LIVE: Ex Oz Post CEO Takes On PM, Brands Chairman A Liar
Christine Holgate, the former CEO of Australia Post, who claims she was unlawfully dismissed over the gifting of $20,000 worth of Cartier watches, fronted a Federal Parliament Senate inquiry today.
She says she was sacked unfairly, and that her chairman lied over her exit from the national mail carrier, which is widely used by CE retailers and distributors in Australia. Watch live here.
In her opening statement, Holgate said that what happened to her, she does not want to happen ever again to anybody, in any workplace, and that she only wanted the best for Australia Post. She said Lucio Di Bartolomeo, chair of Australia Post, bullied her and, at the direction of PM Scott Morrison, unlawfully stood her down from her position. Holgate appeared alongside Angela Cramp, Executive Director LPOGroup, and Taeressa Fawthrop, General Manager, Customer Services, at Australia Post – all appearing in a private capacity.
Holgate accused Di Bartolomeo of fabricating the evidence saying Holgate resigned, and said he lied about the future of Australia Post. “I was honoured to lead it, and I was devastated to be driven out of it,” she said.
“I have said consistently since October 22 that I have done nothing wrong,” she said, claiming she was “thrown under the bus” so the chairman could “curry favour with his political masters”.
“May the legacy of this Senate inquiry be that bullying, intimidation, and lying will never be tolerated,” she told the committee.
The committee chair, Greens Senator Sarah-Hanson Young, asked if Holgate believed she was stood down due to her objections to the privatisation of Aus Post.
“I do not know why the PM did what he did,” Holgate said, but insisted she was unlawfully stood down at the PM’s direction. She said the PM had never spoken to her.
Hanson-Young pointed out a “stark difference” in the PM’s treatment of Holgate compared to the “men behaving badly” in his own ranks. Holgate said she gave watches to people who made “incredible contributions” to Australia Post two years ago, and was treated very differently compared to Government ministers accused of severe misbehaviours towards woman.
Liberal Senator David Van asked if she stood by her previous statement that no taxpayer money was spent on the Cartier watches, and that Post was a commercial organisation; she insisted that the banks deal had saved post offices, but agreed that Post was a taxpayer-owned organisation. She says she was “hung” and “run over by a bus” for making an incorrect comment following a long Senate inquiry.
ALP Senator Kim Carr praised Holgate’s “distinguished public career” and “glowing CV”, and said she had been subjected to “grossly unfair treatment in terms of public abuse through the abuse of Parliamentary procedures”. He asked to what extent she thought her treatment was a question of gender versus politics.
Holgate said it would be fair to say she had never seen a media article commenting on a male politician’s watch, “and yet I was depicted as a prostitute”. She said the real problem was bullying, harassment, and abuse of power.
Carr suggested that her treatment was in part due to her objections to a report from Boston Consulting Group that could have seen up to 8000 job cuts, closure of 190 suburban post offices, and reductions in service delivery standards. He asked if she had at any point been able to express her view on the report.
“We are silenced, we are told very clearly that we are not allowed to speak on it,” she replied, and said questions on the report had been stopped at a previous hearing. “We should stop having secret reviews. Australia Post is an asset for all Australians.” She said the implications were worse than what Carr had suggested: 725 post offices are Post-owned, with thousands more belonging to “mums and dads”.
“They can’t force their closure easily, but if they take away their services, those post offices will go bankrupt,” said Holgate. “Those numbers are not inside this submission.” She said that “mum and dad” post offices would have to deal with debt that the government would not see. She accused the chairman, Di Bartolomeo, of “silencing her” and lying to Parliament.
“Why would you pay $1.3 million for a report that you just flicked through?” she asked.
Carr billed the BCG report as “a blueprint for the privatisation of Australia Post”, and Holgate agreed, saying its implementation would have had a “massive negative impact”. She said that Post achieved its targets year after year.
She also agreed that the report’s implementations would have led to changes in service delivery and industrial relations, and suggested posties should also deliver more parcels rather than outsourcing.
