Exclusive interview with Arthur Sinodinos: Noble calling for a noble man

Fotis Kapetopoulos talks to Senator Arthur Sinodinos AO, the first Greek Australian to take the post of Ambassador to the United States

NSW Senator Arthur Sinodinos AO is leaving the Senate to take on Australia’s most significant overseas post, Ambassador to the United States.

The fact that a son of Greek immigrants, with a father who was a “merchant mariner and a member of the Seamen’s Union” and a mother who was “part-time seamstress can take a seat in the Australian Senate says much about our country,” said Queensland Labor Senator Watts in his reply on Wednesday. Labor and Coalition members in a rare sign of bi-partisanship rose in the Senate on Wednesday and paid tribute to Mr Sinodinos’ “gravitas,” his “noble character”, and his “caring” and “humble” persona.

Mr Sinodinos, a former Treasury Official, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister John Howard, elected Senator with economic roles in the Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull governments, garners respect across the chamber.

He was key to some of the most important economic reforms in the Howard Government. By impression of educational background, policy and professional experience, Sinodinos confounded the stereotype of political staffer on the path to politician.

An economist with years of experience in a mixture of senior roles in Commonwealth Treasury, Mr Sinodinos spent five years as Economic Adviser to Mr Howard – first in Opposition (1987-1989; 1995-96) and later in government (1996-97).

Mr Sinodinos’ brand of liberalism is defined by the motto, “Live and let live”, and adds, “fair-play” and “leave no one behind.”

He emphasised a “special obligation to minorities – Indigenous Australian who seek more control in policies” and “disabled “, and “marginalised Australians”.

READ MORE: Exclusive Interview: How will Arthur Sinodinos handle Donald Trump?

Coalition Senator Arthur Sinodinos gives a speech to the Senate at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, February 13, 2019. Source: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

A fight for life

In 2017, Mr Sinodinos faced a fight greater than any political challenge. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. After a bone marrow transplant he has fully recovered.
“Once I was diagnosed my focus had to be on getting well,” Mr Sinodinos says to Neos Kosmos.

“I hung on to the doctor’s word, that the prognosis was good, every day I kept on top of what was going on with me, my focus was on getting well and touch wood, I am here now.”

He now does much work in promoting and supporting cancer research.

The ‘Broad Church’

As Chief of Staff to John Howard (1997-2006), Mr Sinodinos – in partnership with Tony Nutt – was one of the most powerful people in Australia. His intellect and openness equipped him as a conduit between the factions or as he puts it the ‘groupings’ of the Coalition.

Mr Sinodinos doesn’t believe that the Liberal Party has drifted to the right and maintains it’s a “broad church”.

“We often look with rose tinted glasses on earlier periods, Menzies was a progressive in ways, like when he ended rationing, and in pushing for more economic freedom, in other ways, like the way the industrial system was regulated he was a conservative,” Sinodinos says. Like Robert Menzies, he is a “believer in institutions.”

“The essence of conservatism in the Liberal Party, is to preserve the best of the past while adapting to the future, and that is what the party has done over time,” he says.

He points the Liberal Party’s abandonment of protectionist economics in the 80s and 90s.

“It adopted a more economically deregulated agenda and to some people it was seen as neo-liberalism and to others it seemed conservative, however we were adapting to then needs of the time while maintaining our core fundamental values and beliefs.”

Labor in the 80s, under Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating, pursued deregulation and the modernisation of Australia’s sclerotic economy. Howard with Sinodinos as a key confidant extended the Hawke Keating economic project.

Now faint light shines through Labor and Coalition economic agendas, making divisions on social issues like marriage equality within the Liberal Party pronounced. Sinodinos says, “its true to say that for the Labor Party as well.”

“You get people that may be more conservative and others more small l liberal, or progressive, the question is how do you manage these things?”

He stresses the Republican issue during John Howard’s time and how “it was managed by giving everybody the opportunity to express their point of view.”

“On the Marriage Equality issue, the reason there were tensions arose because, rather than leave it is a matter for individual members of parliament to decide, the decision was taken that we had to take the one party line.

“Earlier we had a capacity to handle the broad-church of different opinions by allowing all to express an opinion in the parliament.”

