Listening to Liberal senators, you’d think Labor was accusing Arthur Sinodinos of being an axe murderer and killing the family dog to boot. In fact the opposition wasn’t demanding anything particularly unreasonable during the fractious, shouty debate that consumed the Senate’s morning.
It called for Sinodinos to give the chamber a full explanation of his role as director and chairman of Australian Water Holdings, a company that had secret financial links with the infamous Obeid family and is the centre of an investigation by the Independent Commission against Corruption. It went back to the senator’s statement of February last year and found it wanting.
Labor focused on the company’s donations to the Liberals that Sinodinos (a senior party official at the time) has said he didn’t know about, his assertion that he played no role in a contract AWH won with Sydney Water and his insistence he was not aware of the Obeid family’s financial involvement with the company.
Attorney-General George Brandis might accuse the opposition of a “disgraceful smear” but it’s a fair bet that when Sinodinos gets to ICAC, its tough counsel assisting, Geoff Watson, will be pursuing the same questions, and a few more besides. Sinodinos could be in for a pretty hard time.
In the Senate the government, after losing the please-explain vote, used endless points of order and obstruction to stop the opposition moving a further motion, which would have been carried, calling on the Prime Minister to have Sinodinos stand aside.
But it was already all over. As the Liberal senators were vigorously defending him, about 11.30am Sinodinos was making his way to Tony Abbott’s office to stand aside from the ministry for the duration of the inquiry.
He and Abbott had a private meeting – no one else present. If Sinodinos had been in a mind to think about such things, he might have reflected on how the relationship had changed from the old days when he and minister Abbott encountered each other in this suite. As chief of staff to John Howard, Sinodinos would never have imagined that Abbott would one day be his political boss.
In light of the political pressure and what will be the drip, drip, drip of evidence at ICAC - on Wednesday a AWH manager, asked whether Sinodinos’s $200,000 annual director’s fee seemed a lot, said “it does a little bit” - the Assistant Treasurer did the only thing he could do, in standing aside for the duration.
The obvious question was: did he get a shove from the Prime Minister?
A page one headline in Wednesday’s Australian (the paper through which the Abbott office often communicates) declaring “Sinodinos weighs stepping aside” had a whiff of a message about it.
But it seems this story was based on Sinodinos’ own musings at the time. Sources insist his hand was not forced. What would eventually have happened if he had tried to tough it out, however, can only be guessed at.
There were many conversations over the past couple of days as the crisis took off but its handling was rather different from what usually happens when a minister is faced with an existential moment.
Sinodinos had been involved in managing a number of such problems. Because of who he is and what he has been, he was regarded as an “adult”. More was left up to him in coming to his final decision than would be the case if it had been another minister.
After Sinodinos’s statement to the Senate, and Abbott’s to the House, the opposition switched tactics, pressing Abbott on what he knew and when he knew it about the AWH affair. The PM lauded Sinodinos for upholding Westminster principles, but brushed off questioning. He would not comment on any discussion he and Sinodinos might have had in the run-up to the ICAC inquiry.
It is hard to understand how, given his positions and his experience in both the political and corporate world, Sinodinos could have been so unaware of what was happening at AWH.
His colleague, Senate Leader Eric Abetz, suggested on the ABC on Wednesday night that Sinodonis might have been the victim. “People with less honourable motives than Mr Sinodinos may well have sought to have involved him on the basis to provide their enterprise with a veneer of respectability,” Abetz said.
The ICAC inquiry will no doubt test that theory too.
Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest Cathy McGowan here.