On 2 November 2020, convinced that she did not have the support of the Board, and that her position was 'no longer tenable', Ms Christine Holgate emailed the Chair to offer her resignation.
This chapter looks in detail at:
the actions of the Board and Australia Post leading up to Ms Holgate's resignation;
Ms Holgate's resignation on 2 November 2020;
the actions of Shareholder Ministers leading up to, and following, the resignation;
the status of Ms Holgate's employment and contract with Australia Post; and
efforts to resolve the matter.
Actions of the Board and Australia Post leading up to the resignation
The events of 22 October 2020 clearly had an extremely detrimental effect on Ms Holgate's mental and physical health.
The letter from the Chair to Ms Holgate dated 24 October 2020 stated that Ms Holgate was being investigated in relation to 'serious concerns' held by the Shareholder. It warned Ms Holgate not to have work-related communications with employees of Australia Post, informed her that she was 'required' to cooperate with the investigation and attend interviews, and told her that she was 'required to maintain confidentiality' and 'directed not to contact or discuss this matter with anyone inside or outside of Australia Post'.
On 26 October 2020, at 1.31 am, Ms Holgate sent a message to Ms Sue Davies, Executive General Manager, People and Culture at Australia Post, who had been designated her official contact for support while she was stood aside. The message said:
'I am so low. I have sent you an email'. Included in that email I write 'Sue I have woken up to streams of messages of support. But I am seriously struggling. I am deeply stressed. I have never felt this low and publicly threatened in all my life. I am loosing [sic] all my strength. I am absolutely shattered. I can not sleep. I have those pains in my chest. I do not want to live like this. Please will you help me'.
The letter Ms Holgate received from Australia Post on 25 October 2020, confirming the standing aside, included that Ms Holgate 'should not have any work-related communications with any directors, officers, employees, contractors, agents or customers of Australia Post, without first consulting with Mr Jon Cox [Executive General Manager, Transformation and Enablement, Australia Post]'. This letter, and the Chair and Board's failure to publicly support Ms Holgate, made her feel that she had been 'deliberately isolated' and 'contributed to a significant decline in [her] health'.
In addition to feeling outcast, Ms Holgate felt abandoned. She submitted, following the events of 22 October 2020, the Board—in particular, Mr Di Bartolomeo—'abandoned [her] to a media firestorm that he and others had created and cut [her] off from resources, despite knowing that these events had caused [her] to seek mental health care and medication'.
One practical example of the lack of support from Australia Post was in regards to what Ms Holgate called 'defamatory comments' that were circulating in the media immediately following her standing aside. On 27 October 2020, Ms Holgate emailed staff at Australia Post twice to ask 'that they correct the inaccuracies in the media'. Ms Holgate 'received a phone call from an Australia Post manager to inform [her] the media stories would not be corrected and that they had been given instructions from the top'.
Mr Di Bartolomeo submitted that it was not the Board's intention to permanently remove Ms Holgate from her role; that the Board 'never wanted to lose Ms Holgate as our CEO'. Asked if Ms Holgate would still be Group Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director (CEO) if she had not resigned, Mr Di Bartolomeo replied; 'Yes, I believe she could have been'.
Ms Holgate said this evidence was unconvincing. In her response to Australia Post's submission and other evidence, Ms Holgate stated: 'I personally find it offensive that the Australia Post Chair can write "we were saddened and disappointed when Ms Holgate resigned"'.
Australia Post Director Mr Tony Nutt provided similar evidence, suggesting Ms Holgate simply had to 'hold her ground':
By ignoring the short-term politics and the increasingly inaccurate, on occasion completely false, and sometimes rather vile commentary and concentrating on methodically sorting through all the queries of the investigation, Ms Holgate would be the CEO today… Ms Holgate would be CEO today because she had the support of the chair and every member of the board of Australia Post throughout what was an unexpected and challenging time.
However, Board Director Ms Deidre Willmott was more circumspect:
It was Ms Holgate who reached the view that her position was untenable. The board did not ask her to resign, but, in the circumstances, and given the week that had preceded and the statements by public figures as to her position, it was difficult to take a different view than that her position was untenable—or it was easy to understand why she herself had reached that view.
Another comment from the Chair on 13 April 2021 appears to acknowledge that he too believed Ms Holgate's resignation was inevitable:
She resigned on 2 November. We accepted that she would resign. As you say, she offered and we accepted. The rationale for that was that, notwithstanding that she was the CEO, when you go through the circumstances that she went through, she came to the conclusion that it was untenable for her to continue. We reluctantly came to similar conclusions: that it was untenable.
