What can a watch really be worth? Well, it turns out that if you’re the head of one of Australia’s largest government business enterprises, such as the Australia Post, rewarding four prominent executives with Cartier watches may cost up to $20,000 and even your job.
Startling consequences were revealed in a recent Senate estimate hearing, where the head of Australia Post- Christine Holgate- was discovered to have spent almost $20,000 in 2018 using company funds in gifting luxury Cartier watches to four executives at the company (Hurst, D., & Rachwani, M., 2020). Holgate justified her actions by claiming these watches were awarded to exceptional executives who had helped turn the company around and been instrumental in its development. Yet this justification was not persuasive enough for Australia Post’s Chair of the Board, Lucio Di Bartolomeo, who attempted to stand Holgate aside with an ambivalent phone call on October 22nd.
Holgate contested the matter of the phone call that sidelined her. She asserts that Bartolomeo asked her to take annual leave rather than stand down. Her lawyer has also emerged, claiming there are “no grounds for Ms Holgate to be stood down and ‘optics’ is not a legally-valid defence”, (Karp, P. ,2020). He insinuates the call was simply a panicked attempt by the board to distance themselves from their CEO, who is responsible for the bubble of bad press that now enwombs Australia Post resulting from this recent watch scandal. On November 2nd, Holgate released a statement which read “”I have offered today the Chairman and board of Australia Post, with great sadness, my resignation as Chief Executive with immediate effect. I am not seeking any financial compensation”, (Marsh, S., 2020). This was a shocking conclusion to this scandal labelled an “overreaction” by many.
The whole ordeal may come as a shock; some may even wonder what else has been swept under carpet these past months, especially in light of economic declines and the far-reaching impacts of COVID-19. Even the chairman of the Australia Post board was unaware of these questionable purchases, assuring the Australian Securities and Investments Commission “the then board was not asked to approve or note the purchase of those Cartier watches” (Doran, M., 2020).
Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media immediately demonised Holgate, depicting her as a financially irresponsible and overcompensated loony in charge of millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money. The dream scoop for a journo, this scandal stirred up a soup of anger from concerned taxpayers. But perhaps the key takeaway for Australians, is what this exorbitant spending by the cream of the crop in our corporate sector truly reveals about the values of our nation.
Do we allow the elite in our society too much power, with too little restrictions, and the ability to make decisions that may negatively affect too many lives? Australia is built upon capitalist values. Perhaps this watch scandal will elicit a dawning realisation that we should be keeping a closer eye on those who wield the greatest power in our society and lead the largest corporations in our nation. We must hold them accountable for their choices, as their actions or lack thereof may provide a poor precedent for leaders of other government affiliated organisations who are to represent the interests of the Australian people as well as their board members.
Perhaps Holgate was instantly condemned because of Australia Post’s history of corporate mismanagement. This scandal is not the first time Australia Post has been involved in a financial misconduct controversy. In 2017, the CEO of Australia Post at the time, Ahmed Fahour, quit after being exposed for receiving an exorbitant corporate salary of $5.6 million. Furthermore, it came to light at last week’s commission that the total sum of bonuses Holgate was awarded this year has amounted to $6,000,000 (Doran, M., 2020). Has this sensitive string of sky-high expenditure finally run out of spending spool?
Perhaps the optics of a government affiliated “commercial organisation”, which provides returns to the federal government and is a source of federal expenditure from taxpayer money, was ultimately too much. Perhaps these responses are due the fact she has been one of the few women in the industry prepared to reinvent businesses, their systems, and their people. A deciding factor that appears to be strangling her for her actions are the gender generalisations. As a woman she is not fiscally conservative or emotionless, but she is too assertive and ambitious- perhaps consequently judged to a greater extent than male counterparts.
Or perhaps the answer lies in the truth that we do not wish to admit our politicians jump on the bandwagon to save face. It’s easy to criticise from a crowd. From the Communications Minister to the Prime Minister, to even the Minister of Trade, many key Liberal front-benchers with impressive portfolios have all followed suit, labelling the spending on the Cartier watches as “completely unacceptable”. Scott Morrison, our Prime Minister claimed it would not “[pass] any test with the Australian public [as a] company that is owned by the government” (Hurst, D., & Rachwani, M., 2020). It therefore seems appropriate to ask why this hard-line corporate stance was not adhered to when the Australian National Audit Office found the Liberal New South Wales state government had paid almost 10 times the true value for a block of land for the Western Sydney Airport last month, accounting for $26.7 million more (Karp, P., 2020) than ANAO concluded would be a reasonable price? Oh, politics.
But perhaps nothing is more startling about these allegations than the response Holgate inspired in the Australia Post organisation. Employees have rallied around Holgate in a remarkable act of what can be described as nothing less than thankfulness. Posties and post office owners alike have proceeded to send $5 notes to the Prime Minister’s residence, hoping to cover total costs of the Cartier watches. The Licensed Post Offices Group CEO, Angela Cramp, claimed Holgate has been “the best CEO that Australia Post has ever had” (Curtis K., 2020) and endorsed this act of sending bank notes to support their CEO.
This overwhelming display of support can largely be attributed to Holgate’s hard-line attitude towards the big banks when implementing the new Bank@Post service. This service allows customers in both rural and metropolitan areas to access their bank account from their local post office, a lifeline for struggling post offices in regional areas.
The rarity of workers several rungs below in the Australia Post hierarchy having such admiration and loyalty for their CEO, only reflects the impressive fiscal, interpersonal and business management skills this female leader possesses. She is an individual who can deliver outcomes and is certainly a figure worth watching.
Curtis, K. (2020). ‘She saved us’: Post office owners back Christine Holgate. Retrieved 29 October 2020, from https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/she-saved-us-post-office-owners-back-christine-holgate-20201025-p568dh.html
Hurst, D., & Rachwani, M. (2020). Australia Post reveals luxury Cartier watches for senior managers actually cost $20K. Retrieved 29 October 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/oct/23/australia-post-investigation-may-cost-more-than-the-12000-spent-on-cartier-watches
Karp, P. (2020). Australia Post boss denies she voluntarily stood aside over $20,000 Cartier watches. Retrieved 29 October 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/oct/29/australia-post-boss-denies-she-voluntarily-stood-aside-over-20000-cartier-watches
Marsh, S (2020). ‘Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate resigns amid Cartier watch investigation.’ Retrieved 7 November 2020, from https://www.9news.com.au/national/australia-post-ceo-christine-holgate-resigns-amid-cartier-watch-investigation/2a79da1a-c455-4da7-a2ae-013a9b4928cf’
‘Optics’ of Cartier watch gifts has clock ticking on Holgate’s time at Australia Post. (2020). Retrieved 29 October 2020, from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-24/australia-post-cartier-watches-controversy-cultural-problems/12807110