Ms Christine Holgate stood aside, or was made to stand aside, from her position as Group Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director (CEO) of Australia Post on 22 October 2020.
This chapter looks in detail at the issues surrounding Ms Holgate's standing aside, including:
whether or not Ms Holgate agreed to stand aside;
the actions of the Australia Post Board, the Chair, Mr Lucio Di Bartolomeo, and other Directors, on the day;
the involvement of the Prime Minister and Shareholder Ministers in Ms Holgate's standing aside; and
the legality of the standing aside.
After considering these factors, the chapter goes on to discuss the wider implications of what happened to Ms Holgate. It asks if the case could have implications for the application of disciplinary processes for employees at other levels, and considers the role of government entities in 'setting an example' for workplaces in the private sector. It also considers suggestions that Ms Holgate's treatment amounts to bullying; and it looks at how the way Ms Holgate was treated may have been related to or affected by her gender.
The chapter includes the committee's view and recommendations.
Did Ms Holgate agree to stand aside?
Evidence received by the committee on this question was contradictory.
Ms Holgate maintained that she did not agree to stand aside at any point. Instead, Ms Holgate said that she offered to take annual leave while the investigation was conducted, and that she did not believe she should stand aside as she had 'done no wrong'.
The Chair of Australia Post, Mr Lucio Di Bartolomeo, told the committee on 13 April 2021 that he spoke with Ms Holgate twice while she was travelling home to Sydney from Canberra by car after her Senate Estimates appearance on 22 October 2020. According to the Chair, during the second conversation, Ms Holgate reluctantly agreed to stand aside. Mr Di Bartolomeo's evidence from 13 April 2021 is quoted in full:
While we had earlier discussions that day with Ms Holgate, it was relaying to her the discussion I'd had with the ministers, but, at that point, I was effectively talking to Ms Holgate about the board's desire that she stand aside during the course of this four-week investigation.
Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But she never responded to you, did she?
Senator HENDERSON: So you've expressed the board's desire that she stand aside. What was her response to you?
Mr Di Bartolomeo: The initial response was that she did not want to stand aside.
Senator HENDERSON: That was in the first phone call?
Mr Di Bartolomeo: Yes, the first phone call.
Senator HENDERSON: The one at 4.27 pm?
Mr Di Bartolomeo: At 4.27 pm. The starting point of the second one was much the same.
Senator HENDERSON: The starting point—that's of the phone call at 5.50 pm?
Mr Di Bartolomeo: At 5.50. Then a discussion took place about taking leave. At the end of that I said, 'These aren't going to work,' and my strong advice to her was that she stand aside and that it would be in her best interests.
Senator HENDERSON: What was her response when you said that?
Mr Di Bartolomeo: She agreed to that.
Senator HENDERSON: What was the form of her words that she used?
Mr Di Bartolomeo: I don't recall the exact words. I'm not—
Senator HENDERSON: So there was a lot of toing and froing, but at—
Mr Di Bartolomeo: There was a lot of toing and froing, but ultimately she agreed—she reluctantly agreed—that she would stand aside.
In contrast, Ms Holgate submitted that, not only did she not agree to stand aside during the phone call at 5.50 pm, she did not even speak to the Chair, having passed her phone to Ms Susan (Sue) Davies, Executive General Manager, People and Culture at Australia Post, who was travelling back to Sydney from Canberra with Ms Holgate on the afternoon of 22 October 2020.
Earlier evidence provided by Mr Di Bartolomeo appears contradictory to his testimony on 13 April 2021. At Senate Estimates on 9 November 2020, the Chair was asked if he and Ms Holgate had come a decision that she should stand aside 'mutually', or if it was 'more of a case of relaying what the minister had said'. Mr Di Bartolomeo replied: 'We had a number of conversations that afternoon, and the concluding position was that she would stand aside'. Mr Di Bartolomeo was asked if this was because 'that was what the minister wanted'. The Chair replied: 'It was a consideration.'
Then, during his Additional Estimates appearance on 23 March 2021, Mr Di Bartolomeo said:
The board elected to stand Christine Holgate aside on the afternoon of 22 October  on the basis that the shareholders had asked the department to undertake an investigation of the matters that had come to light in Senate estimates earlier that day. [emphasis added]
During the 9 November 2020 appearance, Mr Di Bartolomeo also said that Minister Fletcher 'was thinking of asking me to conduct an investigation' [emphasis added] into the purchase of the watches, and that 'he felt that Christine should stand aside while an investigation took place'. In later evidence, Mr Di Bartolomeo simply states that the Minister informed him that Shareholder Departments were to conduct an investigation.
As a key witness to the events, Ms Davies was initially invited by the committee to give evidence, and ultimately summoned to appear. Ms Davies was asked if she believed Ms Holgate had agreed to stand aside, and responded: 'I didn't hear a conversation where Christine agreed to stand aside. I did hear conversations where that was discussed, but I never heard her agree to do that'.
Ms Davies stated that Ms Holgate spent a significant amount of time on the phone with, and sending written communications to, Board Director, Mr Tony Nutt, with whom Ms Holgate was 'working on a statement'. Ms Holgate 'was wanting to take some leave, but she was still quite adamant that she didn't want to stand down at that stage'.
Ms Davies was asked whether there was 'a point where the Chair rang Ms Holgate and she gave the phone to you and you spoke to him'. Ms Davies replied:
I don't recall that happening. I certainly recall speaking to the chair, and the chair was trying to contact Christine, so my recollection would be that the chair called me on my phone because Christine's phone was busy. I don't recall it [Ms Holgate passing Ms Davies her phone]. That's not to say it didn't happen; I don't recall it.
Australia Post argued that phone records and evidence from Ms Davies 'support that Ms Holgate and the Chair did speak that afternoon, following Question Time'. Australia Post cites a call from the Chair to Ms Davies at 4.18 pm on 22 October 2020, that lasted 1 minute and 27 seconds, consistent with Ms Davies' evidence, and then a call from Ms Holgate's phone to Mr Di Bartolomeo's phone 'minutes later at 4.27 pm', as evidence that the Chair: called Ms Davies; asked her to have Ms Holgate call him back; and Ms Holgate called him back shortly after, as requested.
It was during the second phone call, at approximately 5.50 pm that Mr Di Bartolomeo maintained Ms Holgate agreed to stand aside. To dispute this claim, Ms Holgate submitted copies of a number of emails she sent around that time which contain drafts of the statement she was preparing. The statements indicate Ms Holgate was offering to take annual leave to allow the investigation to run. These emails are time-stamped:
5.40.51 pm (to a friend/mentor);
5.44.45 pm (to a friend/mentor);
5.49.26 pm (to Mr Tony Nutt); and
5.53.54 pm (to Mr Di Bartolomeo).
