In 1908, a rally in London’s Hyde Park attracted more than 300,000 protesters all determined to achieve their goal of votes for women.
Dressed in white to symbolise purity with coloured sashes of purple to reflect loyalty to the cause and golden yellow to symbolise hope, the Women’s Sunday protest is thought to be the largest demonstration to have ever been held in London at the time.
More than 100 years later, former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate wore white to front a Senate inquiry partly investigating her departure from the business.
She resigned in November last year after a Senate estimates hearing revealed she had used Australia Post money to buy four Cartier watches worth $20,000 as gifts for executives after securing the Bank@Post deal.
Holgate maintains that she did no wrong by gifting the watches and was unfairly forced out of her role by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and chairman Lucio Di Bartolomeo.
The Bank@Post agreement, which allows customers to do their banking at their post offices, was considered to have significantly helped regional licensed post offices.
What’s the significance of white?
Holgate’s decision to wear white on Tuesday was a calculated move. A campaign organised by Licensed Post Offices Group has been encouraging Holgate’s supporters to wear white as part of the #WearWhite2Unite movement, to support an end to workplace bullying and encourage people not to look away when they see it.
The colour white draws on the history of the suffragists, who used the colour as an accessible way for anyone from any background to join the cause of supporting women.
Licensed post offices make up around two-thirds of Australia’s postal outlet network and are run as franchises. The Licensed Post Office Group (LPOG), which represents franchise owners, has been vocal in its support of Holgate.
The executive director of LPOG, Angela Cramp, told Today that the group does not accept Holgate’s treatment and they believe she was bullied out of her job.
"We've been in denial since it began because we know how fantastic she is. She is a once in a lifetime leader and we had to do something about this,” Cramp said while wearing white on the show.
The movement has a stated goal of stamping out workplace bullying and harassment.
“We are inviting men and women to unite to support an end to workplace bullying and encourage those around them not to look away. Bad things happen when good people do nothing,” #WearWhite2Unite said.
“As the [suffragist] movement spread, wearing white became an accessible way for anyone to join the cause. By making a colour rather than a specific garment their key identifier, the suffragettes created a democratized uniform, meaning women of any race or economic status could afford to dress the part.”
Holgate herself confirmed the significance of the white jacket, telling LinkedIn that she would be wearing white to the hearing.
It’s a colour Brittany Higgins wore during the March4Justice demonstrations in March, and also one that US Vice President Kamala Harris wore during her victory speech after becoming the first woman to be elected to her position.
Holgate’s departure a gender-based attack
Holgate on Tuesday claimed her treatment following the watch scandal was partly due to her gender.
“It would be fair to say I’ve never seen a media article comment about a male politician’s watch and yet I was depicted as a prostitute for making those comments, humiliated,” she said.
“I have never seen any male public servant depicted in that way. So do I believe it’s partially a gender issue? You’re absolutely right I do. But do I believe the real problem here is bullying and harassment and abuse of power? You’re absolutely right I do.”
She said she had been humiliated by Morrison and bullied and harassed by Di Bartolomeo.
Holgate now wants Australia Post to release the inbound and outbound phone records surrounding her departure, which she claims will prove she never agreed to stand down and was instead forced out by Morrison.
However, Di Bartolomeo says the phone records will support his “recollection” that Holgate voluntarily stood aside while the gift watches were investigated.
Di Bartolomeo said that while Holgate had been “treated abysmally”, the Australia Post board did the right thing by her and did not owe her an apology.
"While the board understood her rationale, I wanted to be clear that neither I, nor the board sought or encouraged Christine’s resignation," he said.
"The events that Christine referred to was not so much the purchase of the four watches as a reward for executives who had secured a valued Bank@Post deal, a deal that would prove highly [important] for the long term viability of many [licensees].
“Rather it was the increasingly acute public scrutiny, including media focus and commentary from right across the community spectrum that developed on the back of the estimates appearance and showed no signs of diminishing."
The investigation into the watches by Maddocks Lawyers, commissioned by the Government, found that the board did not approve the purchase of the watches, but there was no “dishonesty, fraud corruption or intentional misuse of Australia Post funds”.
However, it also found that the gifts were inconsistent with the “proper use” of public resources.
Scott Morrison responds
Morrison said he didn't intend to upset Holgate and that wasn't something he "would have liked to see happen", in an interview with the West Australian's Live podcast.
"That day in parliament was quite a heated day. The Labor party was calling for her resignation. Parliament can get pretty willing. I gave a strong response," he said.
"The suggestion was we endorsed handing out Cartier watches to people already paid very well. My language was very strong. I see that has caused some strong reaction from Christine and hurt her deeply.
"That wasn’t my intention – and I regret that. But the issue is how taxpayer funds were used in a Government-owned company."
He rejected Holgate's assertion that it was a gender issue, saying the issue was about the misuse of taxpayer money.
"If you’re running a government-owned business, it is taxpayers’ money."
The Senate inquiry will continue next week.