Update: Senator Sinodinos stood aside just before 2.00pm today, saying “I do not want this sideshow to be an unnecessary distraction to the important work of the Government.”

While some are calling for Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos to stand aside while the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption considers the case of Australian Water Holdings, there’s no clear case for that. No specific accusation of impropriety of any kind has been raised against him in his time as director or chairman of the company, unlike other NSW Liberal Party figures who have been identified by counsel assisting.

That’s not to say Sinodinos didn’t display poor judgement and isn’t guilty of being a little cute. To claim he was unaware of the involvement of the wider Obeid family in the company is hard to believe and suggests Sinodinos is at least guilty of remarkable naivety, particularly for a senior figure in the NSW Liberal Party. And to accept a position in which the remuneration was so strangely disproportionate to the work involved suggests a certain guilelessness, at best. Poor judgement might be a hanging offence if displayed in ministerial office, depending on the circumstances; whether it’s a hanging offence if displayed prior to entering politics isn’t at all clear. Until someone credibly raises an impropriety by Sinodinos, there’s no reason for la mort d’Arthur.

Of course, that’s before politics enters the equation. The Coalition was happy to call former PM Julia Gillard a “crook” — that was Coalition frontbencher George Brandis’ phrase, never retracted, made in Coward’s Castle — over the Australian Workers’ Union matter from the early 1990s, long before she entered politics, when at worst she was guilty of poor judgement (in a relationship as much as professionally) rather than guilty of any impropriety. Indeed, no one could ever actually find a specific impropriety to accuse her of — remember Tony Abbott claiming she had “questions to answer” and then being unable to say what the “questions” were? The Coalition was happy to try to link Labor frontbencher Bob Carr to Eddie Obeid from his days as premier of NSW, when Carr had the singular honour of having sacked Obeid. The Coalition was happy to go after then Labor MP Craig Thomson for his crimes before he entered politics. Now, Sinodinos is being protected from scrutiny in the Senate on the basis that the matters relate to the period before he entered politics. His Senate leader, Eric Abetz, also insisted today that proper processes must be followed and that politicians can’t be judge and jury.

It’s a fair call to make. It’s also rolled-gold hypocrisy.

Labor’s pursuit of Sinodinos yesterday was split between the Senate, where repeated efforts to ask him questions were rebuffed, and the House, where the matter only drew three questions. Labor figures say the purpose is to build momentum rather than go hard early, and that yesterday they got what they wanted, which was Abbott’s unconditional support for Sinodinos, which will come in handy if something does indeed come up beyond his poor judgement in mucking in with the Obeids.

As luck would have it, Sinodinos should be on the political front line this week, selling the case for the government’s gutting of the Future of Financial Advice package, which is to be introduced into Parliament today. The original Coalition strategy of sneaking this through — unveiling it two days before Christmas, sneaking the draft regulations out in January, aiming to do as much as possible by regulation rather than legislation, has come a cropper since the media started paying proper attention to how disastrous the package would be for consumers. Overnight there was another body blow to the package: the chair of the Financial Planning Association, Matthew Rowe, criticised the section of Sinodinos’ repeal provisions that in effect restored commissions for “general” financial advice, on both Lateline and in a piece published today, saying:

“In my personal opinion, this is an attempt by some product manufacturers to drive the sale of their product through integrated distribution without the obligation to investigate the needs of the consumer or provide a solution that is in the consumers best interests. In 2009, well before the FoFA reforms the FPA lead the financial planning profession by banning our members accepting these commissions. We believe now, as we did then, that commissions linked to the sale of an investment or superannuation product provides for a conflict of interest that cannot be managed so must be avoided. The FPA has written formally to the Government voicing its strong opposition to commissions being paid under what is being called the ‘general advice’ exemption. We do not believe this proposed change is in the public interest.”

The FPA has previously flagged its concerns about the restoration of commissions, but Rowe’s missive is a hardening of its position and rhetoric. That leaves only the banking cartel and AMP as enthusiastic supporters of the Sinodinos package, with a wide array of opposition stretching from unlikely financial planning opponents to the business media through to industry super and consumer groups.

Sinodinos, of course, can’t do his job and get on the front foot and deal with these issues in the media because any appearance would be swamped by questions about ICAC and his relationship with Eddie Obeid. All he can do is answer Dixers in question time and issue statements from inside his office.

That’s the real problem for Tony Abbott — a minister who can’t do his job properly at the moment when his own package of reforms is unravelling. That’s no hanging offence, either — but it might be if things don’t change.

Peter Fray

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