MASON, Colin Victor James (1926– 2020)
Senator for New South Wales, 1978–87 (Australian Democrats)

Colin Victor James Mason was elected as a senator for New South Wales in the 1977 federal election. Don Chipp was elected as a senator for Victoria in the same election. As the first Australian Democrats elected to the Senate, they signalled the arrival of a new centrist parliamentary party that would go on to become a highly influential minor party in federal politics. Mason was re-elected at the 1983 double-dissolution election and again at the 1984 election, in each case for a term of three years.

Colin Mason was born in Auckland, New Zealand, on 28 October 1926. Having studied journalism at the University of New Zealand’s Victoria College, Wellington, he established a career as a journalist, moving to Australia in 1950 and in 1952 marrying Nancy Williamson, with whom he had three children. He worked for a period for the Sydney Morning Herald before joining the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), where he was a radio and television journalist, and documentary producer. In 1956 Mason became the ABC’s first resident foreign correspondent in Southeast Asia.

Mason’s time in Southeast Asia coincided with a period of enormous change for the region, and saw him travelling in troubled and remote areas. Indigenous nationalist movements had forced the withdrawal of European colonial rule in countries such as the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia, Indochina and Malaya, communism was gaining a foothold in parts of Asia, and Australian troops were deployed to various countries across Southeast Asia. Between 1963 and 1964 Mason was the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization civilian advisor to the Thai Government on radio and television programming. On his return to Australia he published Dragon Army (1965), a popular history of Asian communism in which he warned against the rise of a communist army across Asia.

Mason was a significant commentator on Asian history and society and an early advocate for Australia’s engagement with the region; he was a Councillor of the New South Wales Institute of International Affairs from 1962 to 1968. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, he published extensively on Southeast Asia, and from 1970 he settled in the Blue Mountains of NSW and devoted himself to full-time writing. In 1973 he published a novel, Hostage, which sold two hundred thousand copies worldwide.[1]

In the early 1970s Colin Mason joined the Australia Party (AP), a minor political party which grew out of the Liberal Reform Group, formed in opposition to the Liberal Party’s policy of conscription and military involvement in the Vietnam War. An unsuccessful AP candidate for the Senate in 1975, Mason was elected National Convenor of the party in 1976. After its poor performance in the 1975 election, the AP believed that it required a ready-made parliamentary leader to develop its legitimacy as a credible political party. The AP had been making overtures to Don Chipp, the Liberal Member for Hotham, to join it since 1972. When Chipp announced his resignation from the Liberal Party in a speech to the House of Representatives on 24 March 1977, in which he foreshadowed the emergence of ‘a third political force, representing middle of the road policies’, Mason took an active role in fostering discussions about a new party. Shortly after he issued a press statement announcing a meeting of the Australia Party and the South Australian New Liberal Movement to discuss ‘common ground’ and to canvass the AP state convenors, to obtain authority to proceed to a merger. Mason was a member of the National Steering Committee for the formation of the new party, the Australian Democrats, and a founding member, and he was involved in drafting party policies, notably the policy on uranium mining on which he published a position paper in the Australian Democrats National Journal in July 1977. In September he was elected a vice-president of the Australian Democrats, and he was endorsed at first place on the party’s NSW ticket for the Senate election of 10 December 1977. He was the last senator elected, on the 34th count.[2]

When Mason and Chipp commenced their parliamentary terms on 1 July 1978 they divided portfolio responsibilities between them; Mason, as Deputy Leader, taking Development and Energy, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Science and Technology and Environment. In their first three years in the Senate, sitting between the major parties, with the government having a clear majority, the two Australian Democrats strove to put forward their party’s views on many issues, and to demonstrate their relevance. Mason attacked the two-party system, referring to ‘the 19th century ideologies of the Labor and Liberal parties’ as outdated and self-serving, and describing ‘the almost manic obsession of the old political parties to play an incessant daily game of confrontation and to visit upon the Australian community … every possible permutation of … divisiveness’. This is why, he said, the Democrats were formed, and why more than eight hundred thousand people voted for them in the 1977 election.