“Scott Morison may be seen as a bit of a social conservative, certainly compared to Malcolm Turnbull, but he emphasized whatever the individual position and groupings within the Party what unites us is greater than what unites us divides us, and that we must be pragmatic and empirical.”

READ MORE: Arthur Sinodinos discusses the Coalition’s prospects in upcoming federal election

Earlier today, I reflected on my experience with cancer and reaching the phase of survivorship, including the resilience of the human spirit and my profound respect and confidence in my fellow Australians and the future we can build together.

Full speech: https://t.co/GWj9g6VMem pic.twitter.com/huSNOhKi9A

— Arthur Sinodinos AO (@A_Sinodinos) February 13, 2019

Scott Morrison as unlikely winner

As the right of the party, lead by Tony Abbott and an ambitious Peter Dutton hounded Turnbull, Sinodinos even though unwell and fragile, with his immune system down, drove to Canberra for the leadership vote.

“I was concerned about another change of leader, I was worried about what the public would think of us in that regard.”

According to Niki Savva, author of Plots and Prayers, Mr Sinodinos played a key role in making sure that Mr Dutton did not succeed by convincing former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to leave the office paving the way for Mr Morrison to challenge Mr Dutton. He plays his role down, “I was very ill and really did not play a major role.”

“What everyone underestimated was to the extent that the current Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quick to out there and define in the public mind who he was.

“Scott Morrison conveyed authenticity, that provided a sharp contrast with Bill Shorten, who regardless of being a leader for five years, had not captured the public’s imagination.”

Mr Sinodinos says elections are all close and the last Federal election proved to be much closer in the end.

“The reason we are all lying back in amazement at what happened was that the expectation for so long had been that the Coalition would take a hammering,” he says.

“Scott demonstrated through the budget that we are good economic managers while Labor contributed to their loss with a strong taxing message, and spending, which was large during the campaign, did not register with people.”

Labor was lead by someone Sinodinos says “the public did not warm to and the campaign reinforced the reservations people had of him.”

Don’t throw out the China baby with the bath water

Anti-China sentiment is percolating in Canberra. Recently Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton launched a wide-ranging attack on the Chinese Communist party, accusing it of cyber-attacks on Australian targets, stealing intellectual property and gagging free speech.

“China is more assertive, the Chinese Communist Party has a stronger hold over power, and it has woken people up to the fact that China is exerting a lot more influence than it used to.”

Mr Sinodinos wants to manage the rise of China in a way that “reinforces rather than undermines the global economy and rules based order.”

“China is a very important trade partner, and the extensive people to people relationship so we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“We have a big stake in China doing well and being a meaningful stakeholder in the international economy and rules based order.”

A new balancing act

Mr Sinodinos seems a natural choice for Ambassador to the United States, he has the smarts, gravitas and a cool temperament.

Echoing Keating he says, “Australia can help to interpret China to the US from our perspective, that it is something we would do from behind the scenes.

He will do that from a position of “strong support” for Australia’s strategic and military alliance with the US and from “our conviction as a country in the Asia Pacific that we need a strong American presence to continue in the region.”

As a broker between opposing views, Sinodinos will face challenges in dealing with the mercurial and populist President Donald Trump.
“Over the last decade Americans may be scratching their heads when dealing with Australia given we have changed Prime Ministers so often, I don’t think we should criticize overseas regimes or people, but recognize it is in our national interest to work with the duly elected administration.”

The Greek Australian Diaspora

The Greek parliament debates about giving Greek Diaspora the vote but Sinodinos, who is not a dual citizen, would “not vote in another nation’s elections.”

He appreciates the importance of the Diaspora and its role in Greece and says amusingly, “Certainly Greeks will certainly have many opinions”.

The past leader of the Geek community in Canberra is encouraged by end of the long-term battle between the NSW Greek Orthodox Community and Greek Archdiocese.

“There is strength in numbers and in being united.”

He also met the recently appointed Archbishop Makarios and was “heartened”.

“He is a modern man that will do much to promote the interests of Greek Australians.”

On Melbourne’s Greek Community and the Community’s President Bill Papastergiadis, Mr Sinodinos was effusive, “We all love Bill!”