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So many questions, so few answers

Labor is frustrated as it pursues Tony Abbott over the Arthur Sinodinos affair in Thursday's question time.

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As wins go, this one was surprisingly equivocal.

After building its case against the Assistant Treasurer, Arthur Sinodinos, the opposition got its man just minutes before question time on Wednesday with the NSW Senator announcing he would be stepping aside from his ministerial duties, pending an investigation being undertaken by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Stepping aside? In reality, he has stepped down - or out, which is no small thing. His return to the executive is a possibility, but it is no certainty despite Tony Abbott's enthusiastic character references, which on Thursday extended to declaring ''he is a good man, he is a brave man, he is a friend and a colleague of which I'm proud''.

Experienced practitioner that he is, Abbott sold his first ministerial loss as the long-overdue return to Westminster standards of ministerial responsibility. This, even though he had simply backed Sinodinos to stay, refusing to act himself as prime ministers past have done. Neither will he say what he knew and when regarding his minister's pre-parliamentary dealings.

If a return to the highest standards of ministerial accountability was a stretch, Sinodinos' future restoration to a ministry responsible for, among other things, ensuring and protecting standards of corporate governance, may be an even greater one.

Ultimately, that will turn on what ICAC finds.

According to his own colleagues, anything short of a glowing vindication of his behaviour between 2008 and 2011 when he operated as a politically hyper-connected businessman will leave question marks over his diligence in observing directors' duties, at the very least.

Ministerial resignations are less common these days - after a literal application of the code of conduct saw John Howard terminate the commissions of half a dozen ministers in his first months. Some of these, it has been noted ruefully around Canberra this week, were for perceived conflicts of interest of significantly less potential moment than those now hanging over Sinodinos.

Yet there's a palpable sense that Labor MPs across the board have had trouble fully warming to this win.

This is odd because Capital Hill is normally a place where the indignation meter remains more or less stuck at somewhere near 11 out of 10. It was noticeable for instance that even at its most fulminating, Labor's case against him had this slightly dualistic character. On the face of it, imputations of conflict of interest, suspicious links with the notorious Eddie Obeid and family, and inferences of $20 million pay days, seemed compelling. Yet on closer inspection, they were incomplete, kept deliberately vague.

Labor's elder statesman, John Faulkner, gave precise voice to the problem, declaring, as the argument reached fever pitch in the Senate, that unlike some others, he ''did not and would not'' suggest Sinodinos had acted corruptly.

Even before that, the opposition had stopped short of calling explicitly for the head of the assistant treasurer.

First, it knew that Sinodinos had not been accused of any specific crime by counsel assisting the ICAC inquiry Geoffrey Watson, SC. Rather he had been left in a kind of legal and political limbo, criticised rhetorically, and then put on notice of some difficult questions when he makes his own appearance before the inquiry in a fortnight.

Second, Labor MPs knew that the ICAC inquiry related to a period of time before Sinodinos had entered the Senate in late 2011.

Here, too, there was a dualistic character as Labor bristled at Abbott's gall in citing this pre-parliamentary defence, but stopped short of proving the prime ministerial double standard because to do so risked mentioning and being seen to be defending Craig Thomson.

Difficulties in classifying the so-called Sinodinos affair apply on the government side as well.

As one observer noted in a hallway conversation, the facts of this case would be slam-dunk against many people in politics. Yet in ''Arthur's'' case, it just seems unbelievable. The former Howard chief of staff is one of those rare types - think Kim Beazley, Brendan Nelson, Tim Fischer - a political player who is respected as a straight shooter across the aisle.

''If you drew up a list of people who might be susceptible to corruption, or might play fast and loose with the rules, then Arthur would probably be my number 150,'' quipped an MP who knows the Liberal servant well.

It is a common view. Indeed, it is Sinodinos' reputation for integrity and thoroughness that saw him installed in the Senate in the first place and then elevated to the Abbott ministry within his first term - albeit not to the cabinet as had been tipped.

At week's end, Tony Abbott's government has lost some shine. A cloud of impropriety now hangs over two of his junior ministers, Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash being the other.

Gone also is the clarity with which Abbott can hammer a favourite theme of exposing Labor's links to corrupt union officials and crooked ex-MPs.

And then there is what we have learnt from Abbott's management of this affair. When push came to shove, Abbott himself hesitated, leaving the tough decision on whether to stay or not to Sinodinos.

No doubt Abbott knew his colleague would do the right thing.

But what if he hadn't? One can only conclude that, like Nash, he would still be a minister and would still enjoy the Prime Minister's full confidence.

Mark Kenny is chief political correspondent of The Age.

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