Democrat party principles focused on the value of participatory democracy through giving members equal say in leadership and policy-making within the party. Mason took this a step further with his advocacy of citizen-initiated legislation, whereby members of the public could, by petition, raise proposed laws which would be put to referendum and become law if carried by a majority of voters. This was the subject of his first speech, and he returned to the issue frequently. In 1980 he introduced the Constitution Alteration (Electors’ Initiative) Bill, which did not progress beyond a second reading and lapsed.

In July 1981 the number of Democrats in the Senate rose to five, and they gained a significant influence over the legislative agenda, as each of the major parties needed support to pass any measure. The Democrats now had an enhanced role as moderators of the policies and actions of the major parties, and as defenders of the Senate as a house of legislative scrutiny and a place where the Parliament could struggle with, and at times triumph over, the executive. In the absence of Chipp due to illness in October 1981 Mason led the Democrats in moving requests for amendments to the sales tax bills in the Senate, albeit with an undertaking, at Chipp’s insistence, that the Democrats would allow the passage of the bills if the House of Representatives refused the requests. According to fellow Democrat John Siddons, Mason felt that the Democrats should vote down the bills and in effect this is what occurred when they returned to the Senate from the House of Representatives, Chipp conceding to the opinion of his colleagues. The bills formed a basis for the simultaneous dissolution of both Houses of Parliament in February 1983.

In 1981, in debate on the Defence Amendment Bill, Mason proposed that, rather than an executive decision, parliamentary approval should be required before Australian troops could be committed to war. In 1985, he raised a private senator’s bill to this effect without result, although the Democrats continued to raise this issue which was ultimately adopted as a policy of the Australian Greens.

From July 1985 the Democrats held seven seats and the balance of power in the Senate in their own right. In February of that year Mason lost the deputy leadership of the party to Janine Haines, and his responsibilities shifted to Foreign Affairs, Arts and Heritage, Defence, and Employment.[3]

To the modern political observer, many of Mason’s parliamentary contributions appear prescient. He regularly spoke about the need to develop renewable energy industries such as solar and wind, and he was an early advocate for the use of alternative fuels such as ethanol and methanol. He was implacably opposed to the mining, processing and export of uranium, and to the development of nuclear power.[4]

Of the nine private senator’s bills Mason introduced, a majority dealt with environmental issues. The most significant, and the only one to pass in the Senate, was the World Heritage Properties Protection Bill 1982, which proposed the implementation of the United Nations World Heritage Convention in Australia, using the external affairs powers of the Commonwealth to protect areas identified to be of ‘outstanding universal value’ from destruction. The immediate purpose of the bill was to prevent the state government from constructing a dam that would flood the Franklin River and damage the south-west wilderness area of Tasmania. The bill was controversial and the subject of fierce debate in the Senate, as government senators argued that such a bill would allow the Commonwealth to override state powers. Finally passed with the support of the Labor Opposition and four government senators, the bill did not progress through the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, in 1983, the new Hawke Government introduced legislation which had the same intent as Mason’s bill and which, after narrowly surviving an appeal to the Full Court of the High Court, ultimately prevented the construction of the dam.[5]

As a recognised expert on Asian affairs, throughout his career Mason was spokesman for his party on foreign affairs and defence, addressing such issues as East Timorese self determination, the ANZUS Treaty, nuclear non-proliferation and civil defence against nuclear attack. He pursued in the Senate the issue of the effects of Agent Orange on veterans of the Vietnam War and, in 1982, participated as a member of the Standing Committee on Science and the Environment in an inquiry into the subject. He was a member of the first Australian parliamentary delegation to the People’s Republic of China in 1985, his subsequent publications revealing a distinct softening of his attitude to modern China; he had become a staunch advocate of the bilateral relationship:

China is probably the most important foreign post we have, in many respects, and it is essential that we get things right there … Australians do not yet understand how much China has changed and what great trade opportunities exist there for Australia.[6]

Described as an ‘earnest loner’ and never quite comfortable in politics, Mason retired at the dissolution of the Senate prior to the double dissolution election of July 1987. During valedictory speeches his colleague Senator Michael Macklin offered the following critique:

[Colin Mason] was a writer of international standing before he entered Parliament. With his impeccable sense of timing he will have a book out on the stands two weeks after the election … He is a multi-talented man, a person who can get under people’s skin but at the same time, as we Democrats know, he has tremendous compassion and thoughtfulness … [7]

After his departure from the Senate, Mason returned to full-time writing. His novels, Copperhead Creek (1987) and Northern Approaches (2001) were thrillers that to some extent drew on his parliamentary experiences. He also published A Short History of Asia (2000) and The 2030 Spike: Countdown to Global Catastrophe (2003), in which he warned of the danger of a world crisis by 2030 if action was not taken to reverse environmental, political and social trends.

Tim Kendall

[1] ‘Profile: Senator Colin Mason’, House Magazine, 1 Oct. 1986, p. 3; SMH, 26 Aug. 1981, p. 7; Australian Democrats NSW, Newsletter, Feb. 1981, pp. 11–13; Colin Mason, Dragon Army: The Pattern of Communist Expansion Through Asia, Horwitz Publications, Syd., 1965, preface and p. 19; Colin Mason, Sukarno’s Indonesia, Horwitz Publications, Syd., 1966; Colin Mason, Man in Asia, Southern Cross International, Syd., 1968; Colin Mason, Asia Emerges, Southern Cross International, Syd.., 1968; Colin Mason, The Philippines, Southern Cross International, Syd., 1968; Colin Mason, Understanding Indonesia, Horwitz-Martin, Syd., 1970; Colin Mason, Asia: A First View, Bay Books, Syd., 1972.

[2] Australia Party, Reform, Aug. 1976–Oct. 1977; CPD (R), 24 March 1977, pp. 555–8; John Warhurst, ‘1977: Don Chipp’s New Party’ in John Warhurst (ed.), Keeping the Bastards Honest: The Australian DemocratsFirst Twenty Years, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1997, pp. 49–64; Australian Democrats, 30 Years, Australian Democrats, East Melb., Vic., 2007.

[3] CPD, 27 Sept. 1978, pp. 1012–18, 22 Aug. 1978, pp. 248–52, 13 Oct. 1983, pp. 1558–62, 26 Aug. 1981, pp. 356–61, 16 Sept. 1981, pp. 790–5, 20 Oct. 1981, pp. 1390–4; John Siddons, A Spanner in the Works, Macmillan, South Melb., 1990, pp. 174–5; CPD, 26 Nov. 1981, p. 2649, 18 April 1985, pp. 1186–7.

[4] CPD, 15 Sept. 1980, pp. 1035–9, 7 April 1981, pp. 1150–4, 2 June 1981, pp. 2442–4, 28 April 1982, pp. 1590–2, 23 Sept. 1982, pp. 1228–31, 13 Oct. 1983, pp. 1570–2, 5 March 1984, pp. 413–16; 23 Nov. 1978, pp. 2490–3, 9 Sept. 1980, pp. 630–3.

[5] CPD, 27 Oct. 1982, pp. 1875–6, 2 Dec. 1982, pp. 3114–35, 10 May 1983, pp. 317–22, 11 May 1983, pp. 375–401; Commonwealth v Tasmania (1983) 158 CLR 1, Full Court of HCA.

[6] CPD, 12 May 1981, p. 1809, 25 March 1981, pp. 769–71, 22 March 1985, pp. 651–6, 10 Sept. 1981, pp. 697–703, 16 April 1980, pp. 1515–16, 1 April 1980, pp. 1307–8, 10 Sept 1981, pp. 704–5, 9 Dec. 1982, pp. 3352–3; Standing Committee on Science and the Environment, Pesticides and the Health of Australian Vietnam Veterans, Canberra, Nov. 1982; CPD, 12 Feb. 1986, pp. 2012.

[7] CPD, 5 June 1987, pp. 3691–2.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 57-60.

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1978–87 (AD)

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Science and the Environment, 1978–83 Select Committee on Parliament’s Appropriations and Staffing, 1980–81 Appropriations and Staffing Committee, 1982–87 Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment, 1983–85

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Auspic DPS