The last email listed, to the Chair, was a formal request by Ms Holgate to take annual leave while the investigation took place. It said: 'I would like to take two weeks annual leave immediately to enable you to undertake an investigation. Please let me know if you approve'.
Ms Holgate said the Chair's evidence that she agreed to stand down during the 5.50 pm call was not 'credible', because the 5.53 pm email clearly shows Ms Holgate 'requesting annual leave':
Media articles report that when he was questioned on this, he said 'I saw her email and told her not to worry, you do not need to take annual leave, we will pay you'. For this to be true, you would have to believe that in 33 seconds the Chair saw my email, argued his case and I agreed to stand down. I strongly suggest, this is not credible and has absolutely no merit.
The phone records from Mr Di Bartolomeo and Ms Holgate support Ms Holgate's contention that the Chair did not contact her during the car trip to Sydney on afternoon of 22 October 2020, though he tried to call her once at 4.42pm, and he called Ms Davies once, at 4.18pm. The records also support the Chair's contention that Ms Holgate called him twice during the journey.
Without recordings of the actual calls, it is not possible to confirm the content of the conversations, or whether the Chair spoke with Ms Holgate, or with Ms Davies. The evidence on this point is inconclusive.
The Board Meeting on 22 October 2020
Claims by the Chair and Australia Post that Ms Holgate agreed to stand aside willingly—reportedly during a phone conversation with the Chair at 5.50 pm—should be considered in light of the fact that a decision to stand her aside had already been publicly announced, some 25 minutes earlier.
At approximately 5.25 pm, the Shareholder Ministers issued a joint media release saying:
We have instructed the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, together with the Department of Finance, to conduct a formal investigation into the matter.
The investigation by the shareholder departments will be supported by an external law firm.
We expect this investigation to commence immediately, and to be completed within four weeks… The Chief Executive of Australia Post will be standing aside from her position for the duration of the investigation. [emphasis added]
Mr Di Bartolomeo submitted Minutes pertaining to a Board Meeting on 22 October 2020, conducted by teleconference across three split sessions. The contents of the Minutes relate exclusively to the matters of the Shareholder's investigation, Ms Holgate standing aside, and related points.
Ms Holgate has disputed that a formal Board Meeting took place on 22 October 2020, and suggested that the Chair misled the Board by claiming he had secured her voluntary agreement to stand aside:
If by any chance I had verbally agreed, why would I go on to write further draft statements to Tony Nutt and make calls to him and others.
If there was a Board meeting, as the Chair continues to claim, at which the Board members approved standing me down on the afternoon of October 22nd, why did Tony Nutt not tell the other Board members, that I did not want to stand down…
Australia Post's response to these suggestions included an acknowledgement that Ms Holgate had been communicating with Mr Nutt over the course of the afternoon, as well as other Board members. However, Australia Post emphasised the primacy of the Chair, as the Board's authorised representative:
Notwithstanding those discussions, which were intended to provide support to Ms Holgate, the Chair was the authorised contact for decisions of the Board and discussions with Ms Holgate in relation to them. The discussions between the Chair and Ms Holgate were consistent with what had been approved by the Board.
The Board Meeting Minutes appear to suggest that that Ms Holgate agreed to stand aside, then the Minister was informed of that agreement. However, call logs, and later evidence, show this is not the case. The Minutes read:
After a break in proceedings, to allow the Chair to convey the Board's position to Christine Holgate, the Board noted:
the Chair's advice that Christine Holgate had agreed to stand aside from the role of GCEO&MD pending the outcome of the investigation and any further action taken by Australia Post, and the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts had been so informed;
the joint statement issued by the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, during the course of the meeting. [emphasis added]
Call logs indicate Ms Holgate and the Chair may have spoken for 2 minutes and 51 seconds at 4.27 pm. Mr Di Bartolomeo claims they did speak, and that during this conversation he informed Ms Holgate that the Shareholder Ministers wanted her to stand aside to allow the investigation to run, and that she told him she did not wish to stand aside. Ms Holgate says she did not speak with Mr Di Bartolomeo at this time. Shortly after, the Chair called Mr Nutt.
At 4.45 pm, the call logs show Mr Di Bartolomeo called the Board and was connected for 12 minutes and 28 seconds. During the Board meeting, call logs show calls between Ms Holgate and Mr Nutt. At 5.00 pm, immediately after breaking off from the Board call, the Chair called Minister Fletcher. Over the next 45 minutes there were a number of calls, emails, and text messages between Mr Nutt and Ms Holgate, including a call with Mr Nutt immediately before Ms Holgate's phone called Mr Di Bartolomeo at 5.50 pm.
Importantly, the Chair called the Minister before the 5.50 pm call with Ms Holgate (at 5.00 pm), not afterwards. Then, only 25 minutes later the Shareholder Ministers published their formal statement.
Mr Di Bartolomeo did not reply to Ms Holgate's 5.53 pm email on 22 October 2020, requesting annual leave. Ms Holgate said:
[The Board] did not ask to see my contract before [the Chair] made a statement to stand me down… Nothing was conveyed to me that night when they announced it publicly and to all of our employees. Nothing was ever explained…
Minutes of the Board Meeting on 22 October 2020 indicate that the Board approved a public statement announcing Ms Holgate's standing aside, the Shareholders' investigation, and that Mr Rodney Boys would be acting in the role of CEO. The Minutes note the statement would say: 'Christine Holgate will stand aside from the role of GCEO&MD during the investigation'.
On notice, Australia Post provided emails capturing the approval process for the statement. The committee notes the statement, as originally drafted by Australia Post corporate and executive staff and sent to Mr Di Bartolomeo at 6.14 pm for approval, included the lines:
Group CEO & Managing Director CEO Christine Holgate will stand aside during the investigation and will take personal leave. During this time, xx will be acting in the role. [emphasis added]
The only significant change made by Mr Di Bartolomeo to the draft was to remove the words 'and will take personal leave'. The emails also show that, as at 7.10 pm, Australia Post intended to release the statement at 7.15 pm. The timing of the release of the statement is further discussed below.
Ms Holgate observed that this statement said, 'Christine Holgate will stand aside during the investigation' [emphasis added]. It did not say she had agreed to stand aside.
During a public hearing the Chair admitted that the Board did not seek any legal advice in relation to Ms Holgate's contract or any other matter that day.
The Chair was asked if the Board provided Ms Holgate 'with any procedural fairness, any natural justice', and whether the Board sought 'any legal advice as to what her rights were in that regard'. Mr Di Bartolomeo answered, 'No… What I asked of Ms Holgate was to agree to stand aside herself, for the benefits that I explained earlier… If she did not do that, then we would have to consider whether we would take other action'.
