Comment: The doors of perception

Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos leaves the chamber after having stepped aside as Assistant Treasurer at the end of Senate Question Time. (AAP)

Senator Arthur Sinodinos has stood aside not because of any wrongdoing, we're told - but in the long run it's not perception he’ll need to worry about.

Anyone who is having problem with their image could seemingly do worse than get involved in the current ICAC hearings. From the moment this week that Senator Arthur Sinodinos’ name was mentioned in relation to the hearing concerning Australian Water Holdings, his character references have zoomed ever higher.

We had the Prime Minister Tony Abbott referring to him as “a man of great distinction and high competence, a decent and an honourable man”. Senator Abetz let the Senate know that Sinodinos would “always put his country first, he will always put his government first, he will always put his party first, before himself” - although Senator Abetz did fail to explain which of the country, government and party would come first out of the things which Senator Sinodinos puts first.   

John Howard rose himself out of his slumber to state that his former chief of staff was “a man of great integrity and ability”. Mathias Cormann went one better and told ABC’s AM that Senator Sinodinos was “a man of the highest integrity” and that he had “provided distinguished service to Australia over many decades.” The Attorney General, Senator George Brandis - without blushing - let it be known that he thought Sinodinos “one of the greatest Australians to participate in public life”.

Given his service included working as a public servant, that might be the closest we’ll ever come to hearing members of the Liberal Party suggest such an occupation is worthy of praise rather than retrenchment.

The praise of the Senator has also bled into journalists’ copy where it has almost been a prerequisite for journalists to write how good a bloke Sinodinos is. One journalist even asked shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh, “Would you agree that Arthur Sinodinos was seen as one of the good guys in this place?”

Oh, well, if he’s a good guy ...

The government has attempted to suggest it is all about perception. That nothing has been done wrong; it’s just about the vibe. This view has been nicely promulgated by various media outlets, such as The Australian which led with the front page story on Thursday that Sinodinos stepped aside to “curtail corruption taint”.

The taint you see, not anything real.

The government has previously lost someone to perception. Last month Alastair Furnival, the chief of staff to the Assistant Health Minister Senator Fiona Nash resigned over suggestions of conflict of interest. But his resignation was all about the perception. His statement suggested he resigned to avoid being a “political distraction”.

Similarly Senator Sindonis told the Senate he was stepping aside from his role as Assistant Treasurer because he did “not want this sideshow to be an unnecessary distraction to the important work of the government which I am proud to serve”.

Perception and distraction is all that is happening.

Except it is not. Sinodinos is not in his current predicament because of the perception of his actions while a director and chairman of Australian Water Holdings but because of the reality of them.

The ICAC hearings have heard that he was appointed to the position for his ability to open doors, that he earned $200,000 for about 100 hours work. He also stood to make $20 million if a multi-million-dollar deal with the NSW state government to provide water infrastructure in Sydney’s north-west had gone through.

AWH also made generous donations to the Liberal Party at a time when Sinodinos was also Treasurer and then President of the Liberal Party.

The problems mount when you consider AWH is alleged to have gouged the NSW state-owned Sydney Water of up to $800,000 a month. Thus in effect tax payers were the ones paying for these donations and Sinodinos’ salary package.

Crucially the Obeid family had a substantial stake in AWH, something Sinodinos has denied knowledge of, as he has also denied knowledge of the donations made to the Liberal Party or any gouging of Sydney Water.  

As Lenore Taylor in Guardian Australia nicely put it, if Sinodinos did actually know about all these matters, his probity is in serious question, if he didn’t, his competence is. 

None of this is about perception.

Yet Senator Sinodinos has stood aside supposedly because of perception.

He has not actually resigned, just “stepped down”. The Liberal Party has become so enmeshed with concerns of perception that it has reacted to this situation by Sinodinos offering the perception that he has resigned.

So elevated has Sinodinos’ character been by the Liberal Party that this non-resignation had the Prime Minister on Thursday suggesting it showed Sinodinos is “a brave man”.

The Prime Minister may in the future need to display more courage than he has thus far because he is the one who appointed Sinodinos to the position – and did so well after questions about AWH had surfaced. Sinodinos made a statement to the Senate on the matter February last year.

After a few days of circling around the main issue, yesterday Bill Shorten finally found his range in Question Time asking Tony Abbott a number of questions about when did Abbott become aware of the issues such as Sinodinos standing to “make $20 million for facilitating a deal involving Australian Water Holdings and the New South Wales government.”

The Prime Minister refused to answer any of the questions, but he’ll be hoping ICAC fully exonerates Sinodinos because if not the perception he’ll need to worry about is his own lack of judgement. 

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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