“I’m a different generation to Howard. I grew up during the period of, for want of a better description, ‘women’s liberation’.
Arthur Sinodinos is campaigning on the Central Coast when he takes my prearranged call. Along with Joe Hockey, he’s pushing the Coalition’s line on skills training and job creation in a region blighted by a youth unemployment rate of 25 per cent.
It’s a policy area the NSW Senator and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition is more qualified than most to present.
There are few members of Tony Abbott’s team with Sinodinos’ credentials when it comes to Australia’s economy and how it is managed.
Little wonder reports this week suggest Tony Abbott plans to give the Senator a newly-created finance portfolio – a super-ministry covering trade and investment – if the Coalition is returned to government.
I start by asking what Sinodinos believes is the one single policy area of most difference between the Coalition and Labor.
“Economic management,” he says. “We don’t believe you can put the economy on autopilot and assume things will go OK.”
And what makes the Coalition’s approach different to that of Labor’s?
“You have to keep actively finding ways to promote jobs. At the moment we’re in a situation where unemployment is rising and growth is trending down, so part of the reason we’re supporting tax cuts is to support growth.
“All governments talk about offering more opportunity, but we’ve got to a stage where the world is such a competitive place that we have to be as productive as we can be.”
Reducing the cost of doing business in Australia, says Sinodinos, underpins the Coalition’s approach to growing the economy.
“We have to get rid of excessive, out of date regulation and we have to promote innovation – not just in manufacturing, but across the board, and that means encouraging a more entrepreneurial mindset.
“That’s why we believe in lower tax, employee share-ownership – all those things that motivate people to put more in, because they can get a reward.
“If you have excessive regulation, particularly in the labour market, it goes against the grain of where this country is headed.”
The ability to articulate where Australia’s headed is perhaps Sinodinos’ greatest strengths.
As a communicator he espouses the Coalition’s policy positions as well as, if not better, than anyone in the party’s leadership. It’s a skill that comes from his political pedigree.
Sinodinos’ journey – from the relatively anonymous position of being John Howard’s chief economic adviser to a politician in his own right – positions him as a uniquely potent Coalition asset.
How does he compare the different responsibilities and challenges of the two roles?
“I’m not sure I’m more powerful as a politician than I was as a back room operator,” he says revealingly, though it is an analysis that is likely to change if Sinodinos finds himself promoted in a Coalition government.
“The reason I came back into politics was to make a difference and the way you do that is by being an active member of the party room, rather than as an adviser from the side.”
Making a difference, the ambition of every politician worth his or her salt, was for Sinodinos channelled to conservatism and the rights and responsibilities of the individual at an early age.
His political values and philosophies were particularly influenced by his mother, who related to him her experiences during the Greek Civil War.
“She went through this process of fratricidal conflict, people knocking on the door late at night to take away the senior people in the village,” says Sinodinos. The witnessing of such events, and her reaction to them, would resonate across the generations.
“She was quite a conservative person. My father was more middle of the road but I think I inherited from her more of her innate conservatism, particularly a concern about totalitarianism and authoritarianism in all its manifestations – whether from the left or the right.”
Was there a particular moment or event that galvanised his political thinking as a young man?
“There was no light bulb moment,” he says, before relating his reaction as a student to the Vietnam War as one example – seeing the conflict as a just cause and the fight against an oppressive regime.
“The fact of the matter is that the people on the other side were supporting an authoritarian totalitarian regime, and they went on to create a dictatorship that lasted 30 years. I wasn’t comfortable with that.”
Very proud of his heritage, he cites the Greek Orthodox Church as another major influence, particularly in relation to the idea of individual rights.
Does his migrant background give him a different reaction to issues like immigration policy and the current controversy around asylum seekers?
“My attitude has always been that we should be more generous than ungenerous when it comes to the scale of immigration, subject to the right sort of controls,” he says, though he defends the current level of Australia’s humanitarian program refugee intake.
“Our commitment is to maintain it around 13,500 per year. Until we’ve got everything under control and we’ve sent the right messages to people about border control, we’re mixing the messages if we’re expanding the quota.”
Sinodinos is keen to remind people that the Pacific Solution under John Howard not only significantly cut back boat arrivals but increased the number of refugees being resettled in Australia.
“Perhaps one of the less heralded aspects of the Howard era is that when we were bringing our borders under control we were also increasing our immigration program,” he says.
On another policy area away from his direct management, and close to his cultural roots, Sinodinos says one of the Coalition’s priorities will be to encourage a sustainable aged care system.
For Sinodinos – who has led the Opposition’s crusade to cut unnecessary bureaucracy in an effort to increase business productivity – similar reforms are needed in aged care.
“We’ve been very supportive of culturally and linguistically diverse care,” a cause which he says has been championed as much by the Coalition as Labor.
“You have to find ways to improve the financial sustainability of aged care, and we need more private sector capital.”
Sinodinos has often said that one thing John Howard taught him was that politics wasn’t worth a candle unless it involved fighting for something. I’m interested to hear how he feels he differs from John Howard in his political outlook.
“I’m a different generation to Howard,” he says. “I grew up during the period of, for want of a better description, ‘women’s liberation’. I was an early reader of The Female Eunuch.
“On issues to do with the role of women in society, we have to accept that there are structural barriers that have not been adequately addressed.
“We on the centre right, given that we believe in markets, the challenge for us is how do we tackle some of those women’s issues – like pay and equality – within the context of support for market forces.”
With Tony Abbott opening a way to promote Sinodinos, the Senator’s continued trajectory in Australian politics is guaranteed, but he’s giving nothing away.
Can we expect to see a change in your role, a new front-bench responsibility if the Coalition wins, I ask?
“All I can say is that’s a matter for Tony, but if your readers want to write in, they can do that,” says Sinodinos laughing.
“A lot of my background is in economic and financial policy, so if an opportunity came up I’d be keen to play a role in that space.”
Arthur Sinodinos’ star is once again in the ascendancy.