Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraThe Senate inquiry into the Christine Holgate affair has declared Scott Morrison, shareholder ministers and the Australia Post board should apologise to the former CEO “for denying her the legal principles of procedural fairness and natural justice”.
The Labor-Greens dominated committee said in scathing findings that Morrison’s “improper threat” in parliament’s question time suggested “a lack of respect for due process”, as well as a “double standard” when contrasted with the procedural principles applied to cabinet members.
Holgate told the ABC on Wednesday night she was “absolutely delighted” by the report and would “graciously accept” a Morrison apology.
But none will be forthcoming.
A government spokesperson said it had “no intention of responding to a politicised report published by a committee controlled by the Labor and Green parties”. The inquiry was chaired by Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young.
Morrison reacted furiously on October 22 last year, after Holgate revealed to a Senate committee Australia Post had rewarded with Cartier watches four employees who had concluded a highly lucrative 2018 deal. The watches were worth in total nearly $20,000.
Morrison told parliament Holgate had been instructed to stand aside – if she did not want to do that “she can go”.
Holgate resisted standing aside but had little choice but to do so. Soon after, she left Australia Post. She has since been appointed CEO of Global Express, which competes with it.
The government minority on the committee, in a dissenting report, said the inquiry had been a highly politicised exercise. The Coalition senators said they did “not support aspects of the analysis of evidence and many of the recommendations of the majority report”.
They said the claim Holgate was denied procedural fairness and natural justice was contested, with evidence showing different recollections snd interpretations.
The majority report lambasted Australia Post’s chair, Lucio Di Bartolomeo, saying he should resign, and accept responsibility for the organisation’s failings over Holgate. It criticised “the veracity of his evidence provided to the committee, his capacity to defend the independence of Australia Post and the lack of effective robust policies and financial oversight processes in place throughout his tenure”.
But government senators said evidence had highlighted that the chair had sought to work constructively with Holgate when events were moving fast in the media spotlight.
The majority report said evidence suggested “there is a culture operating outside the legislated framework that results in so‐called ‘independent’ government agencies being controlled by ministers and their advisers through informal directions in a completely unaccountable manner.”
Holgate’s treatment also was “indicative of a wider pattern of behaviour towards women in workplaces, including Parliament. As both an employer and legislator of workplace laws, the Australian Government must set an example.”
The Australia Post board, notably for being heavy with political appointments, also came in for strong rebukes.
The board, “apparently acting on informal instructions from the Minister for Communications [Paul Fletcher], decided that Ms Holgate should be stood aside without being accorded procedural fairness and an opportunity to defend her actions,” the report said.
“The Prime Minister and Shareholder Ministers [Fletcher and then finance minister Mathias Cormann] created a very public expectation that Ms Holgate would be stood aside, to which the board dutifully acquiesced.
“This pressure appears to have led the Board to breach its duties under the Act, standing Ms Holgate aside without any evidence that she had acted improperly.”
The process by which board members are appointed has compromised the board’s independence from government, the report said.
The Holgate matter “has focused attention on the sheer magnitude of bonuses and incentives paid to executives, senior managers and other highly paid staff across the Commonwealth.
“If the purchase of $20,000 worth of watches for senior executives fails the ‘pub test’, what does the Australian public think of the tens of millions of dollars that are given in bonuses each year to highly paid staff at Australia Post, in government departments, and at other GBEs [government businesss enterprises]?” the report said.
It said “a comparison of other events during that period puts in stark perspective the inconsistent treatment of public officials by this government when faced with a scandal.
“On one hand, the high performing CEO of Australia Post was effectively forced to resign over the purchase of $20 000 worth of watches for securing a deal worth more than $200 million in revenue to the organisation.
“On the other hand, there appears to have been no action taken against the responsible public servants involved in the purchase of the ‘Leppington Triangle’ for $30 million of public funds, ten times more than the land’s market value.”
Among its 25 recommendations, the majority report said the Australia Post board should be restructured and include nominees of the parliament, employees and unions, and licensees. Appropriate board independence should be restored.
The Solicitor-General should investigate the legality of the October 22 instruction from shareholder ministers to the board that it should stand aside Holgate during an investigation into the watches’ purchase.
The government should rule out privatising Australia Post or divesting any of its services including parcel delivery. The Senate should oppose any extension of the current temporary regulations, which were put in place for the pandemic.
Pauline Hanson, who pressed for the inquiry and was a participating member (rather than a member of the committee) said in additional comments in the report that the chair should be removed and Morrison, Fletcher and Simon Birmingham (the current finance minister) should “each offer an unqualified apology” to Holgate.