COLSTON, Malcolm Arthur (1938–2003)
Senator, Queensland, 1976–99 (Australian Labor Party; Independent)
Malcolm Arthur Colston was born in Brisbane on 5 April 1938, the eldest child of Douglas Thomas Colston, a carpenter, and his wife Myrtle Clorine Ruby, née Wenck, a primary school teacher before her marriage. Even in his childhood Malcolm was more interested in books than sport. An above average student, he attended Mitchelton State School, Brisbane State High School (1952–55) and then went on to the Queensland Teachers' College. Between 1957 and 1964 he taught at several small rural (mainly primary) schools in south-eastern Queensland but developed a dislike for school teaching. However, politics greatly interested him. Both his parents were active members of the Labor Party and Malcolm had joined the ALP in 1958 when only nineteen. He was increasingly frustrated by his rural postings, which kept him away from ALP branch meetings. In 1960 Colston sought a transfer from Gallangowan State School, citing the town's isolation. Two years later he applied for a transfer from Carter's Ridge State School, stating his intention to seek ALP preselection at the next state election (Colston was unsuccessful in a preselection contest for the seat of Cooroora). It was later alleged that Colston was so unhappy in 1962 that he started not one but two fires at the tiny one-teacher school in Carter's Ridge. He was never charged with arson but was quickly transferred to another school.
At least by the early 1960s Colston had ambitions to be either an academic or a parliamentarian. Back in Brisbane, he studied constantly and in 1966 gave up a salaried job as an educational guidance officer to study full-time for four years at the University of Queensland, acquiring a BEd (Hons) in 1967, and gaining a doctorate in educational psychology. He also found time to serve in the army reserve between 1964 and 1979. During his years of full-time study, and when later compelled to resign from jobs to stand as a parliamentary candidate, Colston worked as a casual labourer in the transport industry. On 1 December 1967 he married Dawn Patricia McMullen at Emmanuel College Chapel, St Lucia; they had two sons.
Colston was an unsuccessful Labor Senate candidate for Queensland at the 1970 half Senate election. In 1972 he sought nomination for a casual Senate vacancy, but was not selected. At the 1974 double dissolution election Colston was listed at fifth place on Labor's ticket, and at one stage seemed sure to win the tenth Queensland seat. On that expectation he was invited to sit in Caucus and took part in a vote on the composition of the ministry, but he eventually lost narrowly to the Country Party's Glen Sheil.
From July 1970 until he resigned following his preselection in 1973, Colston had been employed as officer in charge of the planning and research section of the Queensland Police Department. After the 1974 election he was reappointed to the post but was then immediately seconded to the Department of Industrial Affairs, a move he clearly resented.
Having suffered several disappointments both in work and politics, Colston's next political opportunity arrived in 1975 when a Labor senator for Queensland, Bertie Milliner died unexpectedly in June and the ALP nominated Colston for the vacancy. However, the state National Country Party Government (the National Party of Australia from 1982) led by Joh Bjelke-Petersen, as an act of spite against the federal Labor Government in Canberra, broke with convention, refused to accept the nomination, and eventually appointed Albert Patrick Field, who had no greater qualification than that he had put his hand up for the job. The result was a major political row. After two long fierce debates in state Parliament, during which the 1962 arson allegations were aired, and condemnation of the state government's action by most newspaper editors, Colston momentarily achieved national prominence and within his party acquired the status of a martyr.
Stung by the state government's action, the Labor Party gave Colston the fourth and winnable place on its Senate ticket for the federal elections in December 1975 and two months later he finally achieved his dream of a seat in Parliament. In his first speech to the Senate he declared that he intended 'to stay here for quite some time'.
During his first fifteen years in the Senate Colston displayed a sustained interest in education. A long-standing member of the Council of the Australian National University (1986–97), he was critical of the stagnation in funding to secondary and tertiary institutions. He chaired the Standing Committee on Education and the Arts from 1983 to 1987, and between 1987 and 1988 he chaired a select committee which reported on the education of gifted and talented children. Corporal punishment in schools was a perennial concern. Colston drew national attention to the issue in 1979 and raised it repeatedly thereafter. In 1988 he carried a resolution at the Queensland ALP state conference urging abolition of corporal punishment. Colston also had plenty to say on a diverse range of defence and veterans' affairs issues: housing and retirement benefits for defence force members; the potential misuse of Indigenous sacred sites for weapons practice; and the operation of patrol boats. While asking many questions on these issues, he made few speeches.
Colston frequently denounced the electoral system in Queensland and in 1986 sought Caucus approval to introduce a private senator's bill to outlaw the gerrymander and introduce a one vote, one value system throughout Australia. Although the bill never moved beyond a Caucus committee, Colston's attempt anticipated an unsuccessful referendum proposal two years later.