Ms Davies explained that she was 'disappointed with how [Ms Holgate] was treated from the point of the Senate [Estimates hearing]', and disappointed with the process after that. She said: 'I'm very disappointed for a lot of things that have happened—the process. There have been some very dark days for all of us, and especially for Christine'.
The Chair's letter to Ms Holgate on 24 October 2020 understandably left her feeling that she had been 'criminalised', ostracised, and shut out from the organisation.
It quickly became clear to Ms Holgate that the Board and senior management were not going to publicly support her, and that Australia Post was not intending to defend her in any way.
The depth of Ms Holgate's distress is captured in her message to Ms Davies in the early hours of 26 October 2020. This message is revealing and suggests that Ms Holgate already believed she would not be supported to return to her position, regardless of any finding of the investigation.
The committee has not been provided with any evidence to suggest that the Board or Australia Post expected that Ms Holgate would resume her role. Australia Post did not make any statements in support of Ms Holgate during the time she was stood down, and it did not make any attempt to correct inaccuracies in reporting. There is no evidence to suggest that the Board 'fought' to retain its CEO, or to clear her name.
A number of Board members have spoken about Ms Holgate's resignation as if it were a forgone conclusion. This is consistent with the committee's view that the standing aside of Ms Holgate was instructed by the Shareholder and the Prime Minister, and the Board was simply enacting the government's will.
Ms Holgate's resignation
Ms Holgate sent her email at 10.46 am on 2 November 2020 to the Chair and other members of the Australia Post Board. She attached a letter entitled 'Offer of Resignation', and a document entitled 'Christine Holgate Offers Resignation Statement'. In the letter, Ms Holgate wrote:
Regrettably, given the recent events, I have come to the view that my continuation as Chief Executive [is] untenable.
I have done no wrong, but I believe the current situation is not in the best interests of the organisation, our customers, our people or my own health.
Consequently, I am offering to resign as both Chief Executive and as a Director with immediate effect. I do not seek my financial compensation.
The terms of the investigation are now to hand and notwithstanding my resignation I am available to participate in it.
It has been an honour and a privilege to serve Australia Post and I am disappointed that I am unable to continue in my role.
This must come to an end today so I would appreciate if you could give me your favourable response. I attach a copy of an external statement which I will be releasing at 2pm, in any event.
The resignation statement that Ms Holgate attached along with the letter said she was offering her resignation 'with great sadness', 'with immediate effect', and that she was 'not seeking any financial compensation'. It clarified that she 'deeply' regretted that her decision to use watches to reward the Bank@Post executives had 'caused so much debate and distraction', and that she appreciated 'the optics of the gifts involved do not pass the 'pub test' for many'. Ms Holgate stated that she had 'no animosity towards the Government' and that she had 'enjoyed working with the Prime Minister, the Shareholder Ministers and many other political leaders'.
Ms Holgate emphasised that, at the time she drafted and sent the letter and resignation statement, she 'was managing high levels of anxiety', 'was on sick leave and under medication', and that the statement was drafted by Ms Holgate herself, not by lawyers. Ms Holgate submitted that she intended to negotiate terms in relation to ending her contract that day with Australia Post.
Ms Holgate was with her lawyer, her communications advisor, Mr Ross Thornton, and two others, when she sent the letter. She texted Mr Nutt to let him know it had been sent. Mr Nutt tried to call Ms Holgate, but she told him that communication should go formally through each party's lawyers. Ms Holgate said they waited and waited, but the Chair did not contact her, and '[n]obody from the Board called [her] to resolve the matter that day'.
Mr Di Bartolomeo forwarded Ms Holgate's resignation statement to the Chief of Staff for the Minister for Communications, Mr Ryan Bloxom, and a Deputy Secretary of the Department of Finance, and provided it to a small number of executives in Australia Post, at around 11.45 am.
According to Ms Holgate, at approximately 1.30 pm, 'Sky News claimed they had been briefed that [she] was to resign imminently'. Ms Holgate believed this indicated her statement had been leaked:
As my letter had only been given to the Chair and the Board, plus the people sitting in the room with me, we all became further disappointed realising that the leak would have stemmed from the Board.
Australia Post disputed Ms Holgate's evidence in relation to the timing of the Sky News broadcast:
The first mention in the media of a potential resignation announcement appears to have taken place at approximately 2:05pm on 2 November 2020, when Andrew Clennell identified on Sky News' television broadcast that he had heard speculation Ms Holgate would resign (see www.skynews.com.au/details/_6206285295001).
Asked to clarify this evidence, Ms Holgate submitted, 'at 1.30pm we received a call from Sky News that they had been briefed I was to resign immediately'. Thus, Ms Holgate's evidence was not ultimately that Sky News aired the broadcast at 1.30 pm, but that the network contacted her for comment at 1.30 pm.
