There's a small issue that has been niggling at me all week. It's about Sinodinos and Packer.
It was December 2011 and the scene was Sydney's high class Rockpool restaurant. Senator Arthur Sinodinos and casino tycoon James Packer were having lunch. Sinodinos had just become a Senator and was Treasurer of the NSW Liberal Party. James Packer was on a mission to achieve his lifetime goal - a Crown casino in Sydney to add to his Perth, Melbourne, and Macau gambling meccas.
Sinodinos was Assistant Treasurer in the Abbott government until he stood aside this week while the NSW Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) continues its inquires into Australian Water Holdings (AWH). Sinodinos was a director of AWH during a period when the company made a number of donations to the Liberal party.At the time AWH was seeking a lucrative deal with the NSW government. Sinodinos, who stood to make millions if the deal had been successful., has yet to give evidence at the ICAC inquiry. He has denied any wrongdoing.
But back to that pre Christmas 2011 lunch. Two other men were also in the restaurant, NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell accompanied by his Chief of Staff Chris Eccles. The two lunching partners came across each other and not for the first time, Packer raised his new casino plan with O'Farrell.
I owe my information about this intriguing story to Daily Telegraph political reporter Andrew Clennell's who mentioned the meeting of the heavy hitters in passing in his column nearly a year later in October 26, 2012. As far as I am aware it has not been raised since. By the time Clennell published his column, the casino had won the support of both the NSW Liberal and Labor parties and was all but a 'done deal'. O'Farrell had given the deal his backing and Chris Eccles had signed off on it. The bipartisan support demanded by Packer fell into place when the NSW Shadow Minister for Infrastructure Luke Foley endorsed the proposal, on the condition that there should be no poker machines in the new casino. Only the Greens were in clear opposition.
But the really interesting questions now are: What did Sinodinos and Packer talk about at the lunch ? The casino? - we already know that was a topic of conversation. When Packer raised the casino with O'Farrell - what did he, Eccles and Sinodinos say? Was Liberal party fundraising? It seems hard to believe that Packer and Sinodinos wouldn't have discussed Liberal Party fundraising. Who else did Sinodinos speak to about Packer's casino deal? Did he have other conversations with Packer, O'Farrell, Eccles, Crown Board member and Sinodinos's predecessor in the Senate Helen Coonan, or anyone else about the casino? Had Sinodinos or Eccles told O'Farrell that Packer would be in the restaurant? Were donations to the Liberal party discussed with Packer or his employees or lobbyists on this or other any other occasion?
Arthur Sinodinos - Background
Arthur Sinodinos has been regarded as a Liberal rising star. He was Prime Minister John Howard's Chief of Staff from 1997 -2006 after which he worked for Goldman Sachs and the National Australia Bank.
There are few who can match his Liberal Party insider connections. Sinodinos got out of Canberra before the Liberal party was defeated in 2007 and in the dark years between 2009 and 2011. Sinodinos became Finance Director of NSW Liberal Party. Later In 2009, while working for the National Australia Bank, he became vice president of the Federal Liberal Party, bringing what supporters hoped would be business support to the party.
Abbott and Sinodinos are close. They have been allies in the faction ridden NSW Liberal party. In 2010 and early 2011, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Abbott was involved in factional battles to support fellow right winger Sinodinos for the NSW Liberal Branch Presidency. In June 2010, Sinodinos was reported to be very regularly talking to Abbott.
Consider this short timeline and sequence of events, some of which were described by Lawrence Bull and myself in a series for New Matilda in 2012
May 2011: The ex-general secretary of the ALP and Giillard's campaign director in the 2010 election, Karl Bitar joins Packer's Crown Casino company. Crown announced that he would be "responsible for managing Crown's relationship with the Federal Government across a broad range of issues"
July 12, 2011: Arthur Sinondinos meets Karl Bitar at the Four Seasons Hotel in July 2011. (This evidence is part of documents tended at ICAC. Eddie Obeid junior went along too. We'll be hearing more from ICAC about the Bitar connection with Sinodinos and the AWH story).
