July 23, 2011
"He said, 'look, at the end of the day we're either bound for glory or oblivion'." ... Arthur Sinodinos. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Deborah Snow chats with the new president of the NSW Liberals.
Arthur Sinodinos knows a thing or two about managing ''the elephants'', as he calls them. He had a ringside seat during the drawn-out struggles between John Howard and Andrew Peacock in the late 1980s and an even closer view of the more recent shoving contest between Howard and Peter Costello.
Now he contemplates what advice he would offer Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull on how to avoid another clash of the Liberal titans.
''My advice to Abbott? Keep doing the job he's doing, keep the pressure on the government, lead from the front, don't look over his shoulder.''
He pauses for a sip of pinot grigio over lunch at the George Street eatery est, which sits across the road from his new employer, the NAB.
''And in Malcolm's case, knuckle down and keep doing a great job as the communications shadow.'' He pauses, pondering the chunk of John Dory on the end of his fork. ''And, umm, you never know your luck in the big city.''
The cheeky, dry-as-dust afterthought is a reminder of why Howard used to say of his long-time aide that he ''suited my temperament'' because he could ''make me laugh''.
Sinodinos worked for Howard twice, once in the 18 months before Peacock deposed his rival in 1989 and then again from 1995, after Howard clawed back the Liberal leadership and was gearing up for the election which swept him to power.
The second time around, Sinodinos was comfortably ensconced in Treasury when Howard came calling.
''I was enjoying where I was and I think he sensed the hesitation in my voice, because he said, 'look, at the end of the day we're either bound for glory or oblivion'. I thought, well that's a pretty good attitude, sign me up. I couldn't resist that. It was a bit like, yeah, we'll stare death in the face and whatever happens, happens. That appealed.''
The pair went on to forge one of the most successful working relationships in modern Australian political history, Sinodinos serving first as economics adviser and then, for nine long years, as chief of staff, the most powerful and trusted position in the prime minister's private office.
''What surprised me about him is how tough he could actually be in arguing or prosecuting his point of view, even with a welter of media or other opinion against him. What struck me was that capacity to keep going in circumstances where others might give up,'' he says.
He remains staunchly loyal to Howard, despite having arranged his own exit some months before the latter's final fall from electoral grace.
''We still catch up. I'm still very keen to protect his interests if I have the capacity to do so, and vice versa. He's been very good to me in that regard,'' Sinodinos confides.
''These relationships - without trivialising it - it's a bit like people who have been in a war, who have been in the trenches together. I feel that towards a lot of them. If I get a call from someone I was in government with, they are the people you tend to call back first.''
Instinctive fealty to his old boss has some Liberals worrying about Sinodinos's ability to remain impartial after his election to the presidency of the NSW party. Sinodinos won in an internal party vote yesterday.
But he insists he'll remain his own man, even with the jostling state Liberal factions and the competing egos of Howard, Turnbull, the federal leader, Mr Abbott, and the newly triumphant Premier, Barry O'Farrell, to contend with.
''I hope what I can bring to the role is a reputation for being an honest broker,'' Sinodinos says.
''I don't want to bring to it either a personal agenda or an agenda focused on a particular faction.''
And no, he says, there is no use in Liberals playing down the fact that factions exist in their party.
''Groupings do exist and that's not necessarily a bad thing if it cuts down some of the transaction costs of getting things done internally … My job is to make sure that the contestability between them does not become destructive.''
Top of his to-do list will be broadening the party's fund-raising base and lifting the quality of NSW Liberal candidates in the next federal election after the ''mixed bag'' of individuals chosen last time.
He is diplomatic about the recent unseemly dust-up between the former Howard ministers Peter Reith and Nick Minchin over the federal presidency, insisting it ''did no lasting damage'' and it was ''good to shake the tree''. And he is receptive to party reforms proposed by Reith, who recently delivered a postmortem on last year's election.
But surprisingly, he thinks part of the electorate's sullen mood reflects a sense that the natural order of succession was overturned on both sides of politics.