When she and her supporters became aware that the statement was already in the public domain, and they had not been contacted by the Board to reach an agreement, they 'felt forced to admit that [she] had written to the Chair and the Board and offered to resign'. Ms Holgate 'confirmed and released the statement as it had been shared with the Board earlier that day [and] advised the organisation'.
Ms Holgate originally submitted that this occurred around 2.20 pm, but later clarified that she emailed her final statement to her communications consultant, Mr Thornton, 'at 2.14pm (after the story had gone to air) and asked him to release it'. Ms Holgate stated that Mr Thornton sent it out 'shortly afterwards, at approximately 2.20pm–2.30pm'.
Australia Post submitted that Ms Holgate emailed her resignation statement to three Australia Post staff, Ms Davies and two others, at 2.10 pm, with the subject line, 'With my deepest regrets'; then emailed it to Australia Post's executive team at 2.29 pm, saying:
It is with great sadness; that today [I] have informed the Chair and the Board of my resignation as Chief Executive of Australia Post with immediate effect. Attached is a copy of a statement that I have given this afternoon… I have made the very difficult decision to resign, hoping the organisation can get fully focused on serving our customers.
While not directly disputing the notion that there was a leak, Australia Post appears to suggest that Ms Holgate released her statement herself at 2.00 pm, as her letter stated she intended to. Australia Post questioned its officials, all of whom said they did not leak Ms Holgate's statement.
By 2.29 pm, Ms Holgate's resignation had been publicly confirmed. Australia Post submitted that, to the best of its knowledge, the first 'mention in the media of the actual resignation announcement' was at 2.29 pm on
2 November 2020, on the ABC, when Business Reporter, Mr David Taylor, 'tweeted that Ms Holgate had resigned, quoting content from Ms Holgate's resignation statement'.
In her submission, Ms Holgate implies that at 3.13 pm, she and her supporters were still waiting for a response from the Board. It was at this time Ms Holgate said Australia Post published a statement that Ms Holgate had resigned. Then, at 4.13 pm, Ms Holgate received an email from the Chair, asking her to sign a variation to her contract. She did not sign it. Issues relating to Ms Holgate's contract are discussed later in this chapter.
Australia Post's evidence confirms the timing of the statement (at 3.15 pm, according to Australia Post), which was from the Chair, on behalf of the Board of Directors of Australia Post, advising that Ms Holgate had resigned, effective immediately. Shortly afterwards, it sent a message informing employees, contractors, licensees, and others.
At 5.08 pm, the Shareholder Ministers jointly acknowledged that the Australia Post Board had accepted Ms Holgate's resignation.
Ms Holgate was asked why, if she was expecting to negotiate terms with Australia Post on the day of her resignation, she included the 2pm deadline in her letter of resignation, and said she would release the statement at that time 'in any event'. She responded:
I drafted the statement when I was very ill, it is well documented about the significant deterioration of my health and the medication I was taking at this stage and I wanted many things to stop happening. The week prior to drafting the statement I asked multiple times for help and for Australia Post to correct incorrect statements being made about me. Board members were aware of the cartoon depicting me as a prostitute, but they did nothing to defend my honour. I often copied on emails asking for help [to] Tony Nutt and Andrea Staines (Both Board Members), whom I had been advised were appointed by the Board to 'manage' my situation. Australia Post said they would not correct incorrect news reports. I asked Australia Post to put out a statement from me on their intranet for Licensed Post Offices to not close in support of me, as they had planned to – they chose not to. Australia Post did make two statements on the 23rd October 2020, both referring to me but they neither consulted with me nor informed me they had been released; I was told of them via the media. The Board had taken no actions to publicly support me, and they allowed considerable misreporting, which defamed me and caused me considerable harm. I was urging the Board for a decision and help. It was in this context that I wrote that line.
Actions of the Board and Australia Post following the resignation
After her resignation, Ms Holgate submitted that Australia Post continued to treat her poorly. Australia Post has disputed these claims.
On the afternoon of 2 November 2020, Ms Holgate sent an email to Australia Post's Head of Communications containing a farewell message and requesting it be sent to all Australia Post employees. Ms Holgate stated that she received a reply saying: 'This is an excellent note. I have sent to Rodney for his OK and would be very happy to distribute this afternoon'. However, Ms Holgate's letter to employees was not distributed that day. Ms Holgate submitted this was because 'it was not supported by the Acting CEO'.
