AN ARTICLE in the Murdoch press — reporting that sidelined Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinis wants “to rejoin the Abbott team” once his duty to co-operate with an ICAC investigation into donations has ended — ignores the political reality that for now at least, the only place Sinodinis should be is on the backbench. Rightly, wrongly, fairly or otherwise, the government cannot afford to restore Sinodinis to his vacant ministerial post.
At the outset, let me be crystalline in my clarity about something: in publishing this morning’s article I seek in no way to judge Sinodinis personally; I make no accusation of guilt or misconduct; and seek to express no presumption of guilt in relation to any of the alleged misdeeds, on Sinodinis’ part, that fall within the remit of the ICAC investigation in NSW that is probing donations to the Liberal Party and which have necessitated his appearance at ICAC to answer questions about what — if anything — he knows of the matters at hand. On the contrary, my opinion of the Senator is sufficiently high that I would be both horrified and dismayed if there was so much as a shred of evidence against him.
And I certainly don’t seek to impugn his character in any way.
No, today’s piece is a purely political assessment of an environment around political donations that has grown toxic for the Liberal Party — in NSW, at least — and against that backdrop (and irrespective of any rights or wrongs, as the case may be) the Abbott government simply can’t afford to restore Sinodinis to his ministerial post when his time in ICAC’s so-called “star chamber” has concluded.
Perception is everything in politics. Remember that, folks. We’ll come back to that point.
When it comes to ICAC — the NSW anti-corruption and misconduct body set up by the Greiner government in 1989 — there are two (and two only) broad strategies for dealing with the adverse publicity and/or findings that emanate from its highly visible activities: one, to stand firm, batten down the hatches, denying everything whilst attempting to ride out the storm; and two, for those found to have done the wrong thing to resign their offices and, if the circumstances warrant doing so, to await prosecution as far away from the incessant and incendiary glare of media attention as possible.
NSW voters (and Australians generally) have already seen the end result of the first of these strategies: a Labor state government that had the living shit kicked out of it so badly at the polls in 2011 that it recorded Labor’s worst result in NSW in almost a century, defeated even more heavily than Jack Lang’s government was in 1932 following its dismissal by the Governor of the day, Sir Philip Game.
Already, we are getting a very clear picture of the other, too, courtesy of the NSW Liberals affected by ICAC’s probe into banned donations from property developers: a torrent of resignations, both from the NSW ministry and from State Parliament altogether, which has included the Premier who slew Labor at the 2011 election — Barry O’Farrell — being forced to fall on his sword over the failure to declare a bottle of wine that was gifted to him by a donor.
That picture — ominously — has reflected in opinion polling of state voting intentions in NSW, and it’s not pretty; the latest indications appear to suggest that O’Farrell’s successor as Premier, the impressive Mike Baird, will be re-elected come March, albeit narrowly; the absurdity of a government elected with almost two-thirds of the two-party vote facing the realistic possibility of defeat after a single term underscores both the revulsion of voters to wrongdoing by politicians and the scope the type of matters before ICAC possess to cripple the electoral prospects of political parties.
The fact NSW Labor is led by a man who has publicly admitted to self-adjudicating a $3 million bribe he was offered — and taking it upon himself to decide not to report it — and is nonetheless within shouting distance of overhauling the Coalition in a single leap simply amplifies the point.
People are fed up with corruption and official misconduct, be it alleged, proven at law, or a taint that attaches to individuals or parties either by implication or suggestion, and the higher up the food chain it runs, the heavier the fallout.
NSW Labor leader John Robertson should, by rights, have rendered himself unelectable by admitting he didn’t refer the bribe he was offered to ICAC, and in a less tumultuous political climate, he would have been. But the Liberals govern NSW now, not Labor; and despite its ghastly track record and the stack of ALP identities who have faced or await prosecution, it is the ALP in NSW that can now claim the outraged indignation of opposing a government being picked apart by ICAC. It is certainly reaping the political benefits that come from it, if the published polls are anything to go by.
For those who are caught out by ICAC, it seems going to the crossbenches or quitting Parliament altogether don’t cut it in the eyes of voters; as of yesterday the Liberal Party in NSW has now lost 10 of its 49 lower house MPs through these routes, with the member for Port Stephens, Craig Baumann, the latest to be forced to leave the party after admitting to ICAC that he improperly declared donations totalling $79,000 before the 2007 state election to hide the fact the monies originated from property developers.
There is no need to canvass the minutiae of all 10 of the Liberal MPs who have fallen foul of ICAC’s investigations, for even the details of what Baumann has admitted to is enough to paint the picture; the fact that 10 of these guys have effectively had their careers terminated by ICAC leaves little cause to wonder whether NSW voters are angry or not, or whether their ire is justified.
