Rapid departure limits damage to Abbott

Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Picture: ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Picture: ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN


When it came, it seemed the obvious answer to what had become a running sore for Tony Abbott. Inevitable even.

Yet throughout a bruising shrill debate in national politics on Wednesday, most of it conducted in the red chamber, where Arthur Sinodinos sits as a NSW senator, government frontbenchers from Abbott down had defended his character, pilloried his pursuers, and scoffed at the suggestion that a person of such obvious, unimpeachable integrity, could have acted wrongly.

Sinodinos himself, as a conscientious team member of the Abbott executive, and as a former top prime ministerial adviser, knew the political equation.

And shortly before question time, consistent with the signals transmitted, he gave his boss and chief protector, an out.

The two New South Welshmen met in Abbott's prime ministerial suite where Sinodinos indicated he would stand down for the duration of the ICAC inquiry process.

Arthur Sinodinos will stand aside as Assistant Treasurer. Picture: ANDREW MEARES

Arthur Sinodinos will stand aside as Assistant Treasurer. Picture: ANDREW MEARES

[Senator Arthur Sinodinos announced he would stand aside as Assistant Treasurer on Wednesday.]

Senator Arthur Sinodinos announced he would stand aside as Assistant Treasurer on Wednesday. Photo: Andrew Meares

What was said, we will never know for sure. But as Labor points out, you can call it what you like but actually it is a resignation. He's not on holidays or sabbatical. His ministerial commission has been ended. At least for now. Abbott has made it clear he can return, pointedly not filling his job but rather parking his portfolio responsibilities as Assistant Treasurer with the Finance Ministry.

Labor had bayed for his blood, yet tellingly its wiser heads had also stopped short of a direct demand that he resign over questionable pre-parliamentary business dealings.

Not so much conflicted loyalties as a case of both parties having skin in the tawdry game of fraudulent misappropriation - where nefarious NSW figures all too familiar to a weary electorate have had their snouts in the public trough.

Labor's leader in the House of Representatives, Tony Burke, used a national radio interview on Wednesday morning to set the tone, pushing hard for the head of the minister. Abbott's hypocrisy at relying on a defence for Sinodinos that the matters before ICAC were pre-parliamentary, before he entered the Senate in late 2011, was too much.

Yet Burke hesitated himself to fully close his argument. In his mind was the exact and recent precedent in which an MP's crimes, which had pre-dated his election, had been brutally and relentlessly prosecuted in the Parliament. Clearly Burke had no stomach to run what one insider admitted would have been "the Craig Thomson defence".

Who knows if Abbott, perhaps through his uber-influential chief of staff, Peta Credlin, offered advice to Sinodinos - go now and you can come back. Was he assured of a speedy and painless return once the ICAC inquiries had done their thing and cleared his name?

The damage to the Abbott government from this affair is so far superficial. Few outside of NSW and beyond the corridors of power would have even heard his name before.

And Abbott did his best to ensure his reputation was protected, praising his minister's decision to stand aside as another example of his exemplary character.

Yet Labor also has a scalp - a top-shelf Liberal insider with impeccable conservative connections.

And this story has a way to run yet in ICAC and in the Parliament.