Apr 3, 2014

Sinodinos takes the stand: if he didn’t know, it doesn’t wash

Stood-down federal government minister Arthur Sinodinos took the stand at the Independent Commission Against Corruption in Sydney this morning. So how much trouble is he in? Crikey was in the hearing.

Paddy Manning

Crikey business editor

It's hard to win playing dumb. Despite his impeccable presentation and smiling demeanour, and regardless of whether any finding is ever made against him, there was a sinking feeling as former assistant treasurer Senator Arthur Sinodinos gave evidence this morning to the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption. Just before 11am counsel assisting ICAC Geoffrey Watson SC drew a series of significant concessions from Sinodinos: despite being deputy chairman, then chairman, of private company Australian Water Holdings, he did not know why costs billed to its sole client Sydney Water were rising -- although those costs were subject to hot dispute -- and he did nothing to find out, beyond participating in board discussions. Watson is well blooded by now and ripping up politicians in the witness stand is his daily work: he does it by turns with pleasant humour, showy disrespect and singular insistence on his own line of questioning. If he needs to be combative to get what he wants, he is, using lines like: "I've tried three times ... are you going to refuse to answer the question?" and "Will you concentrate? We've got to move forward, Senator". On the amount of work Sinodinos did for his $200,000 annual salary as a non-executive at AWH, Watson asked whether a dinner-time conversation with a Leighton executive might be included, say: "Ninety seconds over a gin and tonic?" Asking what concerns were raised at one meeting, and drawing a blank, Watson cracked: "Did you just gaze into each others' eyes?" After an hour of this, a tiring Sinodinos was on the back foot about why he, as a director of AWH, did so little to rein in costs at the company. Commissioner Megan Latham weighed in to help with the simple question: why were AWH costs rising, at the end of stage three of the Rouse Hill contract, even as field work was coming to an end? "I don't have the full answer to that," Sinodinos conceded. Watson pressed him: "You did nothing to get information as to why the costs were rising?" "That is right," Sinodinos agreed, "but can I elaborate?" The Senator was allowed to elaborate, and explained that he was adhering to legal advice from AWH lawyers Allens, on which costs were attributable to the Rouse Hill 3 contract. Watson would have none of it -- that might be relevant if AWH was seeking to obscure the reason for its rising costs, but had nothing to do with whether Sinodinos was fulfilling his duty to the company's shareholders. It was the same story all morning. Did he know Sydney Water chief Kerry Schott? "I do and I admire her," said Sinodinos. In a meeting with her and John Brown, did the Senator recall whether she suggested the people at AWH were dishonest? "I can't recollect whether she said it or not." Did Sinodinos tell the board of AWH what was discussed in the meeting with Schott? "I don't remember whether I did ... I don't believe I did. It was a private meeting and I treated it as such." How was it private? Sinodinos answered only that he was an independent director. In his defence, Sinodinos told the commissioner he took a "softly softly approach" as chairman of AWH and wanted to ensure, in its dealings with Sydney Water, the company did not "throw the baby out with the bathwater". The baby -- the thing that, by his own evidence this morning, excited Sinodinos and originally drew him to join AWH -- was the public-private partnership the company was hoping to reach with Sydney Water, to provide infrastructure in Sydney's North West Growth Centre, which would have seen him make up to $20 million. That was the same PPP that attracted the family of corrupt former Labor politician Eddie Obeid to invest in AWH, and could have reaped him $100 million. Sinodinos conceded straight up this morning the other reason that he was brought into AWH was to "find cornerstone investors". He mentioned Credit Suisse, Lend Lease, Transfield, Tenix. He did not mention the one cornerstone -- the Obeids -- who did invest. It doesn’t wash. Forgetfulness is common enough in the witness stand. For a serving senior politician, it is worse than a bad look. CORRECTION: An original version of this story stated Arthur Sinodinos was the former finance minister; he is in fact the former assistant treasurer.

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29 thoughts on “Sinodinos takes the stand: if he didn’t know, it doesn’t wash

  1. Dez Paul

    Mmmmm, reminds me of our newly appointed High Commissioner to London’s performance over the AWB scandal some years ago.

    Can’t see Arfur returning to the big political stage, regardless of the outcome.

  2. Venise Alstergren

    Arthur Sinodinos is playing too cutesy pie for words. Obviously the man regards himself as being smarter than anyone else, in the end hubris will have its way. ‘Bye ‘bye Arthur.

  3. Electric Lardyland

    Seems to be a bit of a trend doesn’t it: people who have been paid an exorbitant amount of money, supposedly for their mental acumen, displaying very limited mental skills at court appearances. Apparently, despite paying Sinodinos $200,000 for less than 40 hours work, Australian Water Holdings got someone with an extremely vague memory and who seemed to show little or no interest in the day to day running of the company. According to his testimony, he wasn’t really aware who was involved in the company, can’t recall the gist of the few meetings that he attended and he had no real idea of why the company’s costs were rising. And of course, good old Arthur, apparently has no awareness of the $70,000 donation that AWH made to the NSW Liberal party at the time, despite him also holding down the job of treasurer of the NSW Liberal party.

    Seems well worth the money, doesn’t he?

  4. graybul

    Incredulity . . not willing to believe something!

    Credulity . . too willing to believe!

  5. rhwombat

    $200,000/year buys a lot of amnesia.

  6. Brian Williams

    Gobsmacked is the only word I can think of to describe his testimony so far. Reminds me of another spiv with the first name of Arthur…last name Daley.

  7. David Hand

    This has got to be the end of Sinodinos’s political career. Back bench among the unrepresentative swill is all he should get now.

  8. Bill Hilliger

    Arfur using the Alex Doonut defence, all the critical bits I cant recall, I don’t remember. What a shyster!

  9. Electric Lardyland

    Yes, rh, but I bet that he wasn’t suffering from amnesia on pay day.

  10. Djbekka

    Astounding! Readers who have served on boards of community based NGOs or small incorporated organisations will have spent many hours discussing costs and income. Worrying about anything unexpected in the accounts that are tabled at each meeting. Even explaining to members at general meetings about events that ended with a financial loss of under $2000. Clearly there is a different standard when a government department will write cheques or transfer funds. Retirees, even those with financial industry experience are concerned with the demands of their responsibilities. Seems there is a different standard for well connected board members when PPPs are concerned.

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