The LPOGroup said that it believed:
[T]here was no genuine process followed during the Board meeting on 22 October 2020 that would enable it to inform itself on the question of whether it could legally request Christine Holgate to stand aside or could stand aside Christine Holgate if she chose to take some form of leave instead.
After the Board Meeting
Australia Post submitted that a copy of the statement 'was provided to Ms Holgate [via email] and her media adviser at 7.20 pm on 22 October 2020'. Australia Post further submitted that neither Ms Holgate nor her adviser 'raised any concerns about Australia Post issuing this statement, nor the reference in the statement to Ms Holgate standing aside'. Asked if Australia Post received any response—positive or negative—from Ms Holgate or her media advisor regarding the statement Australia Post said was sent at 7.20 pm and released at 7.40 pm, the Chair confirmed that he received no response.
Ms Holgate submitted that she believes the statement was published around 7.00 pm, and that she 'was not consulted on the words of the Australia Post media statement, nor was [she] informed by Australia Post prior to the statement being made'. Ms Holgate further alleged:
Australia Post withdrew their media statement of the night of October 22nd from the Australia Post website recently, an act which made many following this story suspicious. My notes detail this was originally put out at around 7.02pm not 7.40pm that night as they now assert, ie almost 20 minutes before it was sent to my email.
Australia Post disputed this claim and submitted that the statement is still available on its website, and was originally published at 7.40 pm, as stated.
Explaining why she didn't see or respond to Australia Post's email, Ms Holgate said that she 'arrived home at approximately 7.00 pm that evening to be hit with a media storm, following an extremely traumatic day'. She questioned why neither the Chair nor Australia Post called her when she had not responded to their email about the statement.
Mr Di Bartolomeo said he spoke with Ms Holgate before sending the statement, at around 6.38 pm, and then again the next morning at around 8.00 am, and at no point during either of those conversations did she raise an objection to the idea that she had agreed to stand aside. Ms Holgate does not agree that she spoke with Mr Di Bartolomeo at 6.38 pm, though a call of 2 minutes and 20 seconds appears at that time on the Chair's call logs.
Conversely, Ms Holgate submitted that she called the Chair at 8.01 am on the morning of 23 October 2020, still seeking a response to her request to take annual leave. Ms Holgate submitted:
He stated that he would not be able to accept my annual leave request and that I would need to step down whilst an investigation was undertaken. I asked, what would this mean? He said he would get a letter to me that afternoon detailing everything. He told me I would not be required to attend the Board meeting that day. I did not receive any letter that day.
The Chair acknowledged in Senate Estimates on 9 November 2020 that there was no communication in writing between himself and Ms Holgate that day or night, and said the alleged agreement between himself and Ms Holgate that she would voluntarily stand aside was 'confirmed later', via a letter from himself to Ms Holgate. The letter in question was drafted by Mr Di Bartolomeo on 24 October 2020 (two days later) and sent to Ms Holgate's husband by email, on 25 October 2020, by Ms Davies.
Along with the letter, Ms Davies 'expressed regard for Ms Holgate's wellbeing', 'offered to arrange psychological support', and 'communicated her willingness to support Ms Holgate without limitation with whatever she needed'. Ms Holgate received the correspondence on 25 October 2020.
Australia Post submitted that Ms Holgate sent an email to Australia Post employees, copying the Acting CEO, Mr Boys, at 3.57 pm on 25 October 2020, which included the following sentence: 'As I step away from the organisation and let Rodney lead…' Ms Holgate also sent an email to Australia Post's Executive Team at 6.27 am on 23 October 2020 that said:
First, my sincere apologies to all of you to have to go through this.
Rodney, thank you for agreeing to lead the team.
I have deep respect for all of you and hope together you remain strong to lead our ship through this.
Thanks you all for your messages of support.
Stay strong, stay safe.
Australia Post suggested that these emails prove Ms Holgate stood aside voluntarily. Australia Post also submitted 'the first time that Ms Holgate raised any concerns about standing aside was on 27 October 2020 through correspondence from her lawyers'.
Ms Holgate disputes these claims and has submitted that she believes the law firm Allens Linklaters 'advised the Board [on Friday 23 October 2020] that the steps taken by the Chair [on Thursday 22 October 2020] were not lawful. He did not have a right to stand me down without my written approval'. The legality of the standing aside is further discussed below.
The role of Mr Nutt
Ms Holgate submitted that she had substantial contact with Mr Nutt throughout the afternoon of 22 October 2020. Phone records suggest dozens of missed calls between their phones on the day, and a number of conversations. Ms Holgate also submits that she was texting and emailing Mr Nutt during this time.
After her Senate Estimates appearance, but before Question Time on 22 October 2020, Ms Holgate submitted that she 'spoke with Australia Post Director Tony Nutt and asked him his advice'. Ms Holgate says that Mr Nutt asked her to provide a breakdown of 'comparison costs of the CEO & Office of CEO & Board costs under [Former CEO, Mr Ahmed Fahour] and [herself]'. Ms Holgate texted Mr Nutt at 1.34 pm, providing figures that had been prepared for her by the Chief Financial Officer at Australia Post. The figures were: '$17 million [under Mr Fahour] vs $6.4 million [under Ms Holgate]'.
Ms Holgate claims that Mr Nutt suggested she prepare 'a brief statement' saying she 'would take annual leave and support an investigation'; advice Ms Holgate followed, sending Mr Nutt 'a number of drafts and communicat[ing] with him on his feedback on each draft'. Ms Holgate believed Mr Nutt was 'genuinely interested in helping' her resolve the situation.
During his appearance before the committee, Mr Nutt was asked about his role on the day. He said, 'after her appearance at Senate estimates, Ms Holgate rang me...she asked for some advice in handling what had been obviously a difficult situation. I spoke to the chair, and the chair authorised me to assist and support her.'
Mr Di Bartolomeo confirmed that, 'Mr Nutt was not authorised to speak on behalf of the board to Christine Holgate. Mr Nutt spoke to Christine Holgate on a personal basis'. Mr Nutt agreed that the Chair had set 'ground rules' for his communication with Ms Holgate, including that he was 'not a substitute for the chair or for the full board', and 'was not making decisions', but could 'give Ms Holgate support and counsel'.
However, Ms Holgate noted that across the timeframe that the Board meeting is said to have been occurring, she was in regular communication with Mr Nutt regarding her offer to take annual leave and her refusal to stand aside. Ms Holgate questions why Mr Nutt would not have communicated this to the Board, or communicated to her that the Board had already decided she was to be stood aside regardless:
…why did Tony Nutt not tell the other Board members, that I did not want to stand down and that he was coaching me on a statement regarding taking annual leave. Either there was no such Board meeting, or Tony Nutt was deliberately misleading me.
