Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos has refused to appear before a Senate inquiry into the controversial Free Enterprise Foundation and similar fundraising bodies, slamming it as a “political stunt”.
But his refusal to appear has prompted questions about whether he is in contempt of the Senate.
Senator Sinodinos wrote to the committee conducting the inquiry on Wednesday night confirming his refusal to appear on Thursday, despite the Senate directing him to do so to answer questions. In the letter, obtained by Fairfax Media, Senator Sinodinos describes the direction for him to appear as “both unprecedented and objectionable”.
He argues it has never been Senate practice to order ministers to appear before an inquiry.
“It would therefore be inappropriate for me, or any minister, to appear,” he wrote.
The letter raises the precedent of former Labor Senator Mark Arbib refusing to appear before a 2010 inquiry into the Rudd government’s Pink Batts program and argues he should be treated the same way.
However, in that case witnesses were not directed to appear by the Senate, but rather requested to appear by the committee conducting the inquiry, which could not compel their attendance.
The letter suggests that given its proximity to a federal election, the public might view the inquiry as “nothing but a political stunt and not a bona fide attempt to inquire into an important question of public policy”.
The inquiry was prompted by a NSW Electoral Commission statement last month that the Liberals used the Free Enterprise Foundation to “channel and disguise” donations, including from banned donors, before the 2011 NSW election.
The commission said it relied on evidence in 2014 to the NSW corruption watchdog by party officials and “through them” evidence of the “involvement” of finance committee members including Senator Sinodinos “in the arrangements touching the foundation”.
Senator Sinodinos chaired the NSW Liberal finance committee and was party treasurer at the time but has insisted he had no knowledge of the foundation being used to channel illegal donations.
In an unusual move, the Senate passed terms of reference specifically directing Senator Sinodinos “to appear before the committee to answer questions”.
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, an inquiry member, said Senator Sinodinos’ refusal to appear had “increased the web of intrigue around his political donation activities”.
“With the NSW Liberals already under a cloud over past political donation scams, it is not a good look that possibly the closest confidant of the Prime Minister refuses a Senate directive to appear and give evidence,” she said.
“What the committee now needs to explore is whether Senator Sinodinos is in contempt of the Senate, considering there was a clear direction passed by a majority of Senators directing him to appear.”
The NSW Electoral Commission has withheld $4.4 million in public funding from the NSW Liberals until the party formally discloses who donated $693,000 to it via the Free Enterprise Foundation before the 2011 election. The NSW Liberals have submitted a draft amended disclosure, but the commission has yet to publicly respond.