Arthur Sinodinos dazzled by his dreams

There is a line of defence that Arthur Sinodinos could use to excuse his dealings with Australian Water Holdings, but it seems unlikely that it would be good enough even to persuade people who have admired him to want him back in the federal ministry. And if Sinodinos had half of the judgment for which he is credited, he would know that right away, and would stop doing continuing damage to the Abbott government, the Liberal Party and himself.

Thursday was Sinodinos' day before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. It was not a pretty sight. He had an awful lot of memory problems, not least on issues which might have indicated that he had some working knowledge of the company of which he was chairman, how it was rorting taxpayers, and how it, and he, were pulling every political lever they could to make a personal private killing. For someone being paid $200,000 a year and with (at that stage) rights to up to 5 per cent of shares and a $20 million bonus if it achieved its ambition, he was remarkably incurious about AWH affairs, or what was being done by its executives.

It seems that he, the chairman of the company, did not know, or know very much, about substantial company donations to the Liberal Party (of which he happened to be either NSW treasurer or NSW president). Nor about exorbitant salaries (up to $1.6 million for the chief executive), limousines, boxes at Olympic Stadium, and other extravagances being fraudulently billed to Sydney Water, and thus paid by ordinary battlers through their rates. Or that these were being paid even as AWH was struggling to pay its tax and superannuation contributions. Sinodinos didn't worry about insolvent trading; he assumed that two of the big shareholder directors would top up the cash if necessary. He didn't even know, or says he didn't, that it was Eddie Obeid who eventually ''lent'' more money.

He couldn't recall various friendly warnings, or worrying signals, that he was associating with crooks. Or that he might be a director of a body at risk of being found to be trading while insolvent.

Nothing much anyone said to him seems to have stuck in his memory. He did not admit or deny other versions of conversations, but much that was said to him seemed to go in one ear and out the other. That's as he put it himself at one stage.

It was said from the start that Sinodinos would, most likely, emerge as a fool or a knave, probably the former. If so, this would ''exonerate'' him from as-yet-unalleged charges of corruption or dishonesty. But either verdict, perhaps particularly the ''fool'' one, would hardly sit well with his being a well-regarded minister in the federal government, let alone as assistant treasurer. He has had a reputation for probity, honesty and judgment - which is why many of his colleagues have expressed confidence in his character and prospects of returning to the ministry. But he cannot return if the kindest thing one can say is that he was an innocent gull whose good name was abused by crooks, including Eddie Obeid. The notoriety of Obeid alone is toxic.


Sinodinos says he was blissfully ignorant that Obeid was a 30 per cent shareholder in the company of which he was chairman.

There is a plausible line of defence. It neatly skips facts of which Sinodinos says he was unaware but an observer might think he ought to have known, or asked. A defence that clicks with the new Abbott mantra. Open-market economies are good, Abbott says. ''Markets are the proven answer to the problem of scarcity. Markets mean trade, and trade requires profit. Profit is not a dirty word - because success in business is something to be proud of.''

Arthur, after all, was simply trying to make a quid. If he failed to notice the many potholes on the road behind him, or those right in front, it was because he was focused on the hills ahead. The company wanted to shake off its present and past, and he was not focused on it. His was a dream, of his company reorganised for new tasks in a new era.

The argument has not yet been put, as such by Sinodinos nor his very expensive lawyers. His dream could well have been in the public interest

as well as in his private interest. It was right on board with everything he had ever been on about - whether in Treasury, in politics, or, briefly, before he returned to politics, in business.

It was that AWH could be Australia's first private sector public utility, with him at its head. Providing to the residents of fast developing north-eastern Sydney their water supplies, and water and sewerage infrastructure. Just as ACTEW (a public utility) does it in Canberra, or Sydney Water does it for the rest of Sydney. There were business models of doing so, not least from Thatcherite days in Britain, with the privatisation of water infrastructure and its sale to private sector companies such as Thames Water. There were also good arguments about why cash-strapped state, county or municipal governments might prefer such a model, which had the capacity to introduce market mechanisms, and, perhaps, private sector efficiencies into often conservatively managed and complacent monopolies.

This new Sinodinos behemoth might go further in public-private partnerships or PPP - perhaps in new growth areas of Queensland, under a business-friendly Liberal National Party government under Campbell Newman. It might also go into other parts of infrastructure provision and construction - perhaps with gas and energy, maybe electricity - again as ACTEW had done with some private sector partnership.