Carr suggested that the report was meant to permanently transform Post from a public agency into “something entirely different”. She said she had supported the regulated temporary relief during COVID, but that services should be brought back now.
Carr again asked if she thought her treatment was due to her objections to cuts and privatisation.
“It’s fair to say I wasn’t popular,” she said.
Under questioning by Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie, Holgate affirmed that the watches were within her authority to give, and that she could have given bonuses of up to $150,000 each. She said they were approved by the CFO, fully audited, and not in breach of any policy. “Everybody was very proud. It was a defining moment in our history, it was the largest capital investment into our company by an outside organisation,” she said, denying there had been any internal concerns.
McKenzie congratulated Holgate on the Bank at Post program and its positive impact on regional Australians without ready access to banks. She also swiped at ex-Post boss Ahmed Fahour, Holgate’s immediate predecessor, for not pursuing investment in rural and regional networks.
Holgate said that there was nothing to justify standing her down, given internal investigations found no wrongdoing. She was asked what it would take to come back as CEO of Australia Post, and said she loved Post but could not work for a Chair who “lies in the Senate and does not have integrity”.
“The Chair would have to go,” she told McKenzie.
One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson asked if Holgate still considered herself CEO. She said her contract had never been resolved, and that her LinkedIn profile still described her as CEO. Hanson asked her about her letter of resignation. She said that in her contract, it said any variation required both parties to sign it. She was asked if she had released her statement around her resignation to the media, and she denied it.
She said she attached her statement to the letter of resignation for discussion, to show the Board what she would say publicly.
Hanson put to Holgate that because the letter of resignation had not been signed by both Holgate and the Board, she was by law still CEO of Australia Post; she agreed. Hanson asked about assertions by Di Bartolomeo that Holgate had agreed to stand down.
“I have never agreed to stand down,” said Holgate, and suggested Telstra be asked for her phone records to show there was no phone call on October 22 in which she did.
“I’ve never heard so much nonsense in all my career,” she said of the notion that she had been convinced to stand down by Di Bartolomeo in the span of 33 seconds. She asserted that she had been looking to take two weeks of annual leave, and that Post non-executive director Tony Nutt had been helping her draft a statement around her leave. She said she did not believe a Board meeting had taken place at the time.
“Either Tony Nutt was misleading me… or there was no Board meeting,” she said.
Hanson asked Holgate if it was true that the Board was not required to approve the Cartier watches, and she agreed. “It would mean that the CEO has no power to do their job,” she said. Hanson pointed out that ex-Chair John Stanhope had in fact known about the watches and signed at least one of the congratulation cards for the employees.
Holgate also agreed with Hanson that allegations around $7000-8000 worth of plants had nothing to do with her. Hanson pointed out that Holgate’s salary of around $1.5 million was much less than Fahour’s old salary of $4.4 million plus bonuses.
Holgate said she had begged for a meeting with various ministers including Comms Minister Paul Fletcher and Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, which never happened, and that her “rambling” emails were due to her being suicidal at the time.
“I honoured everything they asked me to do. I just wanted to be treated with respect,” she said. She described as “soul-destroying” that her letter to the Board had been leaked, and that the Board had put out its own statement.
Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching asked Angela Cramp how many $5 notes had been sent to the PM by LPO owners to “pay for” the Cartier watches in protest against Holgate’s exit, and Cramp said thousands. Holgate identified Fletcher as the “political master” Di Bartolomeo was “currying favour” with. She said she believed Fletcher had known about the watches at least on the day of the Senate Estimates hearing.
Kitching asked if Holgate believed the Board was not independent, and Holgate said yes. She said only one person on the Board – Jan West – had been appointed independently, with every other member having been appointed by the Government; as Kitching asked about this, she said many of the Board members had personal connections to the Liberal and National Parties, or various minisgters including Paul Fletcher and (at the time) Mathias Cormann.
Kitching asked if decisions were made that weren’t in the best interest of Post due to the Board members’ relationships, and Holgate identified two: first, her own standing-down, which was allegedly described to her by Nutt as “at the direction of the Prime Minister”, though she said he was “more balanced” than other political appointees; secondly, she said incentives for managers and the executive team were not paid under the direction of the Government, as Fletcher was concerned comments would be made by Senators including Hanson if they were paid.