The failure of Australia Post to distribute Ms Holgate's farewell message to employees caused Ms Holgate significant distress. It was not until 5 November 2020 that Australia Post eventually sent the message:
I spoke to Sue Davies and shared with her my sincere disappointment that Australia Post would not approve sending out my employee note. So many employees were writing to me and I felt it was disrespectful to both them and myself. It made it look to them like I didn't care about them, and this was extremely distressing to me. At approximately 1pm my email access [was] withdrawn. At approximately 2.30pm my employee note was sent out as Sue Davies had escalated the matter and raised her concerns regarding how unreasonable this was. As Australia Post had cut me off, even employees receiving the email could not reach out to me.
Ms Davies confirmed that it was through a 'conversation with the acting CEO' that she was able to advocate for the communication to be sent out on Ms Holgate's behalf:
I'm not sure why the decision was not to send that letter out. Christine wanted to write to 36,000 people and explain what had happened and her decision to resign. I saw no harm in that. I wanted Christine to have the opportunity for people to respond to her as well, and thank her. And that's exactly what happened. She received many, many responses. I thought that was really, really important for Christine's state of health and state of mind at the time.
Australia Post's letter to Ms Holgate on 24 October 2020 had nominated Mr Cox as her contact for support regarding the Shareholder's investigation. However, after seeking assistance with documents to prepare for the investigation, Ms Holgate submitted that on 8 November 2020 she 'received a phone call from John Cox leaving a message that Rodney Boys had instructed him not to provide me with any information and that any requests should go via our lawyers'. Ms Holgate interpreted this to mean that Australia Post no longer intended to provide her with any assistance or support to participate in the investigation. According to Ms Holgate, the only support she received from that point on was 'moral support from [her former Executive Assistant and Sue Davies] (both of whom have been extremely professional) and other employees'.
In the weeks that followed, Ms Holgate was asked to complete a number of tasks by Australia Post relating to the investigation and freedom of information (FOI) requests. Noting her resignation, Ms Holgate felt that Australia Post's continued demands were designed to cause her 'harm'. Ms Holgate claimed that Australia Post made these tasks technically difficult by sending her locked documents, partial documents, or imposing unrealistic deadlines Ms Holgate and her lawyer then had to negotiate more reasonable terms.
Australia Post refuted these claims, saying that it was 'required under legislation to consult with Ms Holgate to ensure that it met its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 1982', and that Ms Holgate 'was afforded all opportunities and assistance by Australia Post reasonably required to allow [her] to review and respond appropriately'. Australia Post said it 'worked tirelessly with Ms Holgate during the consultation process to accommodate her requests and to mitigate concerns she raised'.
Australia Post explained that it produced cover sheets 'with explanatory comments', which were not required as part of the FOI process, but were agreed 'in recognition of Ms Holgate's concerns and her on-going interest in the production of the documents'. Australia Post provided Ms Holgate with the support of her former Executive Assistant 'as a resource to assist Ms Holgate throughout the process'.
In conclusion, Australia Post submitted that it:
…rejects any assertion that it acted in an unreasonable manner or to cause Ms Holgate harm. Rather, it expended considerable time and expense (corresponding with Ms Holgate's lawyers) in seeking to accommodate Ms Holgate's efforts to provide her explanations for the various expenses incurred on those credit cards.
Duty of care
Ms Holgate submitted that the Board was negligent in that it failed to fulfil its duty of care to her. She submitted:
…under the Fair Work Act, if somebody is on sick leave—which I was, and they were aware of it; it was formally sick leave, with a doctor, and they knew I was on temazepam [insomnia medication] and that I was suicidal—in that situation they have an obligation of duty, if somebody offers to resign, to test that that resignation is real. There was no testing. The chair never called me. The chair never said: 'Christine, are you sure this is really what you want to do? We know you are ill'.
Australia Post responded to this claim, saying, 'the Chair sought (without success) to contact Ms Holgate during a break in the Board meeting on 2 November 2020, from 1.35 pm to 2.45 pm'. Phone records show the calls were made as submitted.
After Ms Holgate sent her resignation to the Chair, Mr Nutt called her and she told him she 'could not speak' to Board members, in case she 'be manipulated further'. Australia Post disputed this characterisation of Ms Holgate as vulnerable, pointing out that Ms Holgate 'is a very experienced and very capable executive and non-executive director', and that she was accompanied by a 'team of experts advising and supporting her, including a barrister, a lawyer, and a media adviser' when she resigned.
Ms Holgate was asked about the missed calls from the Chair on 2 November 2020. She replied:
I have no evidence of these calls; your question is my first knowledge of any possibility of them. I asked many times for phone records, and these were never provided until after submissions [to this inquiry] were due, I was even told Australia Post could charge me for providing them. I have no confidence in any evidence provided by the Chair, he has proved highly unreliable throughout this inquiry. If Australia Post had wanted to contact me, why did they not contact my lawyer or message me by text? They did not. If they were in doubt, they should have not gone ahead, especially considering how ill, they knew I was. They failed in their duties.
