Am I the only one who feels sorry for the property developer villain?

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Pity the property developer who is the subject of a pile-on.

Sydney-based mogul Tim Gurner suffered that fate last week when he made some audacious assertions at a property summit hosted by The Australian Financial Review. During a conversation panel at the event, he called for higher unemployment and implied workers had become lazy. He said the jobless rate needed to jump by 40 or 50 per cent and we “need to see pain in the economy”.

“We need to remind people that they work for the employer, not the other way around,” he said. “There’s been a systematic change where employees feel the employer is extremely lucky to have them, as opposed to the other way around.”

Gurner further remarked that productivity had been impacted because “people decided they didn’t really want to work so much any more through COVID. You know, tradies have definitely pulled back on productivity”.

The comments elicited strong eyebrow-raises among us serfs, went viral around the world, caused a social media pile-on and were condemned by unionists. They also caused me to wonder if this was a man who had ever had to juggle a deadline with a sick kid. I would put money on no.

(As an aside, the remarks must have been illicitly thrilling for the summit organisers, who might have struggled to render loan to value ratios and amortisation – the usual fodder of the forum – sexy enough to garner widespread publicity.)

The outrage cycle is one that has become wearily familiar. A public mea culpa is your only hope to quell the bloodlust.Credit: Matt Davidson

Forty-one-year-old Gurner is a rich-lister valued in 2022 at a smidge below $1 billion, and his comments very much had an entre-nous vibe. The AFR only published them as part of a transcript, way in the back of the paper.

But they were picked up on social media, causing sufficient interest and outrage to pique the attention of mainstream media outlets, including this masthead and the AFR itself. Then it attracted the attention of international media and even the ire of prominent US senator and capitalism critic, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who used them to highlight the obscenity of CEO pay.

Presto, Gurner made a scandal. After enduring 24 hours of solid social media abuse and, I’d wager, a robust backlash within his own circle (one imagines he is heavily reliant on the labour of the tradies whose work ethic he just trashed), Gurner backed down. He said the comments were “wrong” and he deeply regretted making them.

It was a full turnaround from just a few days previous, so who knows what Gurner really believes, but the outrage cycle is one that has become wearily familiar. A public mea culpa is your only hope to quell the bloodlust.

As I watched it play out, I found myself feeling sympathy for Gurner, who apparently shut down his social media accounts to make himself a smaller target.

Across the country in WA, Indigenous leader Marcia Langton also found herself at the centre of a media pile-on, as a result of off-the-cuff remarks she made in a small forum.

Langton was in Bunbury talking to people about the Voice to parliament, of which she was a key architect, when she made the remark that “every time the No case raises one of their arguments, if you start pulling it apart, you get down to base racism”. She continued: “I’m sorry to say it, but that’s where it lands, or just sheer stupidity.”

The comments were widely reported as Langton labelling all No voters racist, and much howling ensued. As she clarified to Nine newspapers’ chief political correspondent, David Crowe, Langton was trying to say that “the claims being made by the No case are based in racism and stupidity – and appeal to racism and stupidity”. She said the No campaign was trying to frighten voters into adopting “highly racist and stupid beliefs”.

Indigenous academic and author Marcia Langton addressed the Press Club on Wednesday.Credit: James Brickwood

Langton was put in the ridiculous position of having to deny that she, herself, was a racist, for simply identifying that the emperor is naked. It’s hardly revolutionary to mention racism in a debate over the plight of Australia’s Indigenous minority.

The pearl-clutching over Langton’s comments has been awe-inspiring, the best of it coming from the sections of the media who protest too much for a reason.

Some Australians are racist. Others may harbour prejudice or be open to emotive racist arguments. It’s safe to say such people would be easily persuaded by arguments which appeal to emotion and play on fears about Aboriginal people. Elsewhere in our papers this week, reporter Paul Sakkal revealed that is exactly what Advance, one of the No campaign bodies, is instructing its volunteers to do.

But Langton’s comments were undoubtedly unhelpful to the Yes case – it is perfectly reasonable for voters to have legitimate concerns about constitutional change, and the No campaign is within its rights to appeal to those doubts. This is made easier by the complexity of the proposal, and the fact no one knows yet what the Voice’s structure or composition would be.

And Gurner’s comments, while wrong and offensive, also held a kernel of truth – it is correct, for example, that employers of office workers have struggled to get their employees back in the building every day, so accustomed have professionals become to working from home.

This is frustrating for employers, and represents a quiet revolutionary shift for workers. No industrial action was required to win this great new flexibility. Just a pandemic.

There is no equivalence between Gurner and Langton, and in my view, the former’s comments were stupid and the latter’s were reasonable. But the reaction to both their comments, and the speed at which the furore they incited spun out of control and veered from context, was similar.

Conservatives love to lament that “you can’t say anything any more”, and while that is not true, it could be amended to “you can’t say anything any more without risking unintended and possibly life-ruining consequences”.

On the upside, this shame cycle, which will undoubtedly be repeated soon with a different set of players, allows us to know who public figures really are. On the downside, it might show us who we really are.

Jacqueline Maley is a senior writer and columnist.

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