Holgate said that Di Bartolomeo told her the night before a Board meeting that incentives would not be paid, and that these incentives would be dependent on obtaining regulatory COVID relief; this had not been outlined to her at the start of the financial year, she said. She alleged that Di Bartolomeo had taken marching orders from Ministers Fletcher and Cormann regarding incentives, then misled the Board.
Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson asked Holgate how she had felt about pointed questions Kitching had previously asked her at Senate Estimates regarding the Cartier watches, saying that Kitching had included “derogatory inferences”, and asking if she thought they were appropriate and fair. Holgate said she had not considered this, and did not think they were an attempt to undermine her or imply wrongdoing.
Under questioning from Henderson, she said thousands of people at Post knew about the watches. She said that the COVID relief had enabled Post to serve people during the pandemic lockdowns, particularly in Victoria. “It was critical at the time, it was absolutely critical for us to be able to operate,” she said.
Queensland LNP Senator Matt Canavan asked Holgate if she believed it would be in the best interests of Post for Di Bartolomeo to resign, and she said she does. “You cannot have a Chair who misleads executives, misleads Ministers, and misleads the Board,” she said. She accused Di Bartolomeo of continuing to lie and mislead Parliament and the country. Canavan asked if his continuing role was causing harm or division at Australia Post, and Holgate said her own personal support was overwhelming in the organisation and among the unions; she said this was evidence of the division within Post. “Our employees were turning up at my house… they created a barricade in our road to stop people from getting to me,” she said. She insisted that Di Bartolomeo had to go – not because of her, but because he had lied.
Fawthrop added that she believed in her personal capacity that Di Bartolomeo was not good for Post.
Canavan put to Holgate that the Chair said he had not imposed any conditions on her surrounding her exit or post-employment. She said they had not waived anything, and had attempted to make a deal with her in exchange for her not launching legal action. She added that Post’s Board’s lawyers would have known that under Fair Work, if someone was on sick leave – which she was, at the time – they had an obligation of duty to test offers of resignation to see if they were real, which they did not.
Holgate told Canavan that LPOs should have more representation on the Board. Cramp added that the Board had not been in contact with LPOGroup outside one email from Nutt saying he could not meet with them. Canavan asked if she would have bought the watches still, knowing what she knew now, and she joked she “probably” would have bought Seiko watches, but insisted she was proud to recognise and reward the executives for their “outstanding” work.
Canavan asked her about the public reaction when the watch story broke. She said she was “inundated” with requests to know how she had managed to get four Cartier watches for $5000 each, calling them possibly the cheapest Cartier watches. She said that the implication had been given that she had bought the watches for high-paid executives in the middle of a crisis, when she had in fact given them for “achieving something transformational” two years earlier.
Cramp pointed out that the watches were an “insignificant sum” in a business the size of Post, equating to $7.50 from each licensee.
Holgate said the Maddox investigators were given access to “anything” to do with her, and only her, which surprised her.
“It was a sham, the whole review,” she said, pointing to statements by the PM that the review was not about Holgate but about governance, despite the investigators allegedly only looking into her and her staff personally. “We were treated like common criminals.”
Returning from lunch, the committee called Susan Davies, Executive General Manager, People and Culture, for her version of the events of October 22, when Holgate presented to Senate Estimates regarding the Cartier watches and the PM called on her at Question Time to resign.
Davies said she was aware of a conversation between Di Bartolomeo and Holgate before Question Time, in which she heard Holgate saying she did not wish to stand aside as she felt she had done nothing wrong. They travelled back to Sydney in a private car, in which Davies discussed “a lot of phone calls” taking place, but said she did not recall any conversation in which Holgate agreed to stand down. She said she recalled conversations in which Holgate spoke to Tony Nutt and asked for annual leave. “She was clearly very upset at that time, and Tony Nutt was assisting her,” said Davies. “She was quite adamant that she didn’t want to stand down at that stage.”