Asked if the Board should have accepted her resignation when it knew of Ms Holgate's mental health concerns and the fact that she was on medication and receiving psychological treatment, Mr Di Bartolomeo replied:
I was certainly aware in the immediate aftermath of the Senate estimates of 22 October that she was under great stress. I agree. Ten days later, Christine sends us a resignation letter…and a copy of a statement she was going to make publicly at two o'clock in any event. And it was a rational letter, a rational statement she was making. While we were very reluctant in the circumstances, we understood the circumstances.
Ms Holgate also suggested Australia Post failed to support her following her resignation. Australia Post disputed this claim:
Australia Post acknowledges that this has been an exceptionally challenging time for the organisation and for Ms Holgate personally… Australia Post's support of Ms Holgate's wellbeing (via Ms Davies) continued following Ms Holgate's resignation on 2 November 2020.
Mr Di Bartolomeo defended Australia Post's efforts to support Ms Holgate, saying the organisation had 'tried to do as much as possible to assist her'. The Chair said Australia Post had organised psychological support for Ms Holgate through the Employee Assistance Program, and provided support via Ms Davies, giving 'her the time and the permission to do that role'.
Mr Di Bartolomeo believed Ms Davies did it well 'within the limits that there were'.
Ms Davies said that it was 'hard to separate [herself] from [her] role as exec of people and culture', and her individual support of Ms Holgate. Ms Davies said:
I think different minds look at this differently. If we could all reflect and go back and hope that something could have been done differently—I think there are probably lots of things that could have been done differently.
Ms Davies was asked if she believed Australia Post had 'demonstrated a duty of care' to Ms Holgate. Ms Davies replied; 'I think that's a difficult question':
…we do care for our employees greatly. We have many policies, processes and procedures in place to care for our people and to make sure that our people have the right care and support. This is an unprecedented situation—certainly with the CEO of the organisation—but I certainly feel that Australia Post absolutely supports people and has a duty of care.
Actions of the Shareholder Ministers
On 3 November 2020, after her resignation, the Communications Minister,
the Hon Paul Fletcher MP, tried to call Ms Holgate and she missed the call. Ms Holgate and the Minister spoke later that day 'for about five minutes'. The Minister 'asked how [she] was' and 'thanked [Ms Holgate] for [her] service'. Ms Holgate said that she told the Minister 'how difficult everything had been and how disappointed [she] was with the situation', making it clear that she was 'really unhappy'.
On 23 November 2020, Ms Holgate contacted Senator the Hon
Simon Birmingham, Minister for Finance, via email to outline concerns about her treatment by Australia Post and the government, and to seek a resolution to her contract, which she believed was unresolved. Ms Holgate's email said:
I have not done anything to justify what has happened to me. I purchased 4 watches for 4 managers who had done an outstanding job 2 years ago, securing the largest investment in our history into our Community Post Offices and saving a critical process and subsequently the viability of our Licensed Post Office partners. They were approved by the then Chair as evidenced in his note to each of them. They were within my signing authority. In today's environment giving watches may not pass a 'pub test' for some, but this was not now, it was two years ago for a substantial gain for the organization and the communities we serve. Ironically, I could have given them an additional bonus of $100k each, all within my signing authority and no one would have complained.
I find it puzzling that neither the Minister nor Prime Minister appeared to know these facts when commenting in Parliament on [22 October 2020]; their comments suggested they believed it had happened recently…
I have tried to remain respectful throughout the investigation process. I have honoured my commitment and I did not speak to journalists during these 4 weeks, nor did I reach out to members of the Government, whom I know well to avoid any risk of interfering with the process.
Most importantly, I did not agree to stand aside or stand down… This issue has been the cause of great concern to me and I am advised, what the Australia Post Chair did is unlawful…
I have had no voice throughout this investigation period and it is only now that it is finished, do I have an opportunity to address what has happened to me…
At the very least, I would like a public apology of the events that have happened to me, acknowledgement that what I did was not breaking any company governance and that I was rewarding 4 managers for an outstanding performance, which saved a critical service in the Community Post Offices, which more than 50% of all communities depend on. I would like my integrity as a Corporate leader reinstated.
On 25 November 2020, Minister Birmingham called Ms Holgate at 9.00 am. Ms Holgate submitted that they spoke for approximately 45 minutes and the Minister suggested she forward her correspondence to Minister Fletcher and that the three of them meet to discuss a resolution. Ms Holgate sent the correspondence to Minister Fletcher, and submits that she received no response.