''The next PM after Howard was either going to be [the former Labor leader] Kim Beazley or Costello in the natural order of things. And both of them are out. That has probably played with the public's mind,'' Sinodinos says.
''I don't think they see some of the current generation of politicians as senior, in the way that they saw a Beazley or a Costello or some of those. One of my beefs is that we seem to finish leaders off very quickly and then move on to the next one.''
The amiable Sinodinos was a ''straight-laced'' kid growing up in Newcastle in the 1950s and '60s. His parents, Dionysus and California, migrated separately from the picturesque island of Cephalonia, in the Ionian Sea.
Dionysus had been a seaman working the coastal shipping routes along the east coast of Australia who got stranded here by World War II. California, named by a relative who'd visited the US, came out in the early 1950s. The pair had known each other in childhood but had little contact in between. It was, Sinodinos says, an ''an arranged marriage in the sense that the two families knew each other''.
Sinodinos spoke almost no English until he started school. His parents made a ''conscious effort to fit in'' with the new country but their social lives revolved around the Greek Orthodox Church, through which Arthur, many years later, met his own wife, Elizabeth.
''The church attitude was quite outward-looking,'' Sinodinos recalls. ''They didn't take the attitude that we are somehow a Greek island in Australia … I think that actually promoted the integration of Greeks into Australian society.''
Sinodinos absorbed a strong anti-communist world view from his mother, who was shaped by her experiences as a farmer's daughter during the Greek Civil War.
An avid consumer of news and current affairs, he left high school with marks high enough to enter law or medicine at the University of Sydney but opted to study economics in his home town before moving to Canberra to join the Finance Department in 1979.
Sinodinos first crossed paths with his future employer after crashing one of Howard's famous budget after-parties with a mate in the early '80s. ''Neither of us had been to a party where the alcohol flowed so freely,'' he jokes.
Bitten by the political bug, he would sometimes amble down to Parliament House after work to drop in on debates.
But he didn't meet Howard formally until '87, when a friend working in Parliament asked him to come down and interview for a job.
''Howard seemed an interesting sort of character: plucky. He'd been through some of those battles on privatisation. He seemed to be a fighter.''
It was a quality Sinodinos saw in spades once he'd joined the leader's tight-knit team. Sometimes the pluck became sheer obstinacy, as it did when the former Liberal minister Ian McLachlan revealed a supposed pact under which Howard would cede to Costello after two terms as leader.
The move, meant to nudge Howard towards retirement, simply prompted him to dig in further.
''This is where the doggedness and stubbornness comes in. When you back this sort of guy into a corner, he is going to do the opposite of what you want,'' Sinodinos says of that episode.
''The funny thing is, we'd have these eruptions [between Howard and Costello] from time to time but the work of the government always got on. The prime minister's office and the treasurer's office worked perfectly fine through those times. The elephants were over there dancing away but the rest of us were getting on with the job.''
He thinks one of the keys to Howard's success was his ability to avoid conveying any sense of crisis, even when there was tumult behind the scenes.
''The art is in being able to make sure that the urgent does not crowd out the important.''
These days Sinodinos lives in Rose Bay and is enjoying life as a senior adviser to NAB's top business clients. He sounds lukewarm about ever standing for Parliament himself. In 2009 he was talked of as a possible successor to Brendan Nelson in the plum seat of Bradfield but ''I thought it was a bit too early to try my hand at that sort of front-line politics, and maybe I never will''.
Besides, there are plenty of other distractions in life just now, not least his one- year-old daughter Isabella and 10-year-old son, Dion.
The man who loved Abba, The Beatles and Elton John as a youth is now married to a woman who sits on the events committee of Opera Australia. But he remains relentlessly mainstream in his musical and literary tastes. He has a fondness for novels by Len Deighton and John le Carre and is at present deep in a book on contemporary China.
As for his migrant heritage, he remains closely involved with the Greek community but says it has been 10 or 15 years since he danced up a storm and broke a plate.
''The people I admire are the ones who actually break the plates on their heads,'' he says with a straight face. ''I haven't tried that one.''