Asked about this, Board Director, Ms Jan West said, 'we weren't aware of the ongoing two weeks annual leave situation. The assumption is that the chairman advised us and, in our working relationship, we totally trust what we're told'.
Ms Holgate's final email to Mr Nutt, with a draft statement about taking annual leave, was sent at 6.41 pm with the subject line, 'ARE you OK for me to say this'. The statement read:
I have done nothing wrong. I welcome an investigation. I have offered to the Chair to take annual leave to enable an investigation to be conducted promptly.
Call logs show a 20 minute call from Ms Holgate to Mr Nutt at 7.34 pm.
Board Meetings on 23 and 29 October 2020
The Board met the following morning. Minutes record that the Board agreed to 'obtain independent legal advice regarding ongoing correspondence with the GCEO&MD, in light of the sensitivity of the situation', and 'request the preparation of a letter to the GCEO&MD confirming her agreement to stand aside, arrangements for access to systems and information, and ongoing communication channels'.
Despite meeting on 23 October 2020, and certifying other Minutes, the Board did not certify any Minutes for 22 October 2020 until it met again on 29 October 2020.
On 29 October 2020, the Board received and discussed correspondence about the matter, including the Chair's letter to Ms Holgate, dated 24 October 2020, and the letter from Kingston Reid (Ms Holgate's legal adviser) to the Chair, dated 27 October 2020. The Board endorsed further correspondence to Ms Holgate, and discussed 'the need to carefully coordinate ongoing communications between Australia Post and [Ms Holgate]', preferably through their legal advisors.
Involvement of the Prime Minister and Shareholder Ministers
Ms Holgate told the committee that Mr Nutt informed her that the Prime Minister wanted her 'stood down'. According to Ms Holgate, Mr Nutt had said: 'Christine, you need to understand it was the Prime Minister…'
Asked why she thinks the Prime Minister wanted her stood down, Ms Holgate replied:
I don't know why the Prime Minister took the action he did. I'm putting to you today that I was unlawfully stood down and that my contract got repudiated. I've only ever asked for respect, and I have never been allowed it. Maybe I will answer that slightly differently: I don't know why the Prime Minister did what he did, but I was unlawfully stood down, I believe, because he instructed so.
After the 22 October 2020 Senate Estimates hearing, Ms Holgate sent a photograph of the card signed by Former Chair, Mr John Stanhope AO, to Mr Richard Windeyer, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Communications, and Mr Ryan Bloxsom, Chief of Staff to Minister Fletcher, seeking to demonstrate that the watches were given with the approval and knowledge of the former Chair. Ms Holgate submitted that she remains upset that:
At no point prior to his comments in Parliament did Minister Paul Fletcher call me and give me any opportunity to explain, the background and the correct position, even though previously we had a strong working relationship whereby I met with him monthly.
These attempts were futile. The Prime Minister's statement in Question Time suggests the decision to stand Ms Holgate aside was made swiftly:
This all happened within an hour. So appalled and shocked was I by that behaviour—any shareholder would in a company raise their outrage if they had seen that conduct by a chief executive, a management or a board; they would insist rightly on the same thing. Now, we are the shareholders of Australia Post on behalf of the Australian people, so that action was immediate. The chief executive has been instructed to stand aside and, if she doesn't wish to do that, she can go.
Mr Di Bartolomeo confirmed that the Prime Minister was aware that Ms Holgate had not agreed to stand aside willingly when he made his remarks in Question Time.
The Chair was asked if he 'made representations' to Minister Fletcher that Ms Holgate need 'not be stood aside'. Mr Di Bartolomeo responded:
When the minister first rang me early that afternoon post question time, he advised me that he was going to instigate an independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding these watches… He said he would like Christine to stand aside during the term of the investigation… I questioned whether [Ms Holgate standing aside] was necessary, but clearly came to the conclusion that it was in Christine's and Australia Post's best interests if she did, primarily for the reason that I answered earlier: I wanted Christine to focus on that [the investigation] and I wanted a CEO who could focus on the business of running Australia Post…
The LPOGroup suggested this assertion is insincere:
To an ordinary person, the connotation of the wording of 'Stood Aside' suggests wrongdoing, as the person had to be stood aside so that an investigation or enquiry could be held without any undue influence on the investigation or inquiry by the person involved.
The LPOGroup argued that the Board should not have simply submitted to the will of the government, saying, 'the CEO of Australia Post does not report to the Prime Minister, or the shareholder Ministers, but directly to the Board'. What happened to Ms Holgate appears, the LPOGroup said, 'to be a clear case of a frightened knee-jerk reaction to bend to the will of the Shareholder. The Board did not consider the best interests of the Corporation'.
The Communications Electrical Plumbing Union (CEPU) observed that Ms Holgate's 'departure from her position…was as a direct result of untested allegations'. That the Australia Post Board and the government acted together to deny Ms Holgate 'due process in relation to the consideration of any alleged wrongdoing on her behalf'.
The LPOGroup urged the committee to 'carefully consider the fairness, the validity, and the lawfulness' of what happened to Ms Holgate, and sought to have her 're-instated as the lawful CEO of Australia Post, as a matter of urgency'.
Was the Board directed to stand Ms Holgate aside?
According to the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (Department of Communications), Australia Post is 'legally and financially separate from the Australian Government', and its day-to-day operations 'are the responsibility of its Board and management'. Under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 (PGPA Act), the Board is the accountable authority, and under section 84 of the Australian Postal Corporation Act 1989 (APC Act), the Managing Director is appointed by the Board and 'holds office during the Board's pleasure'. Section 86 provides that 'the terms and conditions of this appointment are determined by the Board'.
The Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts (the Communications Minister), and the Minister for Finance, are joint Shareholder Ministers of Australia Post. The Department of Communications stated that it provides advice to the Communications Minister, in consultation with the Department of Finance, to support the Ministers' role 'in exercising strategic control of Australia Post'. This advice relates to issues such as:
matters pertaining to governance of Australia Post, including its reporting and accountability arrangements, and its regulatory obligations; and
the performance, financial returns and strategic direction of the business.
It is noted that the APC Act states it is the role of the Board 'to decide the objectives, strategies and policies to be followed by Australia Post'. The APC Act holds that the Board is responsible for key decisions in relation to the management of Australia Post, including the appointment of the Managing Director. Section 49 provides a process by which the Minister may issue directions to Australia Post, under certain conditions:
49 Minister may give directions to the Board
(1) Subject to subsection (2), the Minister may, after consultation with the Board, give to the Board such written directions in relation to the performance of Australia Post's functions as appear to the Minister to be necessary in the public interest.
