The Commonwealth DPP has taken two very different paths on the question of travel rorting claims against Mal Colston and Winston Crane.

On Tuesday the CDPP came to the conclusion that former Senator Mal Colston is looking far too well for a man who is supposed to be dying of cancer. As a consequence, the CDPP is seeking advice on the fitness of Dr Colston to stand trial for a string of charges which relate to alleged falsely claiming travel allowances and the use of government frequent-flyer points by his family for overseas travel.

In Wednesday the Minister for Justice, Senator Ellison issued a press release announcing that the Australian Federal Police had concluded its investigation into the alleged misuse of travel entitlements by former Senator Winston Crane.

After reviewing the Brief of Evidence provided by the AFP, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations against former Senator Crane.

These two cases contrast the politics of internecine warfare. Both sides of federal politics have backed the decision by the CDPP to investigate Colston, with Labor leader Simon Crean offering a sarcastic diagnosis of Colstons state of health.

As Senator Robert Ray has been known to say metaphorically: We hunt and kill our own. Labor has never forgiven Colston for ratting on Labor and accepting an offer by the Liberal Party to back him for Deputy President of the Senate against Senator Sue West, Labors nominee. West had been bumped into the nomination by her Labor colleagues to make way in the shadow ministry for Senator Belinda Neal, the wife of right wing, New South Wales Labor heavyweight, John Della Bosca.

The Liberal Party of course was doing more than making mischief for the Labor Party. Following his defection and appointment, Colston went on to vote for the partial privatisation of Telstra and a number of other pieces of legislation.

Following Colston being charged and the great kafuffle that the Labor Party made of events both inside and outside the Senate, Howard sought to distance himself from the man who had just delivered him a massive financial windfall, by declaring him persona non grata. Colstons vote would no longer be accepted by the government.

This edict prevailed while National Party member, Michael Cobb who had also been charged with misuse of travel entitlements, sat in the Coalition Party room and cast his vote in the parliament for the government.

Following the 1998 election, the Prime Minister had a further change of heart and having deemed Colston to have been harshly dealt with, announced that he was entitled to the presumption of innocence, and that his vote would again be accepted by a grateful Coalition government. Colston went on to assist in the passage of further government legislation.

1996 was not the first occasion that Colston had occupied the position of Deputy President of the Senate. He had defied the convention of the Senate in 1990 by standing against the Coalitions nominee. In that instance he had the blessing of his Labor colleagues.

Following the Democrats obtaining the balance of power in the Senate, the various parties in the Senate had adopted the convention of the Government occupying the Senate Presidency and the Opposition occupying the Deputy Presidency. However in 1990, Colston persuaded Labor to allow him to break the convention if he could muster the numbers. With the connivance of the then Democrat Leader Jeanette Powell, Colston succeeded.

The decision by Government Senate Leader, Robert Hill, to also break the convention with Colston was exquisite irony presumably not lost on those in the Labor Party who had first defied convention.

Senator Cranes circumstances are altogether a different matter. Crane was investigated by the Australian Federal Police for alleged misuse of his charter entitlement. The AFPs investigation, which has included the execution of search warrants on his offices and home, has taken four years. Immediately following the last federal election, the Prime Minister announced that Wilson Tuckey was also being investigated for similar alleged misuse of his charter entitlement.

The AFP had in fact been investigating Tuckey for some time, however apparently no one thought it necessary to inform the Prime Minister. With Howard waiting to swear Tuckey in as the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, two AFP officers were promptly dispatched to Perth and within weeks, Tuckey was cleared. Meanwhile Cranes matter continued to meander on through the years. This week it has finally come to rest.

Of significance about the Tuckey and Crane police investigations, the Labor Party did not ask one question in the parliament and have not raised the matters at the Estimates Committees. Labor also failed to have the relevant Tuckey documents tabled in the parliament in accordance with practice when a Minister has been investigated.

An unspoken code of silence about allegations of rorting of entitlements has descended over the parliament since both sides suffered damage in the nineties that eventually saw one Senator attempt suicide.

Colston is a very special case. Labor hates him for ratting and the Liberals detest him for having needed to use him. Both sides feel soiled by him and both are mighty anxious to throw him on the pyre.

In a further irony, Labor spent more political capital engineering Colston into the Senate than any other Senator in Labors history. In June 1975, Labor Queensland Senator Milliner died. Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen asked the Labor Party to provide him with a panel of three nominees for a replacement. Labor refused insisting that its nominee, Mal Colston be appointed.

Bjelke-Petersen defied convention and appointed French polisher Albert Field which gave the Opposition the numbers in the Senate to defer the Budget. Colston had to wait until the double dissolution election in December 1975 to take his seat.

Poignantly, Colstons latter life might have been very different. The Labor Party while in government had indicated to him that they may grant him an appointment as the Administrator to either the Cocos, Christmas or Norfolk Island. Due to circumstances of his own making, those options were closed.

Peter Fray

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