Senator Arthur Sinodinos 62, left his role as Federal Government cabinet minister after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in December 2017. After recovering thanks to a bone marrow transplant, his return to Parliament in August 2018 coincided with Scott Morrison replacing Malcom Turnbull as Prime Minister.
After spending the following months helping to engineer a surprise Coalition victory over Labor in the Federal election earlier this month, Senator Sinodinos will head to Washington in February next year.
The Greek Australian veteran politician revealed his decision to take up the role in the US was about maintaining his health.
“Having had cancer and having gone through it I thought it was time to turn the page and take up a new opportunity,” Sinodinos said speaking to Neos Kosmos soon after news broke regarding his new appointment.
“Obviously I like politics, I wouldn’t be in it if I didn’t like it. But I thought this was a good opportunity to, as a family regroup, after the difficulty of the last few years and we go from there. I am honoured to have the opportunity to potentially serve in this position and I will do my best.”
The challenges of diplomacy in the United States
US President Donald Trump is not the most conventional politician and his international diplomacy can sometimes be unpredictable but Senator Sinodinos is confident he can manage this relationship.
“I think we should respect the American political process as we would expect them to respect ours,” he said. “So the important thing is to establish rapport and good relationships with this or any administration and use these relationships to the benefit of Australia’s national interests.”
Over the years Australia has built strong political ties with the US such as the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement in 2005, and support for their military involvement in Iraq.
But in recent times that relationship has strained due to a heated phone call between the President Trump and then prime minister Turnbull over a refugee swap deal.
Most recently the US President has not been happy with Australia’s role with the Mueller investigation and Sinodinos was being tight lipped about how he would approach those matters.
“I’m not going to comment on particular issues. I don’t take up my post to early next year so I’ll leave those matters to others,” he said.
But when Senator Sinodinos does take over as US Ambassador one of the key policy priorities facing Australia is for the US to avoid a trade war between China, which could harm the economy. But Sinodinos said those kinds of discussions with the Trump Administration will have to wait.
“These are issues that we can work out down the track,” he said. “The important thing to remember is that we are strong allies with a lot in common and there are some great things to build on and it’s important for us to have a strong voice in Washington.”
What will Sinodinos’ Ambassadorship mean for the Greek Community?
With key Liberal Party power-broker and strategist Senator Sinodinos leaving the Senate to replace Joe Hockey as US Ambassador early next year, what will his absence mean for the Greek Australian community?
Senator Sinodinos’ influence in the Liberal Party led to Prime Ministers John Howard through to Morrison pledging their support to a number of issues that affected the Greek Australian community.
With Sinodinos leaving, many fear that a powerful influence has been lost. However, the Greek Australian Senator revealed that even though he will be absent from the corridors of power in Australia, he will still be supporting the Hellenic cause.
“I’m not going yet, I’m not going till the end of the year, but I’ll miss being part of the Greek community,” he said. “I’ll be helping where I can, and even from abroad if I can help obviously I will.”
In terms of who will now be lobbying for the Greek community Senator Sinodinos encouraged more Greek Australians to come into the parliament. He also pointed to Fiona Barbouttis-Martin, the new member of Sydney electorate Reid, who is the daughter of former Panhellenic (Sydney Olympic) and Socceroos footballer George Barbouttis – as someone who could take up the mantle.
“I think Fiona will grow into that role but at the moment she will have to establish herself strongly in the seat of Reid because it is a key seat,” he said. “She is one to look out for in the future and one who could help with Greek Australian issues. But in the meantime I can get some of my Senate colleagues to help with all of that because there are a number of my colleagues who are supportive of the Greek community.”
Senator Sinodinos also empowered Greek Australian leaders to lobby the Federal Government on issues affecting the Hellenic community by taking a unified approach.
“In the 90’s and early 2000’s I remember the Greek community used to put together a day of lobbying in Canberra,” he said. “They would actually bring Greeks from various electorates and they would lobby their local members on matters of interest to the Greek community. That’s important so is encouraging or inviting local members of Parliament to come to Greek community functions, get to know them, put them at ease. A lot of these relationships already exist but they can always be taken to the next level. Also making sure that the Greek Orthodox Church also plays its role in the broader lobbying effort.”
