Former Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate has unleashed on her former organisation’s board, the government and senior ministers she says abandoned her after she was allegedly “bullied and humiliated” out of her job.
Holgate told a Senate hearing on Tuesday that she believed the board, led by its chair, Lucio Di Bartolomeo, unlawfully stood her down from her role because Scott Morrison had ordered it. Di Bartolomeo said Holgate volunteered to stand aside.
Holgate came under fire following a 22 October 2020 estimates hearing where it was revealed she had awarded four Australia Post executives $5,000 Cartier watches in 2018 as a thank you gift for leading the successful Bank@Post project. She said she was left with no choice but to resign 10 days later after a public lashing from the prime minister in parliament.
“I don’t know why the prime minister did what he did,” Holgate said on Tuesday of the 22 October question time lashing she received from Morrison who said if she did not wish to step aside “she could go”.
“But I was unlawfully stood down, I believe, because he instructed it [the board] to do so.”
Holgate said Australia Post board member and former Liberal party head, Tony Nutt, had told her “Christine, you need to understand it was the prime minister.” “So they had to find something [to stand me aside],” she said.
In a special Senate inquiry hearing established to look at the circumstances surrounding Holgate’s controversial departure, the former CEO said the “simple truth” was she had been “bullied out of my job”.
“I have said consistently since 22 October that I have done nothing wrong,” she said.
“I had not agreed to stand down. I have provided a comprehensive written proof to support these statements and Australia Post and its chairman have not provided evidence of any kind.
“They have not. They have produced lies. I am sure that this will become even more apparent during the course of the committee’s work.
“The simple truth is, I was bullied out of my job. I was humiliated and driven to despair. I was thrown under the bus so the chairman of Australia Post could curry favour with his political masters. But I’m still here. And I’m stronger for surviving it.”
The Senate inquiry provides the same parliamentary privilege protections as speaking to parliament – meaning Holgate has absolute privilege in what she says and isn’t subjected to defamation laws.
Holgate appeared at the committee wearing suffragette white, as have her supporters, including those who are due to give their own evidence later on.
Di Bartolomeo gave evidence following Holgate’s appearance and once again denied she had been unlawfully been stood down, a position he and Australia Post have maintained throughout.
Di Bartolomeo said he spoke to Holgate following the 22 October question time and she, while “originally reluctant”, had agreed to stand aside while an independent investigation was carried out into the gift of the watches and other spending on the Australia Post corporate credit card.
The results of that investigation, carried out by the law firm Maddocks, were originally kept secret but released after parts of it leaked to the media. It found “no indication of dishonesty, fraud, corruption or intentional misuse of Australia Post funds by any individual involved in the matters relating to the purchase and gifting of the Cartier watches”.
Di Bartolomeo said he held Holgate in very high regard during her time as chief executive and had wanted her to return to her role following the investigation. He described her resignation as a “significant shock”.
He denied he or the board had “hounded” her out of the job, but admitted Paul Fletcher, one of the shareholder ministers, had contacted him and said he wanted the board to agree to an investigation into the gift of the watches, as well as for Holgate to stand aside while that investigation was carried out.
But Di Bartolomeo denied the board considered Fletcher’s comments a “formal direction” and instead thought of it as “a strong desire”.
“As board members, you take on board the concerns, the desires, the wishes of the shareholders,” he told the committee, adding that didn’t mean the board immediately agreed to the wishes, but it didn’t discount them either.
Di Bartolomeo said he believed Holgate had been “treated abysmally” by the media and politicians but said the Australia Post board had done all it could to support her. “I don’t believe Australia Post owes her an apology, no, but I do believe she’s been badly treated,” he said.
Holgate told the committee she had not signed a deed of release, as required by her contract, to release her from her employment. Asked if she would return to the role by senator Pauline Hanson, Holgate said she could not while Di Bartolomeo remained chair.
“I think that’s pretty obvious. I should never have been not at work. There was nothing to justify unlawfully standing me down,’’ she said.
“And my answer has been very consistent – I love Australia Post. There’s no day that I don’t admire and respect the people [who work there], but I cannot work for a chair that lies in the Senate and does not have integrity.”
Di Bartolomeo said he has never lied during Senate estimates but conceded there were two times he had to correct the record after being advised he had seen correspondence he had said he hadn’t seen. He said he did not know what Holgate was talking about beyond that.
Holgate said a statement that had been drafted where she offered to resign had been released to Sky News before it had been signed or agreed to. She accused the board of leaking it to force an outcome.
“It was not I who released it to Sky News. The only people who had that statement was the board,’’ she said. “I sought no financial compensation.”
Di Bartolomeo said the board had not leaked the letter, but acknowledged the shareholder ministers had been told about it, through their respective chiefs of staff.
Holgate said she contacted the finance minister, Simon Birmingham, who she knew personally through her role as co-chair of the trade board for help in setting up a meeting with the communications minister, Fletcher, but was ignored, after an initial conversation with Birmingham on 25 November where Birmingham had said he would get back to her.
She said she had been suicidal and was taking the prescribed benzodiazepine temazepam and apologised for what she said was a “rambling” written note, but said she needed help.
“He had just been made the head of the Senate, and so I wrote to him and said ‘Surely, now that you’re minister for finance, minister of trade and head of the Senate, you will help me get a resolution and stop what’s happening to me’. I just asked to be treated with respect,” Holgate said.
“On Saturday 5 December, which felt like a lifetime when you are going through hell, by the way, I texted Simon Birmingham on his private mobile and asked him, ‘I’ve heard nothing back and when can we have the meeting?’ I received no reply.”
Holgate also said she believed gender played a role in her treatment.
“I think it would be fair to say I’ve never seen a media article comment about a male politician’s watch and yet I was depicted as a prostitute for making those comments, humiliated,” she said.
“I have never seen any male public servant depicted in that way. So do I believe it’s partially a gender issue? You’re absolutely right I do. But do I believe the real problem here is bullying and harassment and abuse of power? You’re absolutely right I do.”
Both Holgate and Di Bartolomeo have been told they may be asked to rappear before the committee with another hearing day to be scheduled.