(2) The Minister shall not give a direction under subsection (1) in relation to:
(a) rates of postage; or
(b) amounts to be charged for work done, or services, goods or information supplied, by Australia Post.
(3) Where the Minister gives a direction under subsection (1), the Minister shall cause a copy of the direction to be laid before each House of the Parliament within 15 sitting days of that House after giving the direction. [emphasis added]
Section 50 stipulates that Australia Post and the Board are 'not otherwise subject to government direction':
Except as otherwise provided by or under this or any other Act, Australia Post and its Board are not subject to direction by or on behalf of the Australian Government. [emphasis added]
Section 22 of the PGPA Act, on corporate Commonwealth entities, stipulates that the Finance Minister 'may make an order…that specifies a policy of the Australian Government that is to apply in relation to one or more corporate Commonwealth entities'. However, the Finance Minister 'must be satisfied that the Minister responsible for the policy has consulted the entity on the application of the policy' prior to making the order. There is no evidence that the 'instruction' to stand Ms Holgate aside was made using an order under this provision.
Mr Di Bartolomeo used different language at various points during the inquiry regarding whether the government had 'directed' the Board to stand Ms Holgate aside, or 'requested' the Board to stand her aside.
On 13 April 2021, Mr Di Bartolomeo was asked why the Board did not provide any natural justice or fair process to Ms Holgate before standing her aside, and he replied:
It wasn't our decision. It was an independent investigation called by the shareholder minister to be undertaken independently by the departments using outside legal counsel. That was in place. On the basis that that was in place, we came to the judgement—yes, in the background that the minister would like her to stand aside—as a board that it would be best for her to stand aside…
After saying it was not the Board's decision, Mr Di Bartolomeo said the Minister's instruction regarding Ms Holgate was a 'request': 'I took it as a request… That doesn't mean the board ignores that request, but it considers it as part of the overall evidence'.
It was put to the Chair that he could have asked the Minister to submit a formal section 49 direction in relation to Ms Holgate. Mr Di Bartolomeo replied: 'No. We hadn't got the law books out'; and later: 'We didn't take it as a direction, but we understood what was said'.
Mr Di Bartolomeo was then asked if he understood there was a formal process required for issuing a direction to Australia Post under the APC Act. He said he did, 'and that's why I say there wasn't a direction'.
Advice from the Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation
The Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation (the Delegated Legislation Committee) wrote to the Environment and Communications References Committee on 21 May 2021 observing that there was 'a lack of clarity as to whether a direction was given' by the Communications Minister to the Board of Australia Post in relation to Ms Holgate.
The Delegated Legislation Committee noted conflicting evidence: a statement by the Prime Minister in the House of Representatives on 22 October 2020 that 'the chief executive has been instructed to stand aside'; against testimony from Mr Di Bartolomeo that it was a request. The Delegated Legislation Committee also advised that:
…it does not appear that any formal direction under section 49 of the [Australian Postal Corporation] Act was given by the Minister to Australia Post on 22 October 2020. In addition, it appears that no ministerial directions under section 49 of the Act have been given to the Board of Australia Post in the past ten years.
The Delegated Legislation Committee concluded by expressing its view that:
…if a direction was given by the Minister to the Board of Australia Post it would be appropriate to do so under section 49 of the Act, which provides for parliamentary scrutiny by requiring the tabling of such directions in both Houses of the Parliament.
If the Minister had issued a formal direction under section 49 of the APC Act, the direction would have been subject to parliamentary oversight. However, it would not have been subject to disallowance, as ministerial directions to persons or bodies are exempt.
The legality of the standing aside
Ms Holgate submitted:
My contract under clause 10.4(a) does give Australia Post the right to stand me down if it is investigating a serious disciplinary action involving me and after being satisfied there was a proper basis to do so. Neither was there a serious disciplinary offence, nor did the Chair take any time to consider it, nor were they investigating it, it was the Shareholder who were investigating the rewards. No process was followed.
Ms Holgate submitted legal advice provided by Mr Ingmar Taylor SC on the legality of the standing aside. Mr Taylor advised that the relevant clause in Ms Holgate's contract was Clause 10.4(a), relating to 'Gardening Leave'. Clause 10.4(a) 'provided Australia Post with the right to direct Ms Holgate to perform only such duties as Australia Post may determine or not to perform any duties at all in certain limited circumstances'. This right could only be exercised by Australia Post 'during a period of notice of termination', referred to as 'gardening leave', or 'during any period in which Australia Post is investigating any disciplinary issue' involving Ms Holgate. Mr Taylor also noted that the contract stipulated, at clause 14.1, that 'it could only be varied or replaced by a document executed by both parties'. In other words, variations must be in writing, and co-signed.
As part of his analysis, Mr Taylor considered the role of the Shareholder Ministers, and the statement to Ms Holgate in correspondence from the Chair on 24 October 2020 that she 'was being stood aside "pending the outcome of the Shareholder's investigation and any further action taken by Australia Post"'. Mr Taylor noted that clause 10.4(a) 'applied only if there was to be an investigation of a disciplinary nature by Australia Post', and the investigation was not being undertaken by Australia Post.
As there was no disciplinary investigation process being conducted by Australia Post, Mr Taylor argued:
There would have to be, at the very least, a very serious question as to whether it could have formed the requisite view given relevant facts known to Australia Post at that time as to the circumstances in which the watches had been purchased, which demonstrated their purchase involved no misconduct by Ms Holgate.
Mr Taylor concluded that, without Ms Holgate's express agreement to stand aside, the Board's actions in standing her aside were 'in breach of contract and so unlawful', entitling her to end the contract and seek compensation. However, Mr Taylor also noted there was 'a factual dispute as to whether Ms Holgate agreed to stand aside'.
The letter from the Chair to Ms Holgate, dated 24 October 2020, communicated the Chair's assertion that Ms Holgate agreed to stand aside, although, as Ms Holgate submitted, it also 'asserts that the standing down was instructed by the Shareholder'. Ms Holgate contended that: 'the shareholder has no right to instruct me to stand down without going through due process. His letter blatantly ignores the law or my contract'.
Testimony from Board Directors confirmed that the Board did not consider Ms Holgate's contract on the day she stood aside/was stood aside.
Testimony from Board Directors and Australia Post staff supports Ms Holgate's assertion that the Board did not consult or consider her contract on the day she stood aside/was stood aside, nor did the Board receive and consider any legal advice that day.
The Shareholder Ministers announced that Ms Holgate was standing aside at 5.25 pm, shortly after a call from Mr Di Bartolomeo, who had just come out of a meeting with the Board. According to the Chair's own evidence, he did not secure Ms Holgate's agreement to stand aside until 5.50 pm (which Ms Holgate disputes in any case).
