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 finance minister Senator Arthur Sinodinos gave evidence to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
Just before 11am last Thursday, 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 (PPP) 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 that the other reason 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.