By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra
Regardless of what the Independent Commission against Corruption finally says about Arthur Sinodinos, his day of evidence has in itself raised fundamental questions about his suitability for the job of assistant treasurer, from which he has stood aside while the inquiry is on.
Under interrogation he could recall little. But it was clear that, as director and later chairman of Australian Water Holdings he was, at best, very lax in carrying out his duties, and ignorant of things that, in his position, he should have known about and on which he should have blown the whistle.
For years Sinodinos ran John Howard’s office, dealing with ministers, backbenchers, business and community leaders. He inspired the highest respect and even some fear. He was on top of complex issues. There were no flies on Arthur.
Yet his appearance at ICAC saw him torn apart by counsel assisting the inquiry Geoff Watson, needing questions re-asked, and at times treated with near contempt.
“Will you concentrate,” Watson said to him at one point; at another, “Oh, just answer my question, senator, please. We’ll get out of here so much more quickly if you’ll do it”; and “Listen to me … Let’s just focus.”
He seemed ill prepared for the hearing, and to have a tin ear for how things would sound. When it was put to him that for his $200,000 annual director fee, his time commitment was between 26 and 45 hours a year, he asked: “Does that include travel time when the meetings were held at Bella Vista?” That should be added in, he said, because “there was an opportunity cost at that time – I was being taken away from other things I was doing”.
Then there was the reference to what he did outside the formal work – like promoting the interests of the company when he ran into a person from Leighton’s at a function in someone’s home. To which Watson said, “what should we add on, 90 seconds over a gin and tonic?”
Even the very clever can have bad memories but Sinodinos’ seems worse than most. Kerry Schott, then head of Sydney Water – which desperately tried to get to the bottom of the huge and escalating expenses AWH was charging it – has given evidence that she warned Sinodinos he was among dodgy characters at AWH. Sinodinos said: “I can’t recollect whether she said it or not”. Surely not something one should or would miss.
That he had not chosen or been bothered to find out about or chase down errant behaviour by the company when there were signposts up in lights was amply demonstrated.
Then there were the company’s donations of more than $72,000 to the NSW Liberal party, of which Sinodinos was treasurer.
He said – as he has before – that the issue of donations was a matter for the CEO and the executive.
But the picture became murkier when a relentless Watson pushed him. “I did not know in precise terms what was being donated to the Liberal party, whether through events or money donations.”
What did “precise” mean? Sinodinos replied he was aware the CEO and others would attend political events.
What about donations apart from events? “Nothing in precise terms.”
Again pressed on “precise”, he said “I couldn’t quote amounts at you or over what period”. But after more prodding, including by the commissioner, he flatly denied knowing that the company was donating to the party. That was accompanied by more non-recollection and insistence that it wasn’t a process he involved himself in.
Asked about his shareholding in the AWH, to which he later relinquished rights when a senator, Sinodinos was all over the place, at one point denying the shareholding that he had put on the Senate register.
He said he had told a journalist the shareholding was subject to a “gentleman’s agreement”, “but it was a mischaracterisation on my part”. How did he make a blunder like that? “On the run. Under pressure from a journalist. I’m not perfect.”
It should be stressed that Sinodinos has not been accused of any wrong doing.
Tony Abbott told The Conversation a week ago that “Arthur is a fundamentally decent man and I will be amazed if any significant adverse finding is made against him.”
Abbott is very loyal to Sinodinos and Liberal sources say that at the higher reaches of the government people are supportive. Other Liberals, however, doubt that Sinodinos can survive even if he comes through ICAC without an adverse finding.
If he resumed his assistant treasurer job, the revelations about his performance, or lack of it, at AWH have left him very politically vulnerable.
Assistant treasurer is a job that deals with a range of financial issues and legislation and requires constant attention to detail, something that Sinodinos, on his own admissions, didn’t show at AWH.
In his comment of a week ago, Abbott went out on a limb for Sinodinos while also leaving himself a small way out.
If Abbott’s judgement is right and there was no “significant adverse finding” against Sinodinos, but there was some criticism, the Prime Minister would be left with a dilemma. Does he stand by a seriously wounded player in a key portfolio or does he cut him loose on the grounds of incompetence and negligence in what he did before entering the Senate?
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Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.