Colston was the first member of either House to have two private member's bills enacted. One was a procedural measure concerning the Parliamentary Presiding Officers' Act, passed in 1992; the other, the Senate Elections (Queensland) Bill, was introduced in March 1981 and passed both Houses without amendment in May 1982. This bill removed the right of the Queensland Government to divide the state into electoral divisions for the purpose of electing senators, rather than the usual method of the state voting as one electorate. The Bjelke-Petersen Government had considered the use of the divisional option in 1979, but had not acted upon it. The provisions of Colston's bill were subsequently incorporated into the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 in 1993. Ironically, just before his term ended in 1999, Colston introduced a private senator's bill to amend the Electoral Act 1918 to provide for the division of states into wards, effectively seeking to undo the 1992 legislation.
In 1978 and 1981 Colston introduced legislation aimed at amending section 44 (iv) of the Constitution, which prevented public servants from contesting a federal election while employed by the Crown. He had personal experience of the difficulties caused by this provision. Reporting in 1981, the Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs found a fatal anomaly in Colston's bill, but praised it as a 'catalyst' for its own report, which proposed comprehensive legislative changes leading to a constitutional amendment. The committee's recommendations were never enacted.
One of the reasons Colston achieved little public visibility was that soon after entering Parliament he seems to have decided that the best way of achieving the prominence he wanted was via committee work, and he served on many Senate committees, either as a full or a participating member. He became an experienced committee chair, who chaired three select committees and a number of estimates and standing committees for extended periods. He was an attentive and assiduous chair of the Regulations and Ordinances Committee (1990, 1993–96), displaying great concern for procedural matters and the rights of Parliament, including in relation to the Legislative Instruments Bill which recast the regime for parliamentary scrutiny of delegated legislation. As a long-serving Temporary Chairman of Committees (1978–90, 1993–96), Colston often chaired meetings of the Senate, and he occasionally acted as President of the Senate. Colston's reputation was such that the Hawke Labor Government supported his election as Deputy President of the Senate and Chairman of Committees in August 1990. He was elected to the position by Labor and Australian Democrats senators in spite of a convention that the position should be filled by a candidate from the Opposition parties.
During his first four years in the Senate, Colston travelled to only three countries, including New Zealand. But over the next five years he visited thirteen countries, including several trips to the United States and Great Britain. Between his first official visit in 1977 and his last in 1995 he travelled overseas most years. He visited Thailand at least six times due to his concern for the plight of Australian prisoners in Thai gaols, one of the few matters that he raised regularly in the Senate during the 1990s. As a member of parliamentary delegations overseas, Colston won praise for leadership and for 'diplomatic and skillful negotiation'.
Colston worked hard to achieve a high level of visibility within Queensland, cultivating a regional support base and travelling around rural Queensland more than most of his peers, 'visiting every [party] branch he could between Cairns and Cunnamulla'. Between 1976 and 1988 (after which time he moved his electorate office from Brisbane to Southport), he issued a vast number of press releases which were often taken up by the media, especially rural newspapers.
Yet Colston was an increasingly frustrated, insecure, and unhappy man. He was changing in ways that have never been fully explained by the many journalists who later hounded him. He grew corpulent and eventually obese, and his staff found working for him increasingly dissatisfying and left. Colston had an extra-marital affair in the early 1980s and his wife, Dawn, wrote to Mick Young, the Special Minister of State, complaining that he had been misusing public money since 1981 by spending some of his travel entitlements on another woman. Husband and wife were eventually reconciled, but Colston became increasingly secretive and surrounded himself with family members whom he placed on his staff. He even became bored by overseas travel, asking in 1995: 'What are we supposed to do with a free weekend in New York?'
Nor was his position a very secure one. Colston's preselection for a winnable place on the party's Senate ticket was never assured. Margaret Reynolds recalled that 'every time preselections came around ... word would spread that Mal was finished'. But Colston proved adept at making factional alliances, which helped him survive tight preselection contests in 1982 and 1992. He held second place on the ticket from 1982 until his last election in 1993. Colston's enduring position on the ticket did not translate into influence in Canberra. He believed that he deserved promotion, but those who counted in Caucus did not agree. When the first Hawke Labor Government was formed in March 1983 he was overlooked; by the time the third Hawke Labor government was formed in July 1987 he was no longer touted as ministerial material. In 1993 a cross-factional deal resulted in Colston losing his position as Deputy President of the Senate. Gareth Evans told Colston: 'It was simply a matter, old son, that the numbers were not there, I think that is ... in the nature of things'. Unfortunately for Labor, Colston did not share Evans' philosophical view.