Looking back on his time on Australian politics, Senator Sinodinos is proud that his efforts have had a positive impact on Greek Australians.
“Early on when I worked in the Howard Government we pushed for a social security agreement with Greece that came to fruition in 2007,” he said.
“I was gratified that the arrangement of social security between Australia and Greece made clearer the terms where you could take your pension to Greece for example.
“In more recent times the money we have given in the last two campaigns towards the expansion of the Greek Cultural Centre in Melbourne that Bill Papastergiadis and his committee are responsible for and that I regard as an important thing to have pursued.
“We have also had working holiday arrangements with Greece established and clarified which has been good. When it comes to issues that have been divisive in Greece around the whole issue of Greece and the FYROM we have been keen for Australia to have understood some of the sensitivities of the issue, particularly for Greece and Australia took an appropriately diplomatic approach to the subject.”
A man who did not come from the ‘top end of town’
With Senator Sinodinos set to take on the most important Australian ambassadorship in the world, he took time to reflect on how from humble beginnings he rose to be one of the most powerful figures in the Liberal Party.
“We didn’t come from the top end of town,” he said.
“My father was a merchant mariner and my mum who while she worked for a little while, was stay at home mum for most of her life. Australia has given us a great opportunity. From going to Canberra and becoming an economist there when I finished university and that was a big opportunity. Later, working for John Howard and off the back of that I got an opportunity to go into the Senate to be a Member of Parliament which is a great privilege. I was then Assistant Treasurer, Secretary of the Cabinet and also Minister for industry, innovation and science. I’m proud of what we are doing to promote Australian industry and scientific development.”
Sinodinos: The Liberal Party thanks Bill Shorten
Many in Australian politics have the view that Senator Sinodinos was a key figure behind the scenes and played a significant role in Morrison’s victory over former opposition Labor leader Bill Shorten in the Federal election.
However the veteran Greek Australian Politician denies he was directly responsible for the Coalition defeating Labor.
“99.9 per cent of the credit for this win goes to Scott Morrison because he campaigned very hard,” he said.
“My role was looking after a number of seats in NSW including Central Coast, the Hunter Valley and the South Coast. But from day one Scott Morrison got out there, he threw everything at this.
“Bill Shorten even though he was in the job for five and half years people still had reservation about him as the alternative Prime Minister. The campaign highlighted some of those reservations because of the way he handled or refused to handle some the questions about his policies. While we recognise Bill’s service to the country we also have to recognise his service to the Liberal party.”
Senator Sinodinos also believes where Labor went wrong was due to policies such as negative gearing.
“Labor were too quick to talk about the big end of town and that big end of town scooped up a lot of people who weren’t particularly well off or rich and I think that was a mistake,” he said.
“There were a lot of workers who have negatively geared property. There were a lot of people who don’t have big incomes who were relying on their franking credits for extra income.”
During the election campaign both Labor and Liberal pledged millions of dollars in support of the Hellenic community and Senator Sinodinos believes some seats in Victoria reflected the importance of the Greek vote
“It’s not clear which particular seat the Greek vote would’ve have been decisive in,” he said. “But there are seats like McNamara which was the old seat of Melbourne Port where I know our candidate Kate Ashmore was very focused on the Greek vote in that seat. Then you have other seats like Chisholm where the Greek vote continues to be a factor.”
The Greek Australian Senator added that the Liberal Party have been able to take advantage of Greek Australian’s upward mobility which he believes has led to many voters moving away from Labor.
“The history is that a lot of Greeks who came here who were working in factories and the like tended to be Labor voters as a general rule,” he said.
“But there are others who went into small business who had different views. As the generations change, as the kids of more migrants become more professionalised, you see that voting practices don’t necessarily echo those of their parents, they became more like the rest of the community.”
Furthermore Senator Sinodinos believes the Liberal Party must still continue to appeal to Greek Australian voters.
“We have to promote the values we stand for”, he said. “We stand for family, we stand for business and giving back to the community. These are all things that Greek Australians identify with quite closely. So I think it’s a matter of reiterating our key messages.”