Watch brands do not tend to circulate as discussion topics in the Australian federal parliament. Time watching is a more functional affair. But Australia Post’s Chief Executive Christine Holgate gave politicians their chance to shine on October 21 in what can only be described as a mauling. In Senate Estimates, eyes were honing on small details. Why had four Australia Post executives received Cartier watches, valued at AU$19,950 in total?
In the bruising Senates Estimates session, Holgate had actually claimed that the four watches in question had cost AU$3000 each, tokens of appreciation for the “inordinate” work Gary Starr, Deanne Keetelaar, Anna Bennett and Greg Sutherland had put into securing the [email protected] deal. The deal involved the Commonwealth Bank, National Australia Bank and Westpac paying AU$22 million in annual fees for providing banking services at Australia Post branches. But Australia Post chairman Lucio Di Bartolomeo was ever helpful, correcting the amounts in a statement. Apparently, the Cartier watches gifted to staff in November 2018 cost AU$7,000, AU$4,759, AU$4,400 and AU$3,800.
Holgate also stumbled in claiming that the watches had not been purchased using proceeds from the Australian taxpayer. “I have not used taxpayers’ money. We are a commercial organisation; it was a recommendation from our chair that these people get rewarded.”
This synaptic lapse was understandable to some degree. Australia Post is owned by the federal government but draws no funding from it. It remains an independent business. But Holgate had erred in blending the cultures of the corporate sector and those of the public. It was sufficient to put some government members into a more than irritable mood.
What stood out in the response to Holgate was its overly shrill note. Outrage was everywhere, coming from government members and even unions, with whom the conservative Morrison government has little by way of common ground. Communications Minister Paul Fletcher was “shocked and concerned as everybody else to discover [the Cartier watch gifts] when it was revealed in Estimates this morning.” He had also informed Holgate that she would “stand aside during the course of this investigation.”
The language of Greg Rayner, the national secretary of the CEPU communications union, was all venom and extermination. “The Government needs to intervene further than just wiping out the CEO – Australia post needs a whole reshuffle to get their leadership team right.”
The response from Prime Minister Scott Morrison was stormy and unctuous. The gifts were “disgraceful and not on”. The federal government “are the shareholders of Australia Post on behalf of the Australian people.” By the next day, his mood had barely improved. “I don’t think what we learned [on Thursday] would have passed any test with the Australian public when it comes to a company that is owned by the government.”
This was a far cry from the phlegmatic air of his government to a bungle that led to the overpayment of AU$27.6 million of taxpayers money for a 12.26 hectare land parcel adjacent to Western Sydney Airport in 2018. On October 19, Senate Estimates heard from the Auditor-General of the Australian National Audit Office Grant Hehir that “the Commonwealth may have been defrauded”. The matter had even been referred to the Australian Federal Police.
The stench of the deal between the Department of Infrastructure and the Leppington Pastoral Company, which so happens to be a Liberal Party donor, was impressive. The audit office was baffled to find that AU$30 million changed hands for property that had been valued by the company’s own accounts at AU$3 million. Senators also heard from Department of Infrastructure Simon Atkinson that two public servants were under investigation for the deal, with one having been stood down. Labor Senator Penny Wong put it to Atkinson that a cover up was afoot. “Senator, I agree with you,” came Atkinson’s reply. “I’m trying to clean it up.”
It was all, then, a matter of timing. With the government itself caught out in a deal that had been praised in September by the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack as a “very good investment” and “bargain,” scalps had to be sourced from elsewhere. Holgate supplied the opportunity, which was taken with distracting glee.
Holgate has not made matters easy for herself. She has been doing what many corporate executives do: splash out and find the baubles, though not in a necessarily obscene way. A good amount has been spent on corporate credit cards and chauffeur-driven transport (according to figures from the 2018/20 financial year, AU$300,000). A reputation management firm was hired for a sum of $AU119,000 for a mere 38 days’ work between June and July this year.
Then again, Prime Minister Morrison had little to say to parcel delays, the pruning back of letter delivery services to every second day and the rise in postal prices. Other lavish expenditures such as the AU$1 million spent on indoor plants barely warranted a mention.
Seemingly forgotten in the Cartier storm are other aspects of Holgate’s tenure: arriving at Australia Post with a fifth of the pay given to her predecessor Ahmed Fahour, whose total salary package in 2016 was AU$5.6 million; the [email protected] deal, which was manna from heaven to licensed post office work. Angela Cramp of the LPO Group, a body representing postal franchisees, went so far as to suggest that the “deal saved the licensed post office network.” Franchisees providing banking services in rural and regional areas had been previously short changed by the banks, who not only felt it decent to close their branches in those areas but inadequately pay post office branches for supplying substitute services. “We were in jeopardy of closing down across the country.”
Holgate has a few defenders, though they do come with a tarnishing. Eddie McGuire, president of the Collingwood football club, spoke highly of the chief executive, who also happens to be a board member of the club. “Why do we go and get superstar, business people to run public entities, and then try and make them play like dullards?”
Holgate has made her share of enemies, and this presented an opportunity. The language she used at the Estimates hearing was telling, confusing that of greater corporate freedom with the often hypocritical values of public service reserve. She did not regard the $60 million spent in bonuses as “bonuses” at all, as they were shared between 2,500 staff facing the increased volume of mail deliveries during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Some 34,500 frontline workers had also received “thank you” payments of AU$600, totalling AU$AU27 million.
This did not prevent such observations as those of Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who pointed an accusing finger at Australia Post for profiteering from the pandemic. The sticks and kindling have been brought out and a burning is expected. No gender defenders are expected this time.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]