In 1982 Kevin Newman, the Minister for Administrative Services, had considered prosecuting Colston over abuse of travel entitlements. The matter was dropped after Colston agreed to pay back $4198. In the following year, Labor, now in government, had to consider how to deal with one of its own, following Dawn Colston's letter to Mick Young. Kim Beazley junior, who had replaced Young as Special Minister of State, eventually agreed to allow Colston to repay a further $6444 in irregular travel allowance claims. The prospect of a police investigation was averted after Attorney-General Evans told Beazley that such an investigation 'might have quite profoundly disturbing implications for Senator Colston's apparently delicately balanced family situation, quite apart from causing grave damage, whether unfairly or not, to his reputation in the event that the fact of the investigation became public knowledge'. Only in 1997, after his defection from the ALP, did Colston's serial abuse of his parliamentary allowances over two decades become a public scandal.
Years later it was widely assumed that Colston began 'milking' the system—especially by misusing his travel entitlements—mainly because he was, during his early years in Parliament, denied promotion to the front bench and, in his later years, refused posts or sinecures he sought. However, the foundations of Colston's corruption were laid much earlier and lay much deeper than most commentators discerned. His first misappropriations took place well before it could have become obvious to Colston that his advancement in the party, whether in opposition or in government, would be stalled and his ambitions frustrated.
The roots of Colston's behaviour probably lie as much in his struggle to get into Parliament as in his disillusionment with it after he succeeded. He appears to have been driven by a persistent sense of grievance combined with an exaggerated belief in his own importance. His 1975 self-published book, fittingly titled The Odd One Out, a detailed account of his narrow defeat in the 1974 Senate election, is a surprising exercise in self-justification from someone who at that stage had nothing to show for his public life apart from several failed election attempts. For a man sensitive to slights and keenly aware of his own dignity the savage mauling he received in the Queensland Parliament in August 1975 would have been extraordinarily wounding. Robert Ray (ALP, Vic.) believed that Colston considered his intellectual prowess and achievements made him a cut above his parliamentary colleagues. Awkward, shy and 'almost comically unfit for public life', Colston readily saw himself as a victim, consistently thwarted in work and politics, and publicly vilified to boot (though others viewed him as consistently lucky beyond his merits in his capacity for political survival). Colston's determined and successful struggles to avert the preselection defeats that were regularly predicted for him honed his instincts for self-preservation. Unappreciated, and knowing that his future in politics could never be assured, his assiduous pursuit of personal gain may have become an addiction nourished by an accumulation of disappointments.
Had Colston retired after his fourth term in the Senate had expired in June 1993 he would never have become the target of possibly the most vicious campaign of denigration in Australian political history. But on Budget day, 20 August 1996, he stunned the ALP by resigning from the party and declaring that he would see out the rest of his fifth term—he was halfway through it—as an Independent. In itself, this was nothing extraordinary; since Federation a number of parliamentarians had done the same. But Colston's defection was not only morally dubious but also politically significant. Colston clearly resigned not over a major policy issue or a matter of principle but because his personal ambition had been thwarted, the Labor Party having earlier made it clear that it would not support him for either the deputy presidency of the Senate or the post of Administrator of Norfolk Island. In leaving the Labor Party, Colston dramatically altered the balance of power in the Senate. His defection meant that the Coalition Government led by John Howard—elected only a few months earlier—could now pass its more contentious legislation through the Senate if it could secure Colston's vote as well as that of the other Independent, Senator Brian Harradine (Tas.). Overnight, Colston had become, one way or the other, one of the most wanted men in Australia.
The Labor Party was furious, but for a few months, while there was a chance that Colston could recant and perhaps be allowed back into the party, its anger and hostility were muted. However, in December 1996 the die was cast when Colston, firstly, made it clear that the rift between him and the party was permanent and, more importantly, voted with the government on a bill to provide for the privatisation of the first third of Telstra—an act which, as much as the defection itself, was bitterly felt by Labor as a treacherous betrayal. Only from this point did the ALP go all out to condemn Colston's reputation. Senators Robert Ray (ALP, Vic.), John Faulkner (ALP, NSW) and Kim Carr (ALP, Vic.) led the sustained attacks against Colston. Ray, in particular, conducted his verbal assaults with unconcealed relish, describing Colston as 'this quisling Quasimodo from Queensland'. Documents were retrieved from the roof of a Brisbane house in the quest for material which would incriminate this most recent of Labor 'rats'; a former member of Colston's staff denounced his erstwhile boss before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, and some months later published a personal and vitriolic attack. Details of Colston's defrauding of the public purse were leaked to the Sunday Age, which became the first newspaper in Australia to break the story of what became known as the Colston affair.
