Scott Morrison – How Christine Holgate changed the narrative on Scott Morrison
Few Friends on either side of Parliament
The reality is Holgate had few friends on either side of the Parliament last year as she became engulfed in a political and media frenzy.
Weighing in on October 30, Albanese she had “done the wrong thing” and he supported her “paying a price.” When Holgate fell on her sword days later, he said: “I think it’s perfectly reasonable that Christine Holgate resign.”
Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching, whose line of questioning in Senate estimates on October 22 prompted Holgate to disclose Cartier gifts, condemned the business “elite” who had come to Holgate’s defence in an opinion piece for the Herald Sun in November.
“The bizarre spectacle of one pampered poodle after another defending the right of a multimillion-dollar salaried public servant using public money to buy luxury watches as personal gifts for her favoured staff is one that defies credulity,” she wrote.
As public opinion consolidated this week around the view that a top female executive had been dispatched without due process, the Morrison government tried to sheet home blame to Labor.
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, who stood accused of pressuring Di Bartolomeo into standing Holgate down, accused Kitching of orchestrating a political ambush.
“What it was about was a political hit job carried out by Labor Senator Kitching, who asked this question in estimates. There were other ways to handle it if she had that information and she wanted to raise it with a view to resolving it rather than achieving a political hit,” Fletcher said on Sky News.
Kitching, who also welcomed Holgate’s resignation at the time, rejects the suggestion that she loaded the gun.
“The truth of it is that Scott Morrison panicked as he often does, and prioritised politics and was willing to act rashly in order to avoid defending an undoubtedly embarrassing decision by a senior executive working for his government,” she says.
Morrison said his sharp criticism of Holgate in question time had been prompted by Labor’s demands for government action , falsely claiming they had called for her resignation that day.
“I remind everybody that was the context of those discussions in the Parliament,” he told reporters.
Scrambling to adjust to shifting political winds, Albanese said Morrison had effectively sacked her on the floor of the Parliament. “No one wrote Scott Morrison’s script for him in question time,” he said.
‘Nothing to do with gender’
Morrison is adamant gender had nothing to do with his reaction to the Cartier watches revelations, and dispatched ministers to corroborate this point.
“This was about taxpayer organisations handing out Cartier watches to well-paid executives. This has nothing to do with gender,” he this week.
In a now-infamous spray in question time on October 22, Morrison fulminated that he was appalled by Holgate’s actions and called for her to quit if she refused to stand aside for an investigation.
At the time, the government was battling questions about the misuse of taxpayer funds. It was under pressure to explain why it had paid $30 million for a parcel of land worth just $3 million at Leppington, next to the Western Sydney airport. With the ghost of the $100 million sports rorts scandal still lingering, the drumbeat for a robust federal corruption body was getting louder. Holgate herself had been in the news headlines for racking up $300,000 in expenses on the company’s CEO credit card and splurging $3,000 a day on reputation manager at the height of pandemic amid complaints about delivery delays. It was into this mix that the Cartier watches landed.
Holgate described Morrison’s flaying of her this week as “one of the worst acts of bullying I’ve ever witnessed.” Morrison refused her appeal for an apology, saying he regretted the distress his “strong language” caused her, but not the language itself.
Superannuation Minister Jane Hume said the issue – fiscal accountability inside government agencies – was “not at all gendered” and the high-pressure business world required a tough hide.
“You know there are a number of strong women in senior leadership positions, whether they’ve been in government or whether they be in business, that have to show a certain level of toughness. Now, I’m not entirely sure whether bullying and harassment is the right way to describe it,” she said in an interview with Sky News.
The timing of the Senate inquiry, which was set up to scrutinise Holgate’s controversial exit, could not have been worse for the Prime Minister. Her testimony, framed through a gendered lens, took on a new potency in light of the recent scandals that have beleaguered the government since her departure from Australia Post.
Most serious were the alleged rape of Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins by a colleague and the historical rape allegation levelled against cabinet minister Christian Porter, which he vehemently denies. The toxic culture of Parliament House, and the right for women to be respected in the workplace became a national talking point, as the behaviour of MPs and staffers came under scrutiny. Backbencher Andrew Laming was forced to take leave and undergo “empathy training” after he was accused of photographing a woman while she was bending over at a store in Brisbane, and harassing two other women in his electorate. Morrison vowed to get his “house in order” as a long-time Liberal staffer was shown the door after a video surfaced purportedly showing him masturbating on the desk of a female Liberal MP.
Against this backdrop, Holgate called out a double standard.
“He has people in his cabinet, he has members of parliament, who are being accused of the most terrible atrocities to women … and they’re allowed to stand and still remain in their jobs and represent our country. I was forced to stand down,” Holgate she told the inquiry.
Labor capitalised on Holgate’s comments to pile pressure on Morrison.
“Christine Holgate, I think today the most powerful thing that she did was to point out the hypocrisy of Scott Morrison in demanding she go during question time and at the same time he’s hanging on to Andrew Laming,” Albanese told reporters.
‘The privatisation plot’
Holgate also raised the spectre that her opposition to a BCG review, commissioned by the Coalition in 2019, was at play in her demise. She provided the inquiry with extracts of a confidential report, which explored options for privatisation of the parcels business as well as other cost-cutting measures such as closing up to 190 post offices, and implementing a permanent alternate day letter delivery model.
Holgate said the recommendations, if implemented, would have seen thousands of jobs cut across Australia Post.
“I objected rigorously to the BCG recommendations, and I still do. It is completely the wrong strategy for Australia Post to its customers, to the teams and to the communities,” she told the inquiry
Her comments forced Fletcher to rule out a privatisation agenda this week.
“Australia Post is a government business enterprise, 100 per cent owned by the government. That will not change,” he said.
The inquiry has been extended beyond its initial reporting date of April 30 and it is possible Holgate may be recalled for further evidence.
But her appearance this week – pitched as a transformation from felled woman to crusader – will linger in public memories long after the political bickering is over.
“I didn’t need to sit and contemplate what those men did to me. I did it because I want to stop workplace bullying. I want to stop this ridiculous intimidation. They harassed me, and they thought they’d got away with it,” she told ABC’s 7.30 program.
Start your day informed
Our Morning Edition newsletter is a curated guide to the most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up to The Sydney Morning Herald’s newsletter here, The Age’s here, Brisbane Times’ here, and WAtoday’s here.
Lisa Visentin is a federal political reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, covering education and communications.