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 Bank@Post 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.
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