What transpired was a lengthy saga of extraordinary complexity. The Labor Party was determined to oust Colston from Parliament less because he had 'rorted' the system than because he had so blatantly 'ratted' on the party and destroyed its ability to frustrate the government in the Senate. The government, for its part, was reluctant to act against Colston because it needed his vote in the Senate and had indeed 'bought' it by nominating him and voting for his election as Deputy President. The mass media, sensing that they were witnessing the unfolding of one of the greatest political scandals in Australia's post-war history, pursued Colston and his family relentlessly and mercilessly.
By mid-March 1997, in the light of information ferreted out by the Labor Party about Colston's actual movements as compared with his travel allowance claims, each of the Department of the Senate, the Department of Administrative Services, and the Australian Federal Police began investigating Colston's alleged misuse of his parliamentary entitlements. Colston's persistent denials of any wrongdoing became increasingly less credible. In early April his office manager, who had initially taken the blame for poor book-keeping, retracted her confession and declared that the senator had always prepared his own travel claims. Public opinion polls published that month showed that the electorate was disgusted with Colston and to a lesser extent with the government. Next month, Colston resigned as Deputy President. Later that year, he registered his own short-lived political party, the Queensland First Party. In the federal election of October 1998, his wife, Dawn, and son, David, stood as Queensland Senate candidates for the party and received just 0.58 per cent of the vote.
In the Senate, the public was treated to a saga in which the government eagerly courted Colston's vote (August 1996–April 1997); refused to accept it after Colston had been charged (April 1997–October 1998); and then sought and accepted it again in order to pass its further Telstra and GST legislation through the Senate (October 1998–June 1999). Working strategically with the other Independent, Senator Brian Harradine, Colston voted against the further privatisation of Telstra in 1998, but supported it in 1999; he also voted against the GST in 1999.
Although Colston was charged with twenty-eight counts of fraud in July 1997, he never endured a formal trial. Colston, his family, lawyers and doctors played a long and drawn-out cat-and-mouse game with both his persecutors and his would-be prosecutors. In November 1997 it was revealed that he was suffering from a severe form of cancer but it was not until early July 1999—only a few days after Colston retired from the Senate—that the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) first declared that a prosecution would not be pursued, as Colston was deemed unfit to face a trial. Over the next four years Colston's remarkable survival and Labor's continuing vendetta at least twice forced the CDPP to review that decision, but it was never reversed. According to most reports, he was entitled to superannuation worth between $1.3 and $1.5 million. Colston died of cancer of the bile duct on 23 August 2003. At his request, no condolence motions were moved in the Senate after his death. He was survived by his wife and sons. Dawn Colston died in 2004.
 Malcolm Saunders would like to acknowledge the financial assistance provided by the University of the South Pacific, allowing him to contribute to this entry. Sunday Age (Melb.), 9 March 1997, p. 9; Malcolm Colston, The Odd One Out: An Account of the 1974 Senate Elections in Queensland, Colonial Press, Brisb., 1975, pp. 5, 22; Queensland Department of Education and Training, 'Personnel file', Item ID 521953, Queensland State Archives; SMH, 28 Aug. 1975, p. 1; QPD, 27 Aug. 1975, pp. 210–12; 3 Sept. 1975, pp. 387–415.
 Colston, The Odd One Out, pp. 22, 100–7, 109; Australian (Syd.), 16 July 1974, p. 11; Hugh Lunn, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen: A Political Biography, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1978, pp. 216–22; John Faulkner & Stuart Macintyre (eds), True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 2001, pp. 278–9; QPD, 27 Aug. 1975, pp. 207–35.
 CPD, 25 Feb. 1976, p. 232, 1 Dec. 1976, p. 2379, 4 Nov. 1976, p. 1667, 25 Feb. 1977, pp. 509–10, 26 Oct. 1978, pp. 1685–88, 23 Nov. 1979, p. 3008, 22 May 1980, pp. 2727–31, 24 Sept. 1987, pp. 627–31, 20 Aug.1991, 713–16, 28 Feb. 1978, p. 177, 15 Sept. 1982, p. 918, 12 Oct. 1983, p.1469, 26 Sept. 1989, pp. 1311–12; Australian (Syd.), 9 Oct. 1979, p. 6; CPD, 16 Sept. 1980, p. 1090, 13 June 1984, pp. 2930–2, 11 April 1989, p. 1370; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 17 Oct. 1988, p. 3; ALP, Federal Parliamentary Labor Party Minutes, 11 Nov. 1986, NLA MS 6852/32.