After following up and again receiving no further response, Ms Holgate concluded that her attempts to reach out to the Shareholder Ministers had ultimately failed: 'Time after time, I reached out and asked for help to resolve things amicably. I have received none'.
The Licenced Post Office Group (LPOGroup) sought to advocate on behalf of Ms Holgate and was unhappy with the ministers' responses.
Minister Fletcher conducted a meeting with the LPOGroup on 18 November 2020, during which the LPOGroup said he 'refuted' its suggestion that Ms Holgate's contract of employment was not finalised. In addition, the Minister:
…assured LPOGroup that Christine Holgate could be replaced with a CEO of equal quality, who would continue to progress Ms Holgate's plans and strategies, as she had been doing. [The LPOGroup] expressed [its] opinion that that was highly unlikely.
Minister Birmingham met with the LPOGroup by teleconference on 13 January 2021, and reportedly supported Minister Fletcher's position.
Ms Holgate was 'greatly disappointed' that both the Shareholder Ministers and the Prime Minister's Office 'all knew' that there were ongoing issues in relation to Ms Holgate's resignation and contract with Australia Post, and that her 'health was seriously suffering':
Yet they have all done nothing to help resolve it, even after several requests for help and now claim what has happened to me following the events in Parliament, was a matter for the Board.
From the moment it gave effect to the Shareholder's instruction to stand Ms Holgate aside, the Board was limited in its ability to support her.
Publically defending Ms Holgate—even correcting blatant errors in media reporting—would have exposed the Board to allegations of hypocrisy and attracted further scrutiny on the decision to stand her aside and other Board actions of 22 October 2020. No doubt it would also have put the Board at odds with the Shareholder.
Complying with the Shareholder's instruction meant the Board and Australia Post had to treat Ms Holgate as if she was suspected of serious misconduct. This was very distressing to Ms Holgate. Australia Post made an attempt to meet its minimum obligations to support Ms Holgate, such as through providing the support of Ms Davies, access to psychological services, and ongoing assistance from Ms Holgate's former Executive Assistant. However, ultimately, Ms Holgate did not feel supported by Australia Post.
Evidence from Australia Post indicates that it made no substantial effort to confirm with Ms Holgate that her offer of resignation was made while she was in a fit state. At a minimum, the Board should have spoken with Ms Holgate (or her lawyer if that was her preference), prior to releasing a public statement about the resignation.
Some decisions made by Australia Post after Ms Holgate's standing aside and her resignation were poorly handled and added to her distress. The prime example is the initial refusal to distribute Ms Holgate's 'farewell' statement to employees. This disempowered and humiliated Ms Holgate, and the committee has been provided with no explanation for the delay.
There also seemed to be no clear, transparent process for removing Ms Holgate's access to technology, to files and emails, and to resources, and Ms Holgate was not informed about her rights, or provided with a clear separation plan or schedule. This should have been done, as Ms Holgate was obliged to continue participating in the Shareholder's investigation, which necessitated access to various documents and other resources. Australia Post's failure to have clear policies and processes in place to handle such matters should be rectified.
Australia Post must ensure that it has fair and transparent separation policies in place and clear mechanisms for dealing with any disputes. Recommendation 9 in Chapter 8 proposes that the Australian National Audit Office undertake an audit into the governance arrangements at Australia Post, including its post-separation arrangements.
Status of Ms Holgate's employment contract
Ms Holgate maintained that when she emailed her resignation statement to the Board, it was an offer to resign pending a formal agreement:
My statement clearly states I had offered to resign and I sought no compensation and I would fully support an investigation, but I had asked to be released immediately. My statement did not say I had resigned as I clearly had no agreement with the organization when I drafted it. My accompanying letter to the Board had one condition, that the matter was resolved that day.
Australia Post disputed this assertion, and claims that Ms Holgate's resignation was 'a unilateral act', 'effective from the moment she delivered her resignation letter', and 'also evidenced in Ms Holgate's subsequent public statement', which she released on 2 November 2020.
Ms Holgate submitted that the Chair's letter to her on the afternoon of 2 November 2020, asking her to sign a variation in her contract, released Australia Post from its obligations, but left Ms Holgate bound by hers:
If I had signed this letter, it would have potentially prevented me from working for twelve 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 organization going forward. I did not sign their variation to my contract.
Mr Di Bartolomeo disputed the assertion that Australia Post 'put any further limitations' on Ms Holgate. The Chair said that Australia Post sought to release Ms Holgate from her contractual obligation to give six months' notice, and in return, it sought to be released from its obligation to pay her the six months' salary that she had stated she did not want. Mr Di Bartolomeo said the non‑compete clause in her contract would still apply, meaning Ms Holgate could not 'enter into a job in competition with Australia Post'.
