Colston took to having all his meals in his Parliament House office and when he sat on the cross-bench only the avuncular Brian Harradine would inquire of his welfare and state of mind.

The depth of Labor's hatred of Colston was at times shocking.

I returned from a few years in London in 2003, during which time Colston had died of cancer. Mal was never the healthiest-looking human specimen. But it's probably fair to assume that the stress surrounding his political downfall contributed to his mortality.

I bumped into one MP who'd pursued Colston since his defection from Labor in August 1996. Regarding Colston, the MP said he'd had ''a kill''.

It was the most chilling insight I'd ever had into the ugly brutality of politics.

Comparisons with the present are, of course, unavoidable.

The venal Colston made it easy for Labor to hate him because he quit to take a Coalition inducement.

The MP Craig Thomson, the subject of tawdry and very serious allegations relating to his time as a union official, enjoyed the backing of Labor - which relies on his support in the House of Representatives - until well after it became untenable.

Labor has suspended his party membership. But, having preselected him well after the allegations first surfaced, it still owns him. That means it must take responsibility for his welfare. Thomson is under enormous pressure. Recent episodes in Australian public life herald the need for caution as he prepares to explain himself to Parliament.

And then there's Peter Slipper, the Speaker who insisted on carrying on with the ceremonial walk to the chamber, even as he prepared to stand down.

Slipper has never got it, and probably never will.

He is a creation of the National and Liberal parties. But the pity of it is that he is owned by the whole Parliament.

The Nationals have hated Slipper for years - ever since he quit to join the Liberal Party. Even though he held a Liberal seat in Queensland. the Nationals have for years told stories about Slipper's purported character weaknesses and love of parliamentary largesse - and much more as well.

The Nationals shared this information with the Liberals and the Labor Party. Which makes it astonishing that a) the Liberals continued to preselect Slipper, and b) Labor thought it could ever get away with keeping him in the Speaker's chair and relying upon his vote for more than a few months.

Thomson is clearly a man in a black, black corner.

Slipper, on the other hand, seems to be - publicly at least - unfazed by the swirling whirlpool that is dragging him, and Parliament's reputation, under. Clearly, like Colston, he made a calculated cost-benefit analysis before he quit the Liberals to become Speaker at the sponsorship of Labor.

Slipper is clearly a man for whom appearance is important. The Speaker's robes and chair, the ceremony in which he wallows, are mere props that cannot disguise his craven self-interest.

Slipper may or may not return to the chair. He will finish his parliamentary days with his portrait, as Speaker, on the wall in Parliament House - and a few more dollars in his pocket.

But respect will remain elusive.

Parliament can be a lonely, harsh place.

Mal Colston proved that.