Here is where we return to Sinodinis, whose appearance at ICAC (and the article I mentioned in my leader provides some elaboration) was to answer questions around what he knew, if anything, about allegations that a fundraising arm of the Federal division of the Liberal Party, the Free Enterprise Foundation, had been used to disburse otherwise prohibited developer donations to the NSW Liberals, thereby circumventing the ban on doing so directly.
Sinodinis is quoted in that article as saying he’s looking forward to “rejoin the Abbott team,” from which it is reasonable to infer that he means a resumption of his ministerial post.
Rightly or wrongly, it can’t happen.
The issue of developer donations to the NSW Liberals and the alleged use of the Free Enterprise Foundation to facilitate them brings the ICAC taint of the NSW Liberals directly to the federal party, and to the Abbott government: like it or not, innocent or not, people will form their own conclusions based on their own perceptions.
Already, there has been some attempt by the
Communist Party Greens to drag Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, into the ICAC quagmire; to date, the best the Greens can come up with has been to focus on Ms Credlin’s role as a channel for communication throughout the government and beyond, and the inescapable fact that this role inevitably encompasses interaction and involvement with the Free Enterprise Foundation through the simple reality of its affiliation to the Liberal Party.
Just as the Greens don’t like Abbott, they really, really don’t like Credlin either.
And just as I am adamant that I seek to cast no aspersions on Senator Sinodinis, I am equally adamant that none should befall Credlin either. Yet the fact this has been raised by the government’s opponents at all clearly shows that if its political enemies have anything to do with it, the Abbott government (to use the vernacular) is going down over the ICAC fiasco that threatens to engulf the NSW division of the Liberal Party.
This is where the moronic calls for a “federal ICAC” — which are growing louder — originate from; the Greens are campaigning for such a body with great vigour, aided in no small part by the Fairfax press, and demands to the same end have emanated from the Palmer United Party, too. Some press coverage (chiefly from Fairfax, again) has claimed that the ALP seems unfazed by the idea, which is perhaps unsurprising given the likelihood of its own procession of public shame as a result of the Royal Commission into the trade union movement being imminent.
But whether Labor wants a “federal ICAC” or not is to some degree a moot point; dangerous, malevolent enemies of the Abbott government that are bent on causing it harm are prepared to fight for it, and both Palmer and the Greens have proven themselves more than capable of generating great political trouble for the federal Coalition when issues and circumstances suit them.
It hardly takes a rocket scientist to see that in the case of the Greens at least, their motives stem not so much from any over-arching commitment to probity or accountability as from their barely disguised hatred of Tony Abbott personally, the Coalition more broadly, and the fact it sits in government at all: the Greens are capable of doing anything in their mad obsession with ripping Abbott apart, and a “federal ICAC” appears to be simply another intended battering ram or sledgehammer with which the Greens seek to prosecute this objective.
And this is where it becomes untenable for Arthur Sinodinis to resume his spot as Assistant Treasurer.
It has nothing to do with innocence or guilt; as I said at the outset, perception is everything in politics.
It should not be so, but whether Sinodinis has a case to answer or not is scarcely the point when the question is evaluated on a purely political basis.
With its self-inflicted budget woes and the truly shocking inability it exhibits to either sell its positive wares or to persuasively argue the merits of its tougher measures, the Abbott government needs the taint of ICAC, the backwash of public revulsion it is generating, and the get-square prospect of a “federal ICAC” like it needs the proverbial hole in its head.
Rightly or wrongly, the restoration of Sinodinis to the ministry would be a lightning rod for the forces ranged against the government — both inside and outside Parliament — to redouble their efforts to smear it with the fallout from ICAC and to paint it as corrupt at a time when it simply can’t afford any distractions or firestorms over and above those it is already battling to extinguish.
I feel for Sinodinis; I think he’s a good man. But for the good of the government he so rightly wishes to serve, the best place for him right now remains on the Senate backbench.
It doesn’t have to be forever; and it doesn’t exclude other avenues to participate more actively, perhaps through a committee role.
But with the fires of hell raging in NSW and threatening to spread as far as Canberra, the public perception of restoring Sinodinis to the executive government is, for now, simply too politically fraught.
If anyone is to blame, it is those who actually have already prejudged his guilt when there may well be nothing for him to be guilty of; and this in turn speaks to other areas of standards of conduct in public office — the sheer lies and malicious slander that has become a standard tool of trade for Australia’s Left — that I, like millions of others who live in this country, am fed up to my back teeth with.