Ms Holgate's primary concerns appeared to be that Australia Post expected her to remain bound by the non-compete clause while, at the same time, forgoing the compensation she was entitled to according to her contract. In addition, Australia Post was asking her to sign a variation to her contract that stipulated she would not seek 'any other financial compensation from Australia Post'.
Clause 14.1 of Ms Holgate's Contract of employment (contract) states that variations must be in writing and signed by both parties. Ms Holgate submitted that she has 'not signed any document', and that 'Australia Post appear to blatantly disregard my contract'. According to Ms Holgate, she 'offered to resign with the important condition was that the agreement was reached that day. It was not'.
Ms Holgate submitted a letter from Australia Post's lawyers, Allens Linklaters, dated 16 December 2020, which clearly stated Australia Post's position that Ms Holgate was still expected to adhere to the restrictions imposed by her contract: 'Australia Post does not agree with your assertion that the post‑employment restraints that apply to Ms Holgate are unenforceable in the absence of a payment to her'.
Further correspondence detailed an offer to Ms Holgate from Australia Post that she could be released from the 'non-competition restraint…[in] her employment contract' if Ms Holgate signed a deed of release. The deed would require her to:
agree to be bound by a number of 'non-solicit restraints';
agree to continue to bound by 'the confidentiality obligations set out in the Confidentiality Deed…of her employment contract'; and
release the Australia Post companies and their officers and employees from 'all legal claims relating to her employment and the termination of her employment'.
Ms Holgate did not agree to these conditions and did not sign.
By January 2021, Ms Holgate was still seeking a resolution with Australia Post. On 8 January 2021, Ms Holgate said she spoke with Australia Post Director Mr Nutt for 'more than three hours'. She told Mr Nutt:
I had offered to do the right thing, but Australia Post had abused my trust, misled the public and the Government and the Parliament about me, refused to defend me personally, caused me to incur significant legal costs, left me without support despite knowing of my poor mental state, and made no serious attempt to resolve my release from the organisation among other issues. I also complained to him of the unreasonable deadlines I had been given to comply with requests for information.
Following this conversation, Ms Holgate said that Mr Nutt helped her to secure 'more reasonable deadlines to some of the onerous tasks' she had been asked to complete. However, he was not able to assist in resolving her contract.
The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (Department of Communications) submitted:
On 2 November 2020, the former CEO, Ms Christine Holgate, announced her resignation from the position. The Department received a copy of her resignation letter to the Board on that day. The terms of Ms Holgate's separation from employment is a matter for the Australia Post Board.
As mentioned elsewhere, Australia Post announced the appointment of a new Group CEO and Managing Director, Mr Paul Graham, on 12 April 2021, just 24 hours before the first public hearing was scheduled to occur in relation to Ms Holgate's matter. The Chair was asked if he believed making the announcement so close to the hearing was 'a good look'. Mr Di Bartolomeo responded; 'We were hoping to have the approval process completed sooner so we could have put more air between the two. But that didn't turn out to be the case; it wasn't intended to'.
Efforts to resolve the matter
In April of 2021, Ms Holgate engaged Sydney barrister, Mr Arthur Moses SC, and defamation lawyer, Ms Rebekah Giles, a specialist in 'reputational risk', to assist her to resolve her dispute with Australia Post.
Ms Holgate's legal representatives approached Australia Post to propose mediation. Mr Di Bartolomeo confirmed on 3 May 2021 that Australia Post had received a request for mediation, and indicated its willingness to participate. However, Australia Post was not satisfied with the timeline proposed by Ms Holgate, which the Chair described as 'unreasonable'.
Australia Post's General Counsel, Mr Nick Macdonald, provided further detail:
Correspondence proposing a mediation was received from Ms Holgate's lawyers on 21 April—a Wednesday. On the following Monday, our lawyers responded, accepting that invitation to mediate. On 27 April, we had the second day of this hearing. On 28 April, further correspondence was received from Ms Holgate's lawyers. It proposed a mediation, as the chair referred to, on the following Friday, Saturday, and in fact the Tuesday, not today—so, effectively, in a matter of days. Obviously the third day of this hearing is today, which is in amongst those dates. Our lawyers responded on 29 April, repeating that we were willing to participate in a mediation, but noting that it would be necessary for the parties to be properly prepared and advised in order to do that; that the parties would need to agree upon the mediator; and that the parties would need to agree upon the location, the scope, attendees and also the timetable for exchanging position papers. Our board needs to be properly advised. We need an opportunity to brief counsel to appear at the mediation, as has Ms Holgate's lawyers.
