Features Australia

Is that a Cartier watch I hear ticking for Morrison?

L’affaire Holgate exposes our PM’s many weaknesses

1 May 2021

9:00 AM

1 May 2021

9:00 AM

The chief vice of capitalism, Churchill remarked, is the unequal sharing of blessings. To compensate, he added, socialism ensures an equal sharing of miseries. The bon mot is apposite for understanding the strange saga of Christine Holgate’s tenure as CEO of Australia Post. With an accomplished and stellar record, she should have been a star exhibit for a centre-right government committed to free enterprise, limited government, merit-based recruitment and performance-based rewards. Instead she’s become Exhibit A for everything that’s wrong with a prime minister without a single bone of liberal instinct, principle or conviction in his entire body politic. L’affaire Holgate is a metaphor for Scott Morrison’s many failings: tin ear, bullying, tendency to shoot from the lip, stubbornness in digging in when trapped in a hole rather than apologise early and move on, instinct for secretiveness instead of transparency and denial of the clear import of what he previously said. Any court action by Holgate will prolong and deepen the political damage to Morrison.

Leadership fuses vision, character, management and operational skills. Great leaders articulate an overarching vision for the community, set goals, establish standards of conduct, explain why these matter and inspire or coax people to adopt the agreed goals and benchmarks. They possess the elusive ability to make others connect emotionally and intellectually to a larger cause that transcends their immediate self-interest. Morrison fails to measure up on any one of the inspirational, aspirational and operational leadership traits: ‘more mid-level managerial than top job material’, says Janet Albrechtsen.

Morrison told parliament on 22 October he was ‘appalled and shocked’ that four Cartier watches were given to reward executives for landing a lucrative deal: ‘it did not pass the pub test’. He added that Holgate had been ‘instructed to stand aside and if she doesn’t wish to do that, Mr Speaker, she can go’. No presumption of innocence, no concession to due process, no waiting for facts to be established. The 2018 Australia Post board approved the plan to reward the executives within discretionary cost limits. Board chair John Stanhope signed the thank you cards and might have attended the presentation. The auditor approved the purchase and the subsequent investigation found no intentional fraud, dishonesty or spending misuse. Morrison now pretends her departure was all voluntary. Why do politicians believe it’s a good look to make utterances, even those that emerge from mouths that are off and running before the brain is engaged, that are technically true in a lawyerly sense but seen by the public at large as fibs?

Pub test, Prime Minister? Only in the bar reserved exclusively for privileged MPs disconnected from business best practice. As a taxpayer, I’d be happy to gift public service chiefs $5,000 Cartier watches for an additional $50 million revenue each for the federal budget. And save thousands of jobs in the process. What of the waste of public money with the ABC’s 28-strong in-house legal team, as well as the moral hazard of the taxpayer underwriting irresponsible, potentially defamatory journalism by the public broadcaster? Or the million dollars of public money to underwrite a private citizen’s dream to helm the OECD in Paris? Success means he must set aside his Australian identity and become a neutral international civil servant. Paying ten times the $3 million value for Western Sydney airport land? Ninety billion dollars of taxpayer money for a few jobs in Adelaide to build experimental submarines that will not be ready in my lifetime, against a threat that gets more real by the day – but it did save one seat in SA for the Libs. Or north of $40 billion for problematic F35 fighters? Unlike its 21st century technology, the submarines will be ancient, equivalent to asking the Americans to retrofit the F35 with propellers because we are besotted with Biggles. And oh, $750,000 to investigate the appropriateness of the $20,000 spent on watches and then hire consultants to get a replacement. Yet they claim to be better economic managers. God help us all.

I’m afraid Holgate has more credibility for her version of events than either Morrison or board chairman Lucio Di Bartolomeo. In sharp contrast to the evasions, dissembling and do-not-recalls of the Coate inquiry into Victoria’s hotel quarantine debacle, Holgate recalled facts, details and dates without notes in her ‘forensic’ Senate testimony on 13 April. Calm, composed and professional in her interview with Peta Credlin on Sky News on 14 April, she challenged Communications Minister Paul Fletcher to repeat his statements outside the protection of parliamentary privilege. Holgate’s former boss and business mentor Marcus Blackmore said her Senate performance, which he attended with his wife, was a lesson in ‘integrity, honesty, openness, and empathy for people who worked for her’. The unfortunate lapse into gender victimhood compounded the earlier error of writing a letter of resignation rather than stepping aside for the investigation. These are less consequential than Morrison throwing all Australian men under the bus full of gendered hand grenades and poisoning the male-female camaraderie of ‘wokeplace’ culture, as explained in the droll but brutal takedown by Rowan Dean (12 April). The optics of a female CEO being bullied by the PM who already has a ‘woman’ problem – female support for the government fell by a third from its 44 per cent level in the last quarter of 2020 –  would have conveyed that message to many Australians without Holgate ever having to mention the gender card even once. Would any private sector company get away with treating a woman CEO like this, a very public humiliation?

The gift of Cartier watches provided the pretext for the ‘political hit’ by Morrison, Holgate alleged, based on her conversation with board member and former Liberal party director Tony Nutt. The $1.3m Boston Consulting Group report recommended a $680m cost-cutting drive that would have closed 190 post offices and shed 8,000 jobs. Holgate believes her opposition to the report was key to her defenestration. This helps to explain why the union representing postal workers threw its weight behind Holgate. Imagine if Morrison had waited for the investigation, established these facts and wielded them to excoriate Labor for the disgraceful character assassination of a highly competent woman CEO who was generating revenue for the public purse and protecting thousands of jobs? Even now journalists worth the name should be shining the blowtorch on Labor for this.

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