24/11/2020 - 14:00

A little fancy, a lot of trouble

24/11/2020 - 14:00

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Australia still has a perception problem with luxury, no matter how wealthy we all are.

Bob Hawke’s beer-drinking escapades made him a cultural hero in Australia.

What is the common thread linking the opening of a new hospitality venue and the much-publicised resignation of a high-profile chief executive?

Both highlight the rise of luxury preferences in our community and the ongoing resistance to this change by some as a perceived threat to our egalitarian society.

The hospitality venue in question is Prendiville Group’s reimagining of the Rottnest Hotel’s accommodation element as Samphire, the launch of which I had the pleasure of attending as Business News’s self-appointed chief Rotto correspondent.

The high-profile CEO, of course, is Christine Holgate, who quit as the incredibly successful head of Australia Post after being treated like a political football because she rewarded some key executives with Cartier watches.

On the face of it, Samphire’s opening represents a successful push through the invisible barriers to exclusivity of a past Australian era when everyone was equally anti-intellectual, anti-high-culture and anti-wealth, and a prime minister was celebrated for his ability to skol a yard glass of beer.

By contrast, the new 82-room hotel on Thomson Bay makes no effort to disguise its focus on upmarket travellers. While not a gated community or overtly secure, it contrasts markedly with the heritage pub it adjoins, unofficially dubbed the Quokka Arms.

As much as admirers credit the hotel operator for the timing of the opening (in the midst of a pandemic-induced rush for local rooms), it is worth noting that it took as many as 12 years for the Prendiville Group to battle its way to this point.

All the way, detractors resisted this addition to the island’s options with claims that it simply served the rich.

And therein lies the issue. Many in Australia still have a problem with any ostentation or obvious enjoyment of wealth. They see it as promoting a ‘them and us’ class-riven society rather than simply a preference for those who have money, aspire to it, or simply want to live as though they do.

The irony is that most Australians are already among the world’s top 1 per cent in terms of wealth. We are the envy of much of the world when it comes to household wealth, holiday options, minimum pay, average salaries, health benefits, level of healthy births, and lifespan.

In a similar way that people in poorer nations would view flying to Bali in a Bintang singlet and thongs for a weekend on the beers as extravagant, those same Bali-goers see the wearing of an expensive watch as ostentatious.

Which brings me to Ms Holgate.

There is already plenty of angst about executive salaries in Australia. This fraught subject has made the envious among us all the more excitable, as demands for transparency have collided with the need to attract and retain the best talent.

It appears it was bad enough that Ms Holgate was paid well and travelled frequently for her job, racking up big airline and hotel bills, even though that ought to be unsurprising for a leader in a geographically spread business such as Australia Post.

But to reward key executives with board-approved luxury watches seems to have been a step too far for some. Detractors attacked, and those who should have defended a successful executive failed because of political optics.

There was no attempt to understand the success of the postal service in surviving the challenge of online communications. While I am no fan of government monopolies using their historic infrastructure to subsidise a service that competes with the private sector, it has to be understood that this is exactly what the politicians who represent its owners (the public) asked of Australia Post.

Ms Holgate had executed a strategy that made the post office safe from political attack, unlike many others around the world, with the risk that, heaven forbid, postage prices might increase to actual cost recovery.

I do have to wonder if Ms Holgate’s role in providing luxury watches as rewards was also adding a feminine touch to a major leadership role. 

Was that the fatal mistake? If she’d paid cash bonuses to her team, who had then splurged on French champagne, pre-COVID-19 holidays to Swiss ski resorts or new Ermenegildo Zegna suits, would that have been fine? 

It was the documentation of luxury goods that brought her undone.

Then again, Ms Holgate is a Brit, so perhaps she wasn’t to know such actions were (are still) un-Australian.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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