Holgate breaks silence on Australia Post ousting
Ousted Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate has called for a "more capable board" at the postal service, accusing chairman Lucio Di Bartolomeo of "lying" to the Senate and a "vicious intent to defame" her after Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded she step aside.
In her first public comments after her departure from Australia Post over "rewarding" four senior executives Cartier watches worth a total of $20,000, Ms Holgate said Mr Di Bartolomeo's behaviour distressed her so much she had to seek medical treatment.
She has "broken her silence" in a 151-page submission into a senate inquiry, in which she paints a damning picture of Australia Post's board under Mr Di Bartolomeo and the Morrison government.
Ms Holgate said Mr Di Bartolomeo "humiliated and deserted her" after Mr Morrison demanded she either stand aside "or go" over the gifting of the watches, which were given in recognition of a securing a deal worth $66m a year with three of the big banks to allow post offices to perform basic banking services.
The Prime Minister's thunderous criticism was despite Ms Holgate saying the gifts were within Australia Post's guidelines, the Department of Finance raising no objections and an independent inquiry finding no "examples of dishonesty".
"To this date I have not received any explanation why I was forced to stand down other than the (Communications) Minister and Prime Minister insisted on it and that in itself, does not have legal standing," Ms Holgate said.
"Australia Post, like all our nationally significant organisations, should not be political plaything where board positions are used as rewards for political services done.
"From this experience we must build a stronger, more capable board and ensure this important asset is protected and nurtured for many years to come, for the benefit of all Australians. It is for these reasons I have agreed to break my silence."
An Australia Post spokesman declined to comment on Ms Holgate's claims against Mr Di Bartolomeo. Instead, the spokesman pointed to Australia Post's own lengthy 156 page submission, which reiterates much of its previous public comments at Ms Holgate's departure.
The spokesman added that Australia Post will "cooperate fully with the inquiry".
Despite Ms Holgate clearly being caught in a political attack, she said Mr Di Bartolomeo refused to defend her leading her to experience "high levels of anxiety".
"The watches were openly celebrated, they were within our gift and remuneration policy and at no point did anyone, including board members, auditors or anyone in the Department of Finance who regularly reviewed our accounts, raise any concerns over this choice of a gift."
"Yet somehow, I was forced out of my job over it. For this, I blame one person - the chair, Lucio Di Bartolomeo. He knew all of the facts but chose to stand aside from his responsibility to defend me and Australia Post, from those who didn't know all of the facts. He then lied about his actions and about other important issues.
"In short, I was treated like a criminal by my own chairman, but I had committed no crime."
Ms Holgate said she never agreed to stand down, contrary to Mr Di Bartolomeo's comments to the Senate, saying she had requested two weeks' annual leave to enable an investigation into Australia Post's expenses to be held "promptly".
Ms Holgate later offered to resign but said she never signed a deed of release, meaning the $7bn government-owned organisation could restrict her from working elsewhere for a year and not pay her a cent.
The deed also would have gagged Ms Holgate, despite Australia Post's leadership being allowed to make public comments about her.
"The chair of Australia Post wrote to me and asked me to sign a variation to my contract.
If I had signed this letter, it would have potentially prevented me from working for 12 months, I would have received no pay and in addition they added a clause that would prevent me from making any future claim on the organisation going forward."
Despite Ms Holgate being yet to be officially released from Australia Post, Mr Di Bartolomeo has overseen the appointment of executive search firm Egon Zehnder to recruit Ms Holgate's replacement. The search is expected to cost $500,000 and is in its advanced stages.
As well as rushing to replace her, Ms Holgate said Australia Post refused to correct "misreporting" around her departure, leaking correspondence between her and the board, despite knowing she was experiencing severe anxiety.
"The extent of these 'leaks', demonstrate what appears to be a deliberate and vicious intent to defame both my character and professional and personal reputation while diverting attention from a chair who misled a Senate Inquiry and unlawfully stood me down.
"When I pleaded for help, my pleas were met with continuous requests to examine credit card expense records, on the disguise that they must be made public, presumably to cause me even greater harm. Their actions were and remains, an exercise to seek justification, after the fact, for the failure to treat me fairly.
"The board were very aware of the significant impact that these events were having on my health and wellbeing at this time. I was managing high levels of anxiety. I was on sick leave and under medication, all of which they were aware of."
Ms Holgate said Australia Post's acting chief executive Rodney Boys "cut off" support to her, despite knowing to was experiencing severe anxiety following her ousting, while the postal service released distorted credit card expenses during her time at the organisation - making it appear she had charged Australia Post for certain expenses when she had paid for them herself.
When said queried this with Australia Post, "the response was: "I checked with Rodney (Boys) and he has confirmed that these expenses do not include your credits as they were paid after the cut-off date."
The credit card expenses, which Australia Post released under freedom of information, were in Ms Holgate's name and in the office of the CEO, with totalled $20,000 and $300,000 respectively. But Ms Holgate said the figures reported were misleading, with the law firm charged with running an investigation into Australia Post's expenses finding "no examples of dishonesty".
"That I, as CEO, had a credit card with expenses of $300,000 pa. This is grossly untrue. The Office of the CEO costs are to support the Chair, Board, CEO and major corporate initiatives.
"My personal credit card with the organisation averaged an expenditure of about $20,000 per annum. I paid for my own accommodation personally when in Melbourne working. I had never claimed any additional allowances for being away from home, as entitled under the Remuneration Tribunal."
Ms Holgate said Mr Boys even blocked her from writing a farewell note to staff.
"I wrote to Australia Post's head of communications and asked her if the organisation
would release a note for me to our employees. I received a reply stating "This is an excellent note. I have sent to Rodney for his OK and would be very happy to distribute this afternoon".
"(But) the note was not sent at that time. It was not supported by the acting CEO.
"I am told the organisation in their next written communication to our frontline workers, many of whom do not have a company email, ignored my message. They ghosted me to our employees, yet they were very aware thousands of employees were trying to contact me."
In a statement Ms Holgate released when she offered her resignation she said: "I deeply regret that a decision made two years ago" to purchase the Cartier watches, which was supported by the chair, to recognise the outstanding work of four employees has caused so much debate and distraction and I appreciate the optics of the gifts involved do not pass the "pub test" for many".
The gifting of the watches was also on top of Australia Post's cash bonus payments. One of the recipients, executive general manager of business and government Gary Starr, also received a cash bonus of more than $400,000, taking his total salary to more than $1.2m that financial year the watches were gifted, according to the group's annual report.
But Ms Holgate said former chairman John Stanhope approved the purchase, with the cost signed off by then chief financial officer Jannelle Hopkins with fringe benefits tax recognised".
"This type of rewarding is a highly appropriate and cost-effective form of employee incentivisation widely practiced by businesses big and small internationally."
Ms Holgate also included a table in her submission, highlighting the gap in her total pay of $1.61m and $2.56m in the past two financial years compared with her predecessor Ahmed Fahour, who took home $10.84m in his final year at Australia Post.
She said her pay was also lower than NBN Co chief executive Stephen Rue who received $3.15m last year, despite NBN's revenue being almost half the size of Australia Post's.
"Considering the significant complexity of the role leading an organisation of the size of Australia Post and my personal performance against targets set by the Board, the major variances with my own remuneration compared to my male colleagues, who led smaller businesses, demonstrates a significant issue."
Originally published as Holgate breaks silence on Australia Post ousting