The phone records suggest (but do not prove) that the Board agreed it would acquiesce to the Shareholder's instruction to stand Ms Holgate aside, then the Chair communicated this to Minister Fletcher directly at 5.00 pm, after which the Shareholder Ministers made their announcement. This would indicate that securing Ms Holgate's agreement to stand aside was not considered by Shareholder Ministers to be critical to the process.
The committee also notes that Mr Di Bartolomeo did not ask Ms Holgate to confirm that she was agreeing to stand aside in writing on 22 October 2020. In fact, an attempt to confirm this arrangement in writing was not made until 24 October 2020, after the Board had sought legal advice. If the Board understood on 22 October 2020 that, to be on solid legal footing, it needed Ms Holgate to agree to stand aside, then logically the Chair would have attempted to secure her agreement in writing at that time. No evidence has been submitted to indicate that this was done.
The absence of a written agreement, or evidence of an attempt to secure one on 22 October 2020, suggests the Chair, and by extension, the Board, may not have understood at that stage it would require Ms Holgate's agreement to stand aside.
While circumstantial, this evidence suggests that the Board (whether under the instruction of, or in conjunction with, the Shareholder) acted unilaterally in relation to Ms Holgate's standing aside. This casts doubt on the assertion that Ms Holgate agreed to stand aside—Ms Holgate had no choice.
Culpability of the Board
Whether or not the Board is culpable for breach of contract in relation to standing Ms Holgate aside is a legal question, to be determined by a court.
The committee is of the view that the Chair and other Directors may have acted in dereliction of their duty. Specifically, Australia Post's Board Charter requires Directors to 'carry out their duties in accordance with the law and Australia Post's corporate governance policies and procedures, including Australia Post's Our Ethics Policy'.
Section 84 of the APC Act clearly designates the Board as the responsible authority in relation to any action to remove, or stand aside, the Managing Director of Australia Post. The Board took action to stand Ms Holgate aside because the Shareholder instructed, or requested, it to do so—not because the Board was concerned about her actions or her performance, and not as a result of any disciplinary action, or investigation by Australia Post. Board members, including the Chair, have stated that Ms Holgate was an excellent CEO, and they would have preferred she remain in the role.
It is concerning that the Chair and other Directors took less than 30 minutes to conduct the discussion, and make the decision to stand aside a CEO and Managing Director who, up until that moment, had their strong support. The committee is further concerned that Mr Nutt was communicating with Ms Holgate across the day, advising her on a statement saying that she wanted to take annual leave instead of standing aside—yet members of the Board were not informed about this fact, and Mr Nutt's interactions with Ms Holgate were not recorded in the Minutes.
Chapter 8 of this report provides further analysis of the Board, its independence, interests and procedures, and includes the committee's recommendations in this regard.
Culpability of the Prime Minister and Shareholder
Mr Nutt argued the reason for Ms Holgate's ultimate 'downfall' was her response in Estimates that the money spent on the watches was not taxpayers' money, which he said 'obviously came as a surprise to the board':
…do I think that Christine Holgate lacked an understanding of the public ownership of Australia Post? Of course she didn't. Do I think that Christine Holgate was purposely attempting to be discourteous or to be dismissive of public ownership and the proper use of public money? No, I don't. I do think that, in the heated atmosphere of estimates, she gave what I call 'the partial answer'. But I don't think that reflected a considered or full view by Christine Holgate of her responsibilities or of Australia Post et cetera. That then led to a whole series of commentaries by not just parliamentarians but the media and all sorts of people. That meant that during the course of the day Christine came under more and more pressure.
Ms Holgate was asked if she still holds 'the view that Australia Post does not use taxpayer money'. Ms Holgate replied that she has 'apologised for that statement', adding that, 'Australia Post is owned by the people of this country. Many of them are taxpayers'.
The LPOGroup speculated that the watches were just 'an excuse to put pressure on the CEO to stand aside, or be gone, pending an agenda that is yet to be disclosed'.
A number of submitters suggested that Ms Holgate was ultimately stood down because she did not share the views of the government on the strategic future direction for Australia Post. Chapter 9 of this report explores the future of Australia Post in detail.
Either way, the future of Ms Holgate's position as CEO and Managing Director of Australia Post was doubtful from the moment Minister Fletcher announced the investigation into the watches during Question Time around 2.30 pm on 22 October 2020, and said that Ms Holgate would stand aside. The Prime Minister's statement at around 2.41 pm that '[t]he chief executive has been instructed to stand aside and, if she doesn't wish to do that, she can go', can be seen to have sealed Ms Holgate's fate.
The Prime Minister had been briefed that Ms Holgate's position was that she had 'done no wrong', and did not wish to stand aside. In this context, the statement that she can stand aside 'or go' went beyond political rhetoric, and must be seen as a direct threat to Ms Holgate's continuation in the role.
The Prime Minister himself conceded that the events 'all happened within an hour', and that he was reacting out of 'shock' and 'outrage'. This explanation is inadequate. In a matter of hours, Ms Holgate's reputation was significantly damaged, her security of employment was thrown into disarray, and her mental and physical health were put in severe jeopardy. The following chapter, on Ms Holgate's resignation, addresses these issues further.
The Prime Minister and Minister Fletcher acted precipitously in demanding that Ms Holgate be stood aside. They made this demand without reference to due process, the relevant provisions of APC Act, or consideration of Ms Holgate's contract, and without applying procedural fairness or natural justice.
The Statement of Ministerial Standards establishes standards according to which 'all Ministers and Assistant Ministers are expected to conduct themselves'. The standards are designed to ensure that ministers 'maintain the trust of the Australian people'. Ministerial Standard 3.1 requires ministers to act with fairness:
Ministers must be able demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable steps to observe relevant standards of procedural fairness and good decision making applicable to decisions made by them in their official capacity.
Ministerial Standard 5.2, on responsibility, requires:
Ministers must not encourage or induce other public officials, including public servants, by their decisions, directions or conduct in office to breach the law, or to fail to comply with the relevant code of ethical conduct applicable to them in their official capacity.
The Maddocks investigation reportedly cost $350 000. Despite investing a significant amount of taxpayer money in the investigation, the Shareholder did not publish the findings until 22 January 2021, and has taken no action in relation to broader findings in the report relating to the failings of the Board. Chapter 8 explores this issue in more depth.
In making the decision to instruct the Board of Australia Post to stand aside its CEO and Managing Director, without taking 'reasonable steps to observe relevant standards of procedural fairness', the Minister (and apparently the Prime Minister, though his role is less clear) breached Ministerial Standard 3.1.
