PM should apologise to Holgate for his hasty actions

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was right to express regret for the way he treated former Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate, but the whole episode has raised serious questions for the government, the opposition and the media.

In October, an ALP senator used a Senate estimates hearing to question Ms Holgate over gifts of Cartier watches worth $19,950 to Australia Post executives. A few hours later in question time, Mr Morrison declared himself “appalled” by the waste of public money and announced Ms Holgate would be sacked if she did not stand aside pending an investigation. It is unclear why he reacted with such vitriol without even consulting her. It seems significant that the government was already under fire from the ALP about perks paid to other public servants at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

But it is now clear Mr Morrison was not reacting to facts when he launched his public attack on Ms Holgate. The government’s own investigation released in January confirmed she did nothing wrong, finding no evidence of “dishonesty, fraud, corruption or intentional misuse of Australia Post funds”.

The gift of watches had happened two years earlier and was a reward to executives for negotiating a multimillion-dollar deal that kept hundreds of local post offices open and saved thousands of jobs.

Ms Holgate had been authorised to make a gift of that value by the then chairman, although it is possible she did not say clearly that the reward would be in the form of luxury watches. The report said the gift was “inconsistent” with the obligation imposed by legislation on the Australia Post board relating to the proper use and management of public resources.

Claiming vindication, Ms Holgate used her appearance at another Senate inquiry this week to accuse Mr Morrison of humiliating her. She said she was the victim of bullying by the government and by current Australia Post chair Lucio Di Bartolomeo.

Mr Morrison now admits he “deeply hurt” Ms Holgate, but his comments were limited to his intemperate language rather than the demand for her to stand aside. The Age believes he should apologise for his failure to afford her natural justice, even though to do so could expose the government to legal action. It appears Ms Holgate has yet to finalise the terms of her resignation.

Mr Morrison’s behaviour will also fuel the ongoing criticism of the government for its response to allegations of sexism, bullying and harassment of women. The Prime Minister denied on Wednesday that he was motivated by “gender issues”, but he has now, in effect, admitted he lost his temper and shouted in a way that many people would find offensive.

Yet while he deserves plenty of criticism for his actions, it is worth pointing out the hypocrisy of the ALP, which is now championing Ms Holgate’s cause in the name of women’s rights. Only a few months ago Labor was leading the charge in attacking her “pampering” of well-paid public servants.

The final lesson from this saga is for the media and the Australian public, who are quick to attack perks, bonuses and high salaries for politicians and public servants. Too often these concerns are justified. But we need to remember that it is increasingly hard to attract highly qualified public servants and employees of government-owned corporations with appropriate financial or technical training if they are not remunerated in line with norms in the private sector.

Rather than forming a lynch mob every time a public servant’s salary is raised, the public and the media, including The Age, should consider what job they are doing and whether in the circumstances their remuneration represents value for money.

Note from the Editor

The Age’s editor, Gay Alcorn, writes an exclusive newsletter for subscribers on the week’s most important stories and issues. Sign up here to receive it every Friday.

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