"Would you say there is a culture problem in the public sector under your watch?" Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked during a press conference on Friday afternoon.
Journalists across the spectrum have jumped on Thursday's revelations from Senate estimates that four Australia Post executives were given $3000 Cartier watches for doing a good job, in addition to millions of dollars also paid out in bonuses during COVID-19.
This was followed by the discovery that Australian Securities and Investments Commission chair and deputy chair, James Shipton and Daniel Crennan respectively, are being investigated over whether they received improper payments. These included $118,000 in ASIC funds for Shipton's personal tax advice.
They certainly don't meet the pub test, as politicians have fallen over themselves to tell us.
But back to the question posed to Mr Morrison, a culture problem in the public sector? Surely you jest? Any public servant tuning in could be forgiven for feeling a little aggrieved that the alleged misdeeds of these highly paid executives were being used to tar the entire public service. For his part, Mr Morrison responded with an emphatic "No" to the question.
There are APS fours and fives across the nation that go to work and do an excellent job and could only ever dream of being given a Cartier watch. At most they'll get a Christmas party, which they'll probably have to contribute financially towards. And this year they likely won't even get that thanks to the pandemic.
The headlines that flash across television screens and adorn newspapers when these stories come to light typically anger the general public at what they perceive as public sector largesse. And rightfully so. But these broad brush strokes lack the nuance to call these serious improprieties out without tarring what is, on the whole, a hard-working and distinctly non-flashy workforce.
In these two particular examples, the alleged villains aren't even really public servants, at least not traditional ones. Australia Post is a government business enterprise which, while accountable to government, still operates as a corporation. Its chief executive, Christine Holgate, who has stepped aside as an investigation is completed, earns more than $2 million per year. The eyes of even the most handsomely remunerated department secretaries would water at that figure.
James Shipton is a statutory office holder for an organisation that, since 2018, is no longer required to employ people under the Public Service Act.
These executives exist in the murky corporate/public sector grey area, which warrants a closer look. The Prime Minister certainly seemed to think so saying, "There wouldn't be a board member or a CEO of a government agency that didn't get my message yesterday, I think they got it with a rocket."
Let's just ensure we aim the outrage at these executives rather than the public servants whose wrists remain distinctly free of Cartier bling.