 Senate Procedural Bulletin, No.75, 23 Dec.1992, pp. 4–5; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 2 Oct. 1979, p. 1; CPD, 26 March 1981, pp. 832–4, 6 May 1982, p. 1936, 29 May 1978, pp. 2018–21, 24 Nov. 1978, pp. 2622–3, 5 March 1981, pp. 374–5, 2 June 1981, pp. 2430–1; Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, The Constitutional Qualifications of Members of Parliament, Canberra, 1981, pp. 49–50.
 Age (Melb.), 16 April 1997, p. 11; CPD, 24 June 1999, p. 6396, 28 June 1999, p. 6705; Senate, Journals, 21 Aug. 1990, p. 208; CPD, 5 June 1987, pp. 3675–6, 26 Nov. 1985, p. 2240; Australian (Syd.), 19 June 1999, p. 22; CPD, 18 Aug. 1993, p. 197, 25 Oct. 1995, pp. 2466–8, 29 May 1997, pp. 3982–4, 11 March 1998, p. 811.
 Nation Review (Melb.), 6 July 1977, p. 5; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 29 Aug. 2003, p. 18; SMH, 12 April 1997, p. 13, 24 April 1999, p. 45; WA (Perth), 27 Aug. 2003, p. 42, Sunday Age (Melb.), 16 Feb. 1997, p. 12, 6 April 1997, pp. 1–2; Australian (Syd.), 26 Jan. 1993, pp. 1–2; SMH, 26 Aug. 2003, p. 31.
 Australian (Syd.), 19 June 1999, p. 22; Ross Fitzgerald & Harold Thornton, Labor in Queensland: From the 1880s to 1988, UQP, St. Lucia, Qld, 1989, pp. 305, 318, 342; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 8 March 1982, p. 1; CT, 23 Dec. 1986, p. 2; SMH, 12 April 1997, pp. 33–8; CPD, 17 Aug. 1993, p. 6.
 Australian (Syd.), 11 April 1997, p. 3; SMH, 19 April 1997, p. 39.
 Sunday Age (Melb.), 23 Feb. 1997, pp. 1–2, 10; Australian (Syd.), 19 June 1999, pp. 19, 22, 16 July 1974, p. 11.
 SMH, 21 Aug. 1996, pp. 5, 11; Sunday Mail (Brisb.), 10 Nov. 1996, p. 80; Australian (Syd.), 22 Aug. 1996, p. 11; Faulkner & Macintyre, True Believers, pp. 168, 279, 282; Weekend Bulletin (Gold Coast), 30 Nov. 1996, p. 34; CPD, 10 Dec. 1996, pp. 7013–15, 11 Dec. 1996, p. 1271; Australian (Syd.), 19 June 1999, p. 22; CPD, 4 March 1997, p. 1203; Sunday Age (Melb.), 16 Feb.1997, pp. 1–2, 23 Feb. 1997, pp. 1–2, 13 April 1997, p. 18.
 Age (Melb.), 12 April 1997, p. 17; CPD, 20 Aug. 1996, pp. 2677, 2692; SMH, 21 Aug. 1996, p. 5; Australian (Syd.), 11 Feb. 1998, p. 11; CT, 25 Feb. 1997, pp. 1, 2; SMH, 25 March 1997, pp. 1, 2; Australian (Syd.), 21 April 1997, p. 1, 12 April 1997, p. 21; Statement by Mrs Christine Smith, 8 April 1997, tabled in the Senate on 6 May 1997; SMH, 17 April 1997, p. 2, 15 April 1997, p. 2; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 13 June 1997, p. 7; SMH, 12 Sept. 1998, p. 45.
 R v Malcolm Arthur Colston, Supreme Court of the ACT, SCC 63/98; SMH, 17 April 1997, p. 2; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 15 Oct. 1998, p. 1; SMH, 2 Nov. 1998, p. 2; CPD, 11 July 1998, pp. 5604, 5675–7, 21 June 1999, pp. 5796–7, 5827; Senate, Journals, 28 June 1999, pp. 1331–2; Sun-Herald (Syd.), 23 Nov. 1997, p. 16; Media Statement, Commonwealth Department of Public Prosecutions, 5 July 1999; Age (Melb.), 6 July 1999, p. 1; SMH, 7 Nov. 2000, p. 3; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 12 Nov. 2002, p. 1; SMH, 23 Nov. 2002, p. 1; Australian (Syd.), 26 Aug. 2003, p. 9; SMH, 1 July 1999, p. 4; Australian (Syd.), 28 Aug. 2003, p. 4.
This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 178-184.