From what Arthur knew, AWH seemed an ideal vehicle. Indeed the very foundations of the company were from a time when the NSW Housing Commission and a number of private sector land developers had massive acreages of land they wanted to develop. Alas, none could realise their desire for quick profits - or providing housing for needy young Australians. Sydney Water had lots of other calls on its staff, its resources and its time: north-eastern development simply had to take its place in the queue. The developers could not subdivide or sell their blocks until the infrastructure was on or in the ground.

The logjam was broken when the developers, including the NSW Housing Commission or Landcom, LJ Hooker and others agreed to set up a consortium with Sydney Water to get the water and sewerage infrastructure built - to Sydney Water specifications, but with private finance, labour and resources. Developers in the consortium would not profit from this; they wanted to make a profit from the land itself, once the infrastructure was there. So the consortium agreed that the infrastructure would be provided at cost, and a not-for-profit company was established to do just that. For quite a while it did it admirably. Most of the private developers got their blocks serviced first, then were able to sell and make a profit. But the work with Landcom continued, even after most of the commercial landholders dropped out of the consortium.

It was at this stage - well before Sinodinos arrived - that smarties got involved. They turned the not-for-profit into a for-profit - and began imagining that the nature of the deal they had with Sydney Water gave them the monopoly over private infrastructure development in the area, as well as the right, under the cost-recovery arrangements, to charge Sydney ratepayers whatever it liked. The shareholders and tiny staff put themselves on six- and seven-figure salaries, and simply billed it, and any other expense they could think of, to ratepayers.

But there were two problems. Sydney Water became concerned as the costs under the cost-recovery deal doubled, then doubled again. And the ''right'' of AWH to a monopoly of the work was in contest. It became clear that the path to the future lay in persuading government that AWH should get such a monopoly, or should be allowed to operate under a privileged PPP. But when the proposition was first put to the (then Labor) government, it was examined closely by experts and flatly rejected. From then on the AWH focus was on persuading politicians that this was a good idea - good for taxpayers, and, incidentally good for the company concerned, because it would still be able to make a good profit while providing services at a cheaper price. Who better to be selling such an idea, or to be recognising its intrinsic merit, even if there was to be a quid in it for himself, than Sinodinos?

There was a phase when AWH, mostly at executive rather than board level, was focused on ''persuading'' the Keneally government. Among those put on board as door openers, influencers and urgers seem to have been Kerry Sibraa, an ex-senator and stalwart of the NSW Labor Right; Karl Bitar, a former Labor national secretary; Joe Tripodi; and Eddie Obeid, never backwards about pushing his undisclosed interests to ministers whose political future he completely owned and controlled. On appearances, some were actually corrupted in every sense of the word, but the premier, Kristina Keneally, put a stop to the shenanigans.

Luckily, soon after, the Keneally government fell, in part from the stench of corruption surrounding anything to do with Obeid. A new Coalition government, more ideologically open to the idea of giving the private sector a go, came to power under Barry O'Farrell.

Sinodinos was powerful in the Liberal Party, some shareholders and board members were big donors and friends of senior Liberals, and phone calls to Macquarie Street were always answered. Just to make sure, a squad of former elected members, now lobbyists and party organisation figures, were put on the AWH payroll, some with the prospect of handsome success fees if they could get the PPP idea off the ground. This, not trivial arguments about remuneration of expenses, was to Sinodinos the main game - really the only game.

Even Santo Santoro, a player in Queensland Liberal affairs, wanted to get his snout in the trough by introducing AWH to the powers that be in the Newman government.

Sinodinos, arguing his case, did not have to disclose that he stood to make a big quid if the deal went through. Or have to emphasise how many fingers he had in the political pie. People would have understood that he had an interest, he says. But his mission was to persuade politicians that it was good idea for the public interest - a win for the public, a win for AWH. That's what wins arguments with politicians.

In pursuit of that vision, he paid no attention to signs or warnings that the AWH story was not as he believed it to be. Nor was he interested in being told. He was going to be a captain of industry and commerce - and, if perhaps ultimately a rich man too, what of it? There's nothing wrong, surely, with being rewarded for taking risks. It's what free enterprise is all about. And should a guy be damned for being insufficiently suspicious of leading lights in business and in the NSW party? Where would it all end if that happened?

For Sinodinos, it is now impossible to see it ending with further executive political office. No one will say it directly to him - they hope he will see it himself - but he would be better out of the game altogether. Perhaps heading a charity, or something, until AWH is so long forgotten that Abbott can give him a knighthood. Or something.