Just what is it about the complete undesirability of the revolving door between lobbying and politics that politicians, on both sides of the fence, do not get? Or if they do get it, which overrides most rules of commonsense, the public proprieties, and any remaining idea that there is honour and public service involved in going into politics?
For too many politicians, minders, and party organisation figures, a stint in Canberra is seen only as a necessary incident to going into the private sector to make a killing from one's ''insider'' knowledge.
It was the case of Arthur Sinodinos, a universally liked and respected former public servant, chief of staff and adviser of John Howard, and former president of the NSW branch of the Liberal Party, then senator and assistant treasurer, which was the one at issue last week. But the week had begun with Alexander Downer, at his most pompous and unconvincing, justifying his working on behalf of an oil and gas company whose interests were closely and advantageously affected by his earlier work as foreign minister. And in mid-week, a news report of the Sinodinos affair made passing reference to various of the people associated with Australian Water Holdings, including Sinodinos, being involved in a conference with Karl Bitar. Bitar was a former national secretary of the Labor Party, before he began prostituting his close knowledge of and access to politicians to James Packer and the gambling industry.
Packer is not a man who believes in free markets, operating instead in a world where the ''right'' to make a fortune turns on getting discretionary favours, such as gambling licences and public land (and in an earlier life, spectrum and television licences) from governments. As a result, the family empire has long hired many former insiders, Labor and Liberal, to open doors, demand favours, bulldoze obstacles, and punish enemies.
The new world of politics is dominated by a new political class that has nearly always operated professionally (as it were) in the realm of public policy and decision-making, before and after elected office. More and more retiring or dumped politicians are drifting easily into jobs where they continue to meet with, engage with and play politics with old mates.
But they are now doing it for clients, not the advancement of public interests. The clients generally want to extract some favour or benefit from government, or to have suspended, for themselves at least, the operation of some general rule or principle that applies to everyone else. Their cases, once dressed up, can seem cogent and/or piteous - in much the same way that representations are made to an elected member. But the elected member speaking for a constituent will usually be aware that she or he has only one side of the story, and that the ultimate decision-maker must weigh all of the facts and circumstances, and the application of the rules to such circumstances, before coming to a balanced decision. An insider lobbyist is not detached. He or she is no more than an agent of an interest, with no particular commitment to the overall public interest.
Insider lobbyists boast particularly of their access and inside knowledge, - of the personalities of those in power, of how political conditions of the moment can be manipulated to advantage, how people and opposition can be neutralised, and about opportunities when the case can be pressed. They gossip freely, and often unwisely about old colleagues.
In the murky world of NSW politics, insider lobbyists seem to have made a particular point of getting themselves into powerful positions in party and party factional organisations. This gives them opportunities to meet, lean on and to pressure elected officials. Some politicians never know whether the pressure reflected political instinct or insight, or merely arm-twisting on behalf of a client.
Some boast how their insiderness permits them, at a handsome fee, to change the minds of their political friends and allies - surely bound to be counterproductive in the end as politicians are trying to pretend that theirs is an administration open, transparent and above board.
Sinodinos had tremendous entree in business and political circles after he left John Howard. His partisanship had generally been concealed behind courtesy, fair-mindedness, and some distaste for ceaseless spin. As Howard's Grand Vizier - one of the most powerful people in Canberra - he never overstepped the mark, least of all by having his face, ''personality'' or style paraded in the media.
It was unseemly that he was soon afterwards advising clients about how to deal with his old boss. But one could be reasonably sure that he was not expansively promising to resolve a problem with a phone call to someone who owed him a favour. He was primarily giving detached and wise advice about what arguments could win the day, and where those arguments ought to be directed. There's the world of difference between that and the relentless importuning of Barry O'Farrell by a battery of insiders seeking undeserved favours for their personal financial interests.
It is sometimes joked 95 per cent of lobbyists, like 97 per cent of lawyers - give the rest of their profession a bad name. It's not fair. Advocacy - whether as a lawyer, an accountant, or as a lobbyist - is a decent, a skilled and often an intellectually satisfying trade. For most it is not about who you know, bribery or corruption, or abuse of power. It is simply about ensuring that the interests of a client are heard when decisions affecting them are being made by officials - elected or appointed.
