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Senator's slippery slope unsettles both sides


Labor might have got its man, but the Arthur Sinodinos affair has caught many politicians between a rock and a hard place.

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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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  • Sadly Mr Sinodinos like a lot of politicians saw the dollar signs flashing before his eyes and couldn't help himself, his excuse that he didn't know doesn't hold water if he honestly believes that he can handle the assistant treasurers post responsible for billions of taxpayers dollars,he is either competent or he is not.

    Port Macquarie
    Date and time
    March 21, 2014, 7:12AM
    • Could it all have been driven by a sense of entitlement?

      Like a lot of other voters I have completely lost hope when it comes to any kind of integrity on the part of our pollies of all stripes.

      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 9:05AM
    • Let's hear what the ICAC proceedings unearth. The success fee issue is obvious and blatant if as expressed in some quarters, but the remuneration level issue is critical in curtailing the "sophisticated" corruption of the western elites. This is almost as critical as the issue of nudge-nudge-wink-wink contracted long-tail rewards kicking in after they leave public office (including deep scrutiny of family). Public office and high public service has to mean indentured-for-life to fix a broken system. Talent will keep showing up after cronyism is moderated.

      It is so bad in the US where public office pay is ludicrous compared to the private sector that you can predict a wall street lawyer or banksters rise in private and public company ranks when they take public office as kids in the first place. This practice goes all the way back to Brit Alfred Lord Milner and his "kindergarten" which was imported to the US by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Root and Stimson. Along the way the long-tailed reward system for the bright kiddies jumping out of public office while relatively young took over and became entrenched. The idea was clear - you work for us - was implied by Wall St before they released them for public office.

      In our case we need people to have had other than pure political backgrounds before taking public office - which we don't have with a cadre group drawn straight from uni, the public service, unions, and party machines - as is Arthur's case. Then he dashes out and dashes back in again - not a good scenario whether for private business or especially public service cronyism with academia like Labor-public service political operatives, We have not addressed long tailed inducements. We have no institutions with the incentive to advance democracy.

      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 9:39AM
    • There is too much self interest in politics. Rather than ask the question "Is this in the public interest?" The question seems to be either "What's in it for me or my mates?" or "What's in it for my party?" or "What's in it for my political donors?" . The high moral ground has well and truly been bulldozed flat.
      While I'll agree there are many genuine public minded politicians, I would suggest that most of them are on the back benches.
      There is a deep vein of mistrust and cynicism towards politics and politicians amongst the general public. Who can blame them when our political leaders say one thing and mean something entirely different rather than being straight with us. They are careful not to lie but they misdirect, obfuscate and mislead. It just comes over as dodgy.......".What are hiding? " we ask.
      Are we surprised by ICAC findings? Maybe in the detail we are, but it's sort of what we expect. Sad that we have so low expectations of our leaders.

      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 9:45AM
    • Viva ICAC

      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 9:55AM
    • meatatarian

      I wouldn't be too effusive in any assessment of Sinodinos' character. He was Howard's right-hand man while the rodent, at the very least, played fast and loose with truth on many occasions, most notoriously in his bum's-rushing the nation into the Iraqi cataclysm.

      If he was prepared to ''overlook' inconvenient facts to get us on the road to Baghdad, I'm sure he'd be more than prepared to 'overlook' inconvenient facts to get himself on the road to riches.

      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 11:06AM
    • Mentioning Mr Menzies about him not owning his own house when he retired (I did not know this)
      but the same thing could be said of Mr Chifley, his home in Bathurst is very basic and working class It was probably the same house he had when he was a train driver. (His train is at Bathurst Station)
      Some politicians seem to be in politics for whatever gains they may get.

      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 12:51PM
    • The trough doesn't know which side the pigs come from.

      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 9:05AM
    • The fact that these people look upon parliamentary salaries (and the additional perks), which for most Australians look like very attractive remuneration, as chickenfeed, speaks of a serious disconnect between the elite and the rest.

      Politicians mix on a day-to-day basis with the big-money crowd, where $200k p.a. is a part-time consulting fee.

      Their theme song? 'What about me?'

      Oh, well. I guess this is another consequence of a system that has whittled back progressive taxation and encouraged the development of massive income disparities.

      Enjoy. Much more to come.

      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 9:14AM
    • Prior to the election, Sinodinos was one of the few Libs I had real respect for. He was genuine and truthful. I'm worried about the cutting of red tape in the fin services sector he is overseeing which will make fin advice essentially dodgier. Since coming in to government he's been very dissappointing.

      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 9:31AM

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