In compelling the Board to stand Ms Holgate aside, with or without her consent, and without respect to the provisions of the Australian Postal Corporations Act 1989, or the requirements of Ms Holgate's contract, the Minister breached Ministerial Standard 5.2.
The Ministerial Standards state that alleged breaches of the Standards, including by the Prime Minister, may be referred to 'an appropriate independent authority for investigation and/or advice'. However, the committee notes that, under the Standards, such referrals must be made by the Prime Minister.
The committee observes that inadequacy of referral and enforcement mechanisms for the Ministerial Standards highlights the dire and urgent need for the government to establish an effective Federal anti-corruption commission.
The committee notes the advice provided by the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation that there was no formal direction issued under section 49 of the Australian Postal Corporation Act 1989. As such, the committee recommends that the Australian Government refer the actions of the Minister for Communications, the Hon Paul Fletcher MP, on 22 October 2020—in particular his "instruction" to the Australia Post Board that it stand Ms Holgate aside—to the Auditor-General for investigation, including into any breaches of relevant legislation and policies of Australia Post.
Natural Justice and procedural fairness
Through the hearings the issues of natural justice and procedural fairness were raised in relation to the treatment of Ms Holgate.
Under the Australian Postal Corporation Act 1989 (APC Act), section 83 provides that '(t)he Managing Director is to be appointed by the Board' and under section 84, the Managing Director 'holds office during the Board's pleasure'.
Although this creates a different employment structure than that of other senior public servants, that right to procedural fairness and natural justice is no different to other senior public servants of the Commonwealth. Requirements and the right to be afforded procedural fairness were set out in the cases brought by Paul Barrett in 1999 and 2000.
Although there is complexity in these matters, even the most senior public servants are afforded the opportunity of natural justice, procedural fairness and an opportunity to respond to any conclusions that are put. The same principles should have been afforded to Ms Holgate. These are principles that the Board of Australia Post should have adhered to in its treatment of Ms Holgate, but instead in the board meeting on 22 October the Board felt it did 'not have to be considering legal issues at that point'.
Wider implications of the events
This section considers the possible precedent set by what happened to Ms Holgate. It also looks at the issues of bullying and gender-based discrimination in relation to Ms Holgate's treatment.
The case as a precedent
A number of submitters and commentators raised concerns about the possible precedent that could be set by what happened to Ms Holgate.
The CEPU remarked that the fact the Board stood Ms Holgate aside without clear grounds 'may set a dangerous precedent in terms of the application and management of disciplinary processes for workers at any level. It is a matter of workplace justice'.
Noting it does not 'act on behalf of Ms Holgate' but represents all postal workers; the CEPU said 'the treatment of all workers at Australia Post must adhere to Australian workplace laws, including the laws and processes relating to employee discipline and dismissal'. A Government Business Enterprise, such as Australia Post, must have 'governance and management' that is 'above reproach'. The CEPU also maintained that 'the accountability of the Board to the Australian people, represented by its Shareholder Ministers in the Government, is of paramount consideration in all matters'.
Was it bullying?
There is significant evidence to support the assertion that Ms Holgate was put under significant duress, and was treated unfairly. Mr Di Bartolomeo was asked if he placed Ms Holgate 'under any duress' to reach an agreement that she would stand aside. The Chair replied that he did not, but that he had 'argued strongly that…[it] was in her best interest, as well as ours'. Mr Di Bartolomeo agreed with assertions that Ms Holgate was 'in a state' and distressed at the time.
The Chair was asked if the Board provided Ms Holgate 'with any procedural fairness, any natural justice', and whether the Board sought 'any legal advice as to what her rights were in that regard'. Mr Di Bartolomeo answered, 'No':
What I asked of Ms Holgate was to agree to stand aside herself, for the benefits that I explained earlier… If she did not do that, then we would have to consider whether we would take other action…
It was put to Mr Di Bartolomeo that this sounded like a threat, an 'ultimatum'. The Chair refuted that suggestion, saying Ms Holgate agreed to stand aside, so the need to consider alternative action 'became irrelevant'.
During her appearance on 13 April 2021, Ms Holgate said that she 'was forced to stand down', and 'bullied out of [her] job'. She said she was 'humiliated and driven to despair', and 'thrown under the bus of the chairman of Australia Post to curry favour with his political masters'.
Professor Nareen Young, from the University of Technology, Sydney, commented in The Conversation that:
Being famous or in a well-paid, high powered job seems to offer no guarantee you can just go to work and get your job done without running the risk of unfair treatment or bullying.
But what about the experiences of those less privileged? This week, I've found myself asking yet again: if it can allegedly happen to Holgate at the highest level, or to famous actors on a top TV show, then what happens to other, less privileged women at work?
Ms Holgate told the committee that she wanted to make:
…a stand…for those who don't have the platform I have been given to fight against the bullying they have endured. There are so many Australians who have told me their own stories of being victims of workplace harassment. Today I stand here in support of them and all the people who have been intimidated but had no voice.
An issue of gender?
By all accounts, Ms Holgate was a high-performing and popular CEO. She is 'the only female to be awarded CEO of Year by the CEO Institute' and was 'named the highest-ranking female on Australian Financial Review's Power List'. Ms Holgate also submitted that she recently received 'a scorecard rating of 95% from the Australia Post Board'.
A large number of submitters expressed their support for Ms Holgate. One significant submission was from her fellow Board members on the Australia-ASEAN Council (AAC). The AAC Board members described Ms Holgate as a committed leader, who 'took the time to learn about the ASEAN region postal services and briefed the ASEAN ambassadors [and] the AAC board'. These submitters state that Ms Holgate 'developed a culture of collaboration and openness on the Board that can be an example for members of other advisory boards'.
Other submitters praised Ms Holgate's warmth and personal approach, the time she took to understand their issues, and the work she did to ensure licensees at Australia Post could make a sustainable living.
Despite her exceptional performance and popularity, and in the absence of any allegation of serious wrongdoing, the Minister took less than two hours to decide that Ms Holgate should stand down. Commentators have suggested that this treatment is indicative of a wider pattern of treatment towards women in power, especially in the Parliament. In an article for the Canberra Times, Ms Karen Barlow wrote that 'the treatment of Ms Holgate appears to have failed the greater test of 2021…would this happen to a man? Christine Holgate herself says no'.
Noting that the Chair admitted Ms Holgate was treated 'abysmally', Ms Barlow said:
Ms Holgate may not be Australia Post's CEO anymore, but she is not going anywhere. Nor is the broader issue of the unequal treatment, bullying and harassment that women face in the work, which the Morrison government has belatedly realised and is scrambling to respond to.
She sees the difference in treatment between what has happened to her and the survival of the Cabinet ministers Alan Tudge and Christian Porter over allegations first raised on Four Corners last year.