August 2011: Minister for Communications Helen Coonan resigns from the Senate and a few days later she joins the Board of Packer's casino company Crown Ltd. For her duties she is paid about $116,000 a year, as well as receiving complimentary access to Crown facilities in Melbourne and Perth. At the time of her appointment, Independent Senator Nick Xenophon told Fairfax reporters, "It's sad to see that someone with such a distinguished career in public life will become part of an industry that causes so much misery in the community." World Vision CEO Tim Costello commented on her "indecent haste". Helen Coonan also becomes a political lobbyist.
October 2011: Arthur Sinodinos is selected by the Liberal Party to replace Helen Coonan in the Senate.
December 2011: Sinodinos and Packer have lunch.
24 February 2012: James Packer is ready to hatch his new casino plan. His chosen method was an exclusive interview with Australian Financial Review.When asked about his communications with Packer, O'Farrell said "just about every time I see Mr Packer he expresses interest in running a casino in Sydney and offers other suggestions on boosting tourism."
2012-2013: The biggest donor to the Liberal Party in 2012/13 was James Packer's mother Ros Packer. She gave $ 570,000, far more than the $11,000 she gave the NSW Liberal Party in 2007/8. Between 2011 and 2012, Crown Entertainment also gave $40,000 to the Federal Liberals.
February 26, 2012 : Two days after Packer announces his plan, Premier O'Farrell and Treasurer Mike Baird back Packer's casino plan. Critics note how quickly they have announced their support.
February 27, 2012: Labor right wing heavy, kingmaker and former treasurer Mark Arbib quits the Senate.
June 2012: Packer recruits Arbib to his private company Consolidated Press Holdings.
From 2011 onwards the most vocal public critic of Packer's proposal was NSW Greens MP John Kaye, who voiced his concern about the government's rapid embrace of Packer's plan. "This is going to be a test for the state government," he told The Australian. "Are they going to stand up to Packer, or will they do what they always do with multi-billionaires and let them have what they want?". Kaye told New Matilda that he was appalled that normal legal and planning processes were being subverted by O'Farrell's handling of the proposal.
The casino deal was highly unorthodox. By locking in media and political support, Packer made its approval seem inevitable. Aside from reporting by the SMH especially reporter Sean Nicholls, there was little rigorous examination of the means by which Packer achieved such favourable conditions for the processing of his so-called gift to Sydney. Crown placed 18 full page ads in News Ltd publications and the Australian Financial Review. The Age and SMH, some of whose journalists had been critical of the proposal, were not included. Packer told the Australian he regarded some SMH journalists as "pissants".
In September 2012, New Matilda was trying to get Premier O'Farrell to answer our questions about his knowledge of and meetings about the Packer's casino. We got no answers. The day we published our questions, Andrew Clennell published his intriguing mention of Arthur Sinodinos. I noted it at the time but I'm even more intrigued now.
Sinodinos too has managed his personal media relations well. He has had remarkably little critical coverage until the Australian Water Holdings story and his link to notoriously corrupt power broker Eddie Obeid becamr public. This was partly because he was not only a political insider but a media insider as well. He was on the News Ltd payroll as a regular columnist in 2010. In this role, he promoted Tony Abbott, on one occasion reassuring readers that the leader was now 'comfortable in his skin'. (5/1/2010). Meanwhile in the same publication, fellow columnists promoted Sinodinos as a future parliamentary talent ( e.g. Peter Van Onselen 17/1/2010). Fairfax made him a judge of AFR's 2009 List of the Powerful. He's often been used as a commentator by Radio National.
Fellow Newscorp columnist Christopher Pearson who had since died described him as a "remarkably selfless individual, loved or respected across not just the Coalition but the entire political class." That now seems a little generous.
Now that Sinodinos is looking a little bit grubby as journalist Jack Waterford said on Radio National, I am hoping we may hear more of his dealings with Packer and how those were related to Liberal party donations and the casino deal.
Note: In 2012, New Matilda developed its Team Packer list.
If you see anything here which is not accurate or if you have more information please contact me or leave a comment.
Since this article was first published in the morning of March 23. Minor corrections and editing changes were made on March 24 and small adjustments to the questions.