It’s not hard to feel a measure of sympathy for Christine Holgate, who in the last six months has transitioned from sacked-in-disgrace Australia Post CEO to star recruit for the women’s movement that blossomed after the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins.
Holgate was ousted from her position after Victorian Labor Senator Kimberly Kitching asked questions in a Senate estimates hearing about $20,000 spent on Cartier watches for four senior AusPost executives in 2018. Scott Morrison promptly sacked Holgate.
Let’s be clear: Holgate did no wrong. Australia Post may be owned by the Australian Government, but these days it operates in the marketplace on commercial principles. The taxpayer is much better off for the corporatisation of AusPost. Taxpayer subsidies have ended, and profits earned by efficient operation come back to the public coffers as dividends.
Rewarding good performance by senior employees with bonuses or other non-cash benefits is common practice in Corporate Australia. By the standards of large corporations, the four AusPost executives earned those watches. Corporations that don’t recognise superlative performance by their staff risk losing them to other corporations.
From this perspective, the Prime Minister did not cover himself in glory by moving so swiftly against the beleaguered AusPost CEO. But the Federal Opposition has nothing to be proud of either.
Let’s do a hypothetical. Let’s imagine that, instead of sacking Holgate, Scott Morrison had defended her and supported her decision to gift the watches to the executives. Do we imagine that ALP politicians in that scenario would have clapped him on the back, congratulating him for upholding the values of the marketplace?
Of course they wouldn’t. They would have ridiculed and castigated the government for wasting money on gold watches when householders are struggling to meet mortgage repayments. Morrison’s attack on Holgate, just an hour or so after the revelations in the estimates committee, was a tactical move designed to suck the oxygen out of what would otherwise have been a major ALP attack on government wastefulness.
On the day she was sacked, Christine Holgate had no champions in the Federal Opposition. The postal workers union – an affiliate of the Labor Party – welcomed her sacking. While Senator Kitching later defended her questions about the watches by saying she was upholding “accountability and transparency”, on the day itself her questions had been dripping with disapproval. This, for example: “Do you, Ms Holgate, consider it appropriate to use taxpayers’ money to buy Cartier watches for already highly remunerated Australia Post executives?”
So the spectacle of Ms Holgate being lionised by Labor and crossbench MPs when she returned to the Senate committee last week was rich in irony. As one commentator put it, Senator Kitching had transformed herself from Holgate’s assassin to her supporter.
Would this stunning turnaround have occurred if Holgate had been a man? I doubt it. The temptation to use her in the current narrative about Morrison’s insensitivity towards women was just too great. The hypocrisy of all this was but a minor inconvenience.