Features Australia

Dangerous liaisons

Flirting with disaster in the Wokeplace

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

‘I thought you gave up flirting with the servants ages ago,’ Prince Philip reportedly told his former daughter-in-law Sarah, Duchess of York, when she made a show of her intimacy with them by ostentatiously calling each by his or her first name.

Presumably, there’ll be no calling people by their first names in Australian workplaces — or should that be wokeplaces? — now that the federal government has agreed to all 55 recommendations made to it by the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work report.

In Anthony Trollope’s novel Can You Forgive Her? the widow Arabella Greenow explains to her niece Kate her doctrine on the subject of flirting, observing that ‘people have become so very virtuous, that they’re driven into all manner of abominable resources for amusement and occupation’ and that she thinks ‘a little flirting the very best thing’ for the young and indeed for the old.

Not anymore. The definition of serious misconduct in workplaces will change. If deemed unwanted, flirting and even just complimenting a colleague can be considered harassment and will be grounds for dismissal.

Senator Michaelia Cash also helpfully explained that one of the aims of the legislation was to change the way Australians speak about women and phrases like ‘don’t chuck like a girl’ would be chucked out — not like a girl but with the all force of a young Don Bradman.

The scope to lodge a complaint has been extended from six months to two years but those who remember an unwanted compliment, or were told they ‘chucked like a girl’ more than two years ago have not been forgotten. The enquiry recommended the establishment of a disclosure process for victims of historical workplace compliments ‘to have their experience heard and documented’, apparently because there is a ‘healing power’ in having one’s experience heard.

All workplaces will be covered including your house and garden if you employ anyone and all work events, such as office Christmas parties, although it is hard to imagine that celebrating Christmas is going to survive much longer in this Brave Woke World.

Among the recommendations is one that the new rules of jiggery-wokery should apply equally to judges and politicians. How unfortunate for the Prime Minister then, that hardly a day after genuflecting at the altar of Wokedom, it is he who has been accused of humiliating the recently departed CEO of Australia Post, Christine Holgate who says she was bullied into resigning by her chairman so that he could curry favour with the government.

Holgate aroused the ire of the PM when it was revealed in parliament that she had gifted four Cartier watches worth $20,000 in total to senior executives as a reward for squeezing $66m per annum out of three of the big four banks as a payment for allowing post offices to continue to provide banking services. In her defence, Ms Holgate said that they were the cheapest Cartier watches she could find and conceded that in future she might hand out Seiko watches instead.

For the righteous in the fourth estate, it should be noted that it was the media that Holgate accused of depicting her as a prostitute for the comments she made about the cost of her personal watch. Not since then Opposition leader Tony Abbott dared to look at his timepiece while Prime Minister Julia Gillard was expounding on the horrors of misogyny has a chronometer occasioned such an anguished cry of sexism.

On the face of it, Holgate’s treatment does seem unduly brutal. True, the average Australian is incensed to learn of the ‘Let them wear Cartier’ ethos of the AusPost boss, especially when it takes two to three days just to send a letter from one side of Sydney to the other. Better time-keeping with cheaper timepieces is in order. But AusPost is hardly the only government gravy train that benefits from government monopolies that allow it to extract lucrative rents and hand out lavish rewards. NBN Co., Snowy Hydro and the Future Fund have all been ladling out millions in bonuses during the pandemic while government mandates have sent small businesses to the wall.

Yet although her predecessor Ahmed Fahour was also indecorously elbowed out of his job by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, it was without a public tongue-lashing. Turnbull simply said that as the Prime Minister and a taxpayer, he thought that Fahour’s salary was too high — Fahour took the hint and announced that he would step down a few months later.

Nonetheless, it was Turnbull who has demonstrated how dangerous it is to flirt with colleagues. No allegation of office romance, however consensual, has gone unleaked to a censorious scribbler. Barnaby Joyce was denounced for falling in love with a staffer, although not until after he’d won a critical by-election. The same fate befell Jamie Briggs after he told an officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that she had beautiful eyes and gave her a goodnight peck on the cheek. The woman did not want the matter to go further but the Prime Minister did, although any suggestion that it was because Briggs was a supporter of Tony Abbott would be ridiculed by Turnbull who’d publicly said there are no factions in the Liberal party.

When Morrison declared that sexual harassment was not only unacceptable, it was ‘immoral and despicable and even criminal’ he admitted that it was not always clear what constituted harassment. Attempting to explain how Australians might navigate the minefield he is creating, he recounted how he was recently at a football game and overhead an older couple talking when the husband suddenly warned his wife, ‘We can’t say that anymore.’ Perhaps they were worried when they became aware that the Prime Minister was listening — you can’t be too cautious these days. Yet Morrison claims that this sort of censorship is what is required. He encouraged Australians to hold ‘positive’ discussions about how unconscious behaviour could lead to a ‘sense of hurt’ for women and observed that some people were not aware of ‘unconscious acts’ which led to a feeling of dismissal. Yes, Prime Minister. Perhaps it’s time for a ‘positive’ discussion, not just about the treatment of female CEOs, but the pitfalls of this latest woeful excursion into world of Woke.

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