Ms Holgate also noted the difference in treatment, submitting examples of media commentary and criticism she had faced in the wake of the watches scandal, some of which was deeply upsetting to her:
I think it would be fair to say that I've never seen a media article comment about a male politician's watch. Yet I was depicted as a prostitute for making those comments; I was humiliated. I have never seen any male public servant depicted in that way. So do I believe that it's partially a gender issue? You're absolutely right I do.
Ms Holgate also commented on an apparent double standard that she observed in relation to members of the government and 'men who have been accused of behaving badly'. Ms Holgate was asked if she felt there was 'a difference in the way that [she was] treated by the Prime Minister'. Ms Holgate replied:
I absolutely do. No-one afforded me the opportunity. The chair spoke to me briefly twice. I'm told the Prime Minister was not briefed properly. I still do not believe that really allows those actions to take place. I don't just lead Australia Post; I co-chair the trade board for this country with one of his ministers. You would have hoped I may have been deserved the opportunity for either the minister or the Prime Minister to speak to me. Neither did. The Prime Minister has never spoken to me, and I'm sure his team has looked through comprehensively the evidence I provided to the Senate.
A stark contrast with the swift and brutal public condemnation of Ms Holgate by the Prime Minister unfolded the very next day. Revelations that the Chairman of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), Mr James Shipton, 'paid more than $118,000 [of taxpayers' money] for his personal tax advice' led to the launch of an investigation, and Mr Shipton stepped aside, pending the outcome. Asked to comment on the matter, Mr Morrison said it was 'a matter for the Treasurer'. However, he also said: 'I think there wouldn't be a board member of a government agency or a CEO of a government agency that did not get my message yesterday', referring to his public comments about Ms Holgate.
Ms Holgate concluded by suggesting the double standard was clear to see in the way she was 'hung in parliament and humiliated'—apparently for making a 'wrong comment' after a lengthy session of questioning at Senate Estimates— when men in public office have endured less scrutiny, even after serious allegations of abuse towards women.
The Prime Minister's statement that Ms Holgate could 'stand aside or go' meant that losing her job at Australia Post was a foregone conclusion. It is disingenuous to suggest that she chose to stand aside, or that her later resignation was anything other than inevitable.
Mr Morrison's comments on 23 October 2020, when he said 'there wouldn't be a board member of a government agency or a CEO of a government agency that did not get my message yesterday', suggests Ms Holgate was used to set a public example, as a display of power, to show that the government 'means business'.
The scandal of the watches also, no doubt, provided a convenient distraction from bigger issues plaguing the government that week. Issues such as the outrageous Leppington Triangle deal, and the continued failure of the government to make progress on establishing a Federal anti-corruption commission.
The Prime Minister's comment exposes a deeply concerning attitude. It suggests a lack of respect for due process, for procedural fairness, and a willingness to treat people without dignity or compassion at the highest level within the government. This is an attitude that has also been taken by the Australia Post Board. Their behaviour does not accord with the principles of integrity and the highest standards of ethical behaviour that they should follow when exercising independent judgement as board members. As the committee has already highlighted there is precedent for even the most senior public servants being afforded natural justice and procedural fairness.
The government's treatment of Ms Holgate also raises the question: if a popular and high-performing CEO of Australia Post can be sacrificed to set 'an example', what protections are there for anyone in the public sector?
It is evident that Ms Holgate is a wealthy and well connected person, with significant supports in place. These factors that have ultimately meant that, despite the significant impacts on her mental and physical health, Ms Holgate has been able to survive—perhaps even to overcome—the challenges of these events. However, as Ms Holgate herself submitted, what she has been through 'should never be allowed to happen again, not just at Australia Post, but in any organisation, to any person, in any role'.
The committee recognises that these factors may reduce the sympathy felt by many towards what happened to Ms Holgate. However, this inquiry was not just about what happened to Ms Holgate.
This inquiry has exposed the darker side of government control and interference into statutory entities; and the way in which proper procedure, fairness, and due process can be simply ignored when they are inconvenient.
It is apparent that a culture exists, operating outside the legislated guidelines applying to these entities, which allows 'independent' agencies to be controlled by ministers and their advisers, who give informal directions, in a completely unaccountable manner to Boards and their Chairs.
These informal directions are given over the phone, or verbally in person, and are rarely formalised in writing, allowing ministers and their departments to avoid scrutiny for their decisions.
What happened to Ms Holgate puts in stark relief that this culture—which encourages secrecy, imposes confidentiality, demands loyalty, and goes to great lengths to protect those that are 'in the tent'—can also fail to provide protection to those who are not. This failure is inherent also in the case of political staffer, Ms Brittany Higgins.
Ms Higgins alleges she was raped by a colleague in Parliament House, not provided with appropriate support, and encouraged to keep the incident quiet. Constitutional scholar, Professor Gabrielle Appleby, said the Parliament is characterised by 'a highly competitive work environment where workers are treated as disposable'. Professor Appleby said:
…because a politician has a democratic mandate…those who work for them are directly employed. This creates an extraordinary one on one employment relationship in which one person holds all of the power.
In the wake of these allegations, the government has acknowledged that cultural and structural changes are required. On Friday 5 March 2021, the government announced an independent review into Commonwealth Parliamentary workplaces, to be led by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Kate Jenkins. The review aims to 'ensure all Commonwealth Parliamentary workplaces are safe and respectful and that our national Parliament reflects best practice in the prevention and handling of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault'.
What is alleged to have happened to Ms Higgins is a heinous criminal act. The committee is not making a comparison between what happened to Ms Holgate and what happened to Ms Higgins. However, both cases demonstrate the dire need for the Jenkins review. The committee hopes the review shines a light into the dark corners of the parliament and public sector, and leads to changes in legislation, culture and procedure.
The Australian government makes the laws which govern Australian workplaces. As an employer, it must set an example. Its practices must be beyond reproach. It can no longer treat workers as if they are disposable.
The committee recommends that the Australia Post Board and Shareholder Ministers and the Prime Minister apologise to Ms Holgate for denying her the legal principles of procedural fairness and natural justice in her departure from Australia Post.
The committee recommends that the Solicitor-General investigate the legality of the instruction from Shareholder Ministers to the Australia Post Board on 22 October 2020 that the Board should stand Ms Holgate aside while an investigation takes place into the purchase of the watches.
The instruction should be investigated in relation to the provisions of the Australian Postal Corporation Act 1989, in particular sections 49, 50 and 84, and any relevant sections of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013.
The committee recommends that the government re-set the relationship between the Shareholder and Australia Post, clarify the proper role of the Shareholder, and restore an appropriate level of independence to the Board.
The question of the Board's independence is considered in detail in Chapter 8.