The Boe Pahari scandal has wiped out two conservative dinosaurs and sent a clear signal that the days of business paying lip service to so-called “soft issues” like sexual harassment are over.
AMP chairman David Murray has been rolled by his own board over the scandal, and has departed along with his supporter, former Treasury head John Fraser. Pahari himself has been demoted back to AMP Capital’s infrastructure equity business.
Murray continues to insist that Pahari’s behaviour “was dealt with appropriately in 2017” and, in a snipe at his now former board colleagues, noted that its decision to promote Pahari was unanimous.
The view of pretty much everyone else — AMP staff, former AMP directors, investors, institutions and politicians on both sides — was that there was nothing appropriate about the elevation of Pahari.
That Alex Wade, a long time associate of CEO Francesco De Ferrari, was forced out recently amid sexual harassment allegations seem to confirm there was something deeply rotten in AMP’s corporate culture. Pahari’s bizarre decision to appoint himself head of the company’s “Inclusion and Diversity Council”, and today’s revelation that the company was hunting staff who had leaked emails, added to the sense that the board and senior management were totally out of touch.
Each wrong move and bad decision by AMP management in the saga has been chronicled by the Financial Review’s Michael Roddan, who pursued the story relentlessly.
Murray and his executive team had been backed in their intransigence by director John Fraser, whose own perverse contribution to the scandal was to boast that he would have two “mature” secretaries “always come with me to the social functions. And just stay within about a metre because things happen. You know, you can be accused of stuff”.
Murray’s attitude seemed to sum up the view of too many senior people in business, politics and the media that sexual harassment was a minor workplace issue, or even invented by women. In that world, men with a reputation for sexual harassment would be tolerated, even celebrated, as long as they performed professionally, with women left to devise avoidance strategies, share intelligence via whisper networks, and receiving little support from their employers — up to and including the High Court of Australia — if they complained.
Pahari’s promotion — even as the woman who complained about his behaviour, Julia Szlakowski, left the company — was a typical outcome in that world.
It’s noteworthy that political criticism of AMP came not merely from Labor but from Liberal MPs Tim Wilson and Jason Falinski.
For years, Murray and Fraser have been conservative favourites and go-to men. Murray, a climate denialist, was appointed by the Howard government to head the Future Fund from 2006 to 2012, then was appointed by Joe Hockey to conduct a financial services inquiry that failed to address continuing banking and financial services crime and misconduct. Kenneth Hayne’s royal commission had to address that, though Murray was a winner from that too, moving into AMP after chair Catherine Brenner was forced out in the wake of the scandals revealed by Hayne.
John Fraser, a protege of right-wing Treasury head and later Nationals senator John Stone, was brought back from UBS to be Tony Abbott’s treasury secretary from 2015 to 2018, Abbott having decided he felt too threatened by Martin Parkinson.
Even within conservative political circles, there is real distaste now for corporate tolerance of sexual harassment. The dinosaurs have been sent a clear message that they’ll receive no support for anything less than zero tolerance. Just look at Murray and Fraser.