But public fear and suspicion of insiders is understandable enough. So is the need for protections to ensure that public power is exercised in the public interest, without insider access or favouritism. This is why last year, Tony Abbott said lobbyists should not be be party office holders. It is why governments maintain registers of lobbyists and their clients, and why there are codes of conduct and, in extremis, bodies like the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption to detect misbehaviour.
But the rule books can be easily circumvented. Most lobbyists, for example, are not, strictly, lobbyists in rulebook terms. Lawyers and commercial representatives and advocates do not have to register. Nor do those employed by a single client - perhaps an industry group, doctors' union, mining association, trade union or Aboriginal organisation. Nor people in bodies such as environmental groups, religious organisations, or those promoting the rights of refugees, or veterans.
Those who must register are guns for hire. They must have a close understanding of politics and administration. But most are focused not on being in the ear of politicians, or on having politicians in thrall, but in knowing and understanding the political, economic and administrative environment. They want to be heard before problems are sitting on the desks of ministers.
Lobbyists know, or ought to know, how to prepare a case, and how to assemble the evidence that is likely to persuade a decision maker. In Canberra, most decisions are made by public servants who adhere to process. Such officials are persuaded by evidence, not bluster, or claims of being mates of the minister.
The besetting sin of NSW - and a key reason why it is so vulnerable to corruption, by either side of politics - is that it is set up for crony capitalism, not market economics with a wise but neutral government. Too many decisions are made in the minister's office, and not by process, but by discretion. Other states and the territories, including Canberra, are heading in the same way, and with all of the same risks.
On Wednesday, I argued that a saving grace of the circumstances in which Sinodinos found himself was that the various shonky dealings on behalf of the company of which he was chairman did not work. Did not work on Kristina Keneally, in spite of what was apparently corrupt behaviour by Eddie Obeid and by people in a Labor minister's office. Or, after O'Farrell led in a new government, on O'Farrell and his ministers.
Having now seen evidence of the intensity of the lobbying of O'Farrell (and how close it came to be successful), including by Sinodinos, I am no longer so sure the system had the checks and balances to make a good rather than a bad decision more likely. O'Farrell did the right thing, but the words pouring into his ear from self-proclaimed mates were not being adequately balanced by disinterested professional advice. It was being made to appear a mere experienced private operator in AWH was seeking to compete in a hitherto market supplied by the public sector.
There is an air of desperation in documentation of the frenetic lobbying - perhaps more understandable when one realises that some of the lobbyists, and Sinodinos, were on ''success bonuses'' worth millions. There were reports on Friday that Sinodinos had fallen into financial trouble, unlikely to have been helped by his becoming a mere senator. If that was a factor, it might underline one of the lawyer/lobbyist principles that a person who acts for himself has a fool for a client.
Tony Abbott 's office played a role in the realisation that Sinodinos could not possibly stay on as minister while the ICAC hearings played out. On a different day, Sinodinos, acting for Howard, would have come to the same conclusion earlier. But Abbott is entirely wrong in suggesting that all questions about Sinodinos' behaviour, and all questions about what Abbott knew and did, and when, will be resolved by the ICAC.
It is not investigating Sinodinos as such, even if his conduct as a director is under sharp scrutiny. He was on top of a company, after all, that seemed to be trying to corrupt NSW government institutions - which is ICAC's remit. ICAC is not investigating Abbott, or the Liberal Party, at all. And cannot - more's the pity.
Nor can the Abbott government hope or expect that ICAC hearings will be organised on a timetable likely to help the Coalition (or for that matter, Macquarie Street). Leaving things to ICAC is a recipe for the problem now posed by Sinodinos being out of any power to control.
For that matter, ICAC can ''clear'' Sinodinos of doing anything ''illegal'' without certifying his perfect continuing fitness for public office. My guess is he is already so tainted he cannot politically survive even ''exoneration'' - particularly if the conclusion is that he was a fool, not a knave. He more or less has to be one or the other, and only his reputation should predispose an observer to the former.
It is not illegal to press one's undisclosed personal interests on a government. But party servants, and honourable and decent people who have rendered the nation some service, are supposed to be more transparent than spivs. We have not heard Sinodinos' side of the argument yet, beyond what he said in the Senate last year. But it is hard to see him emerging as other than someone a bit greedy, desperate and grubby, and with some strange bedfellows, even on the Liberal side of the blanket.