An eye on the main chance
The career of Arthur Sinodinos has gone from bad to verse

I read the news in the ticker on ABC News 24: “Arthur Sinodinos refuses to front Senate committee over political donations”.  The headline that followed immediately read: “Philippine presidential front runner vows to pardon himself”. But I am sure that was a coincidence.

I have to confess to nurturing a perverse fascination over the career of Sinodinos, if only because his name is an irresistible source of limericks. A topical one in the circumstances might begin: “The devious Art Sinodinos / Who lurks deeper than most submariners …” 

The point is that Sinodinos has always pursued his own agenda: he has been a highly successful political operator, but one with an unblinking eye on the main chance.

Sinodinos was plucked from the Department of Treasury to become John Howard’s chief of staff in opposition in 1987. He went back to the public service in 1989, but then rejoined Howard in 1995, to become the office supremo when Howard became prime minister a year later.

Apart from being Howard’s adviser and gatekeeper, he was also the office fixer: Sinodinos was the one who rang ministers and senior public servants to counsel them if they strayed from the government’s political line. He was respected, and feared: “Howard’s hatchet man Art Sinodinos / Whom no junkyard dog is as mean as …”

After the demise of the Howard regime, Sinodinos remained a power broker within the Liberal party; as an apparatchik he became honorary finance director (effectively treasurer) of the New South Wales Liberal party and was appointed president in 2011. But his corporate career also flourished: he became a director of Goldman Sachs JB Were and, more importantly, a director of Australian Water Holdings, where he rose to the role of chairman in 2010.

And this is where the story really starts. AWH was a company more interested in wheeling and dealing than in water: it was run by a number of colourful corporate identities, among them the notorious Eddie Obeid. Sinodinos later claimed to have been ignorant of its reputation; but he could hardly have been unaware of the fact that he was appointed in order to use his influence within the Liberal party.

One proposition involved a deal that AWH wanted to push through with the state government utility Sydney Water; if it had eventuated Sinodinos stood to collect a bonus of $20 million. “The highly-placed Art Sinodinos / Who aspired to be rich as Mycenas …”  

But alas, the transaction fell through, and Sinodinos resigned to become a senator, a power broker for Malcolm Turnbull’s faction, and in due course the cabinet secretary. But before he left AWH, there was the small matter of a $75,000 donation the company had made to the Liberal party, a chunk of boodle Sinodinos had not noticed – he told the inquisitors of ICAC that he knew nothing, neither as chairman of AWH nor as finance director of the Liberal party. And there was also the matter of donations from property developers laundered through a Liberal front organization, the Free Enterprise Foundation, and passed illicitly to the state Liberal party.

Which is why the Senate committee wants to pursue the case. Sinodinos says that the committee’s direction for him to appear is unprecedented and objectionable – by which he means he doesn’t want to turn up and he won’t. He also says it is a stunt; well, maybe, but it is only one of the many that will be tried in this long election campaign.

Sinodinos is, not for the first time, carried away by his own self-importance: “The imperious Art Sinodinos / Of huge ego, but miniscule …” Perhaps I’d better stop there.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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