Davies said she had no knowledge of any Board meeting on the night of October 22, but understood afterwards that a Board meeting “may have taken place”. She was asked if Holgate was contacted by the PM, Finance Minister, or Communications Minister, and said no communication took place to her knowledge. She said she remembered Holgate trying to text the thankyou card that accompanied the watches.
Davies was asked whether Holgate had resigned, been stood down, or stood aside. She said Holgate had become more and more distressed over the course of the afternoon, and reiterated that she did not hear a conversation where Holgate agreed to stand aside, though conversations about her standing aside did take place.
She was not with Holgate on the day she submitted a resignation letter, though did have conversations with Holgate every day between October 22 and that point, as well as after that. She said she was aware Holgate had objections to the BCG report. She said Nutt and Di Bartolomeo made contact with Holgate regarding her welfare post October 22, and that she had felt no pressure not to be Holgate’s support person or to not present at the enquiry.
Carr asked her how well she felt Australia Post had presented a duty of care to Holgate, and said it was “unusual” for a senior executive be “abused on the floor of Parliament”. Davies said Post does care for its employees, and that there are policies and procedures in place to make sure staff get support. She described the Holgate situation as “unprecedented”.
Hanson put to Davies that Australia Post thought her appearance would be a conflict of interest. She asked if Davies recalled any conversations between Holgate and Di Bartolomeo on the trip back to Sydney, but Davies said she didn’t remember specific conversations. Hanson asked if Holgate had received a call from Di Bartolomeo and passed it to Davies; Davies said she did not recall that, though she remembered the Chair calling her phone because Holgate’s was busy.
Hanson asked Davies if she remembered Di Bartolomeo convincing Holgate to stand down, as he had told the Board; she said she did not recall such a conversation. Senator Hanson-Young pointed out that no evidence had been presented thus far that this conversation had happened at all, and that Holgate insisted that it hadn’t.
Davies said she was disappointed with how Holgate was treated during the process. “There’ve been some very dark days for all of us, and especially for Christine,” she said.
Following a short suspension, Lucio Di Bartolomeo, Chair of Australia Post, was called. He praised Holgate’s leadership, especially during the COVID crisis, as well as the “transformations and innovations” implemented during her tenure. He said Holgate agreed to stand aside on October 22, but he wanted her to return as soon as possible; however, in her resignation letter, she said her position was untenable. He insisted that her resignation had not been sought by the Board, and that the media commentary following the Estimates appearance had created the circumstances for her resignation. He said that he would have vetoed the watch purchases if he had been Chair at the time, and that he considered the gifts a “lapse in judgement” from a good CEO.
He said that Holgate had made Australia Post a better and stronger business, and discussed the appointment of Woolworths executive Paul Graham as CEO, saying he was a strong and experienced candidate.
McKenzie put to Di Bartolomeo that Holgate had acted within her authority to gift the watches, and he acknowledged that nothing at Post prohibited it. She asked if it was the case that non-financial incentives to senior executives was “business as usual”, including Olympics tickets, other watches, and cars. Di Bartolomeo said he could not comment on what happened under Fahour and Stanhope. McKenzie encouraged him to ask Australia Post and get back to the committee, labelling the Cartier watches a “drop in the ocean”. She asked why Holgate was stood down despite being cleared of wrongdoing; he responded that she was not stood down, but stood aside. McKenzie asked what the difference was. He told her she wanted her to stand aside for four weeks during the Maddox investigation while an acting CEO stepped in to handle operations during the massive Christmas period.
He said that, when Fletcher contacted him, the Minister said he would instigate an internal review, that he wanted the Board to support the review, and that the Minister wanted her to stand aside during the review. Di Bartolomeo said he questioned whether it was necessary, but concluded it would be best for both Holgate and the company.
McKenzie asked how Post’s internal review was going, and he said it had identified 32 actions to improve processes and procedures. McKenzie challenged him that the Board needed to change the policies, not the CEO; he insisted that he did not change the CEO, though the committee put to him that he did not fight particularly hard to keep her.
McKenzie asked if he felt Holgate deserved a public apology, but he demurred.