Ms Holgate's legal representative, Ms Giles, issued a media statement saying that Australia Post and Shareholder Ministers had advised they would not be able to conduct mediation by Ms Holgate's preferred deadline, 5 May 2021:
We offered Australia Post and the government ministers a two-week window to conduct this mediation in order to minimise the ongoing harm that has been caused to Ms Holgate as well as the distraction to Australia Post which ultimately must focus on its important service to the public and its obligations to its employees and operators.
Given [there] appears to be an absence of agreement to mediate this matter expeditiously, Ms Holgate will now have no option but to consider her legal options after the [Senate inquiry] report into these matters is released on May 17.
At the public hearing on 3 May 2021, the Chair of Australia Post was asked whether he believed Ms Holgate's request for mediation indicated that her 'position' that she was not seeking any financial compensation from Australia Post had changed. Mr Di Bartolomeo said:
Given that we don't know what the claims are against us yet, in detail, I guess we can't be definitive, but it would appear to be so, given that they are looking for mediation as a prelude to potential litigation after.
Australia Post Board issued a statement on 5 May 2021 confirming that it had agreed to participate in mediation with Ms Holgate:
Australia Post's lawyers have again written to Ms Holgate's lawyers confirming that Australia Post will participate in a mediation...
Further, given the public interest in this matter and Australia Post's wish to be transparent about it, we have asked that Ms Holgate agree that following the mediation the parties will make public what she asked Australia Post to give her to settle the dispute and also the outcome of the mediation.
Mr Andrew Jaggers, Deputy Secretary at the Department of Finance confirmed that Shareholder Ministers had also received the letter from Ms Holgate's solicitor requesting mediation, and that:
The department will carefully consider that matter; the ministers will carefully consider that matter. Certainly, in many senses, this is a letter from a private citizen to the minister. We take very seriously our obligations around privacy in relation to any legal matter from an Australian citizen that involves the government.
The Department of Finance confirmed on notice that the Australian Government Solicitor 'has provided advice to Shareholder Departments on a response to correspondence from Ms Holgate's Solicitor'.
The committee does not intend to comment on the merits or otherwise of any potential mediation or legal action in relation to settling Ms Holgate's dispute with Australia Post.
We encourage Australia Post, and Shareholder Ministers, to work productively and in good faith to come to an agreement with Ms Holgate that resolves this matter effectively and expeditiously.
Any agreement should include a public acknowledgement by Australia Post and Shareholder Ministers that Ms Holgate did not act dishonestly or fraudulently, or breach any of Australia Post's policies when she made the decision to purchase the watches as rewards in 2018.
It should include an acknowledgement of the responsibility of the Board in the matter; which, as the accountable authority, had a duty to ensure there were sufficient policies and processes in place to guide employees appropriately.
The committee encourages Australia Post to prioritise its engagement with this mediation, and seek to reach a satisfactory resolution as soon as is practicable.
The committee acknowledges that Ms Holgate's employment contract is between Ms Holgate and Australia Post, so it may be inappropriate for Shareholder Ministers to be a party to the mediation. However, in light of the role of the Shareholder Ministers (particularly Minister Fletcher) in Ms Holgate's standing aside, the Shareholder Ministers should support the process in appropriate ways.
Mr Di Bartolomeo was asked if he believed Ms Holgate deserved an apology from Australia Post. The Chair replied:
I think Christine Holgate has been treated abysmally, but I believe the board and management did the right things by her… I don't believe Australia Post owes her an apology, no, but I do believe she has been badly treated.
Other Board members agreed with the Chair's assertion that Australia Post did not owe Ms Holgate an apology.
The Chair was asked, if not the Board, or himself, then who was responsible for Ms Holgate's 'abysmal' treatment? Mr Di Bartolomeo said 'the environment…was created…through parliament that afternoon and through the media thereafter', which 'made her job and her life very difficult'.
Mr Di Bartolomeo was then asked if he believed the Prime Minister should apologise to Ms Holgate. His response was:
I am not here to talk on behalf of anybody else as to who owes an apology. All I'm saying is that I understand the hurt that she felt, and I appreciated it, and we tried to do as much as possible to assist her.
Mr Nutt was asked if Ms Holgate was owed an apology. 'Not by Australia Post', he replied. Then by whom, Mr Nutt was asked. His reply was:
These matters are still on foot, including issues of mediation being discussed at present. So I don't want to be drawn on that… I will draw attention to something that Senator Carr said on the 13th [of April 2021]… He made a very astute observation: What happens to people who haven't had much experience in dealing with the vigour of a robust parliamentary system?... There was a level of commentary, and that increased between that day and the second. What that meant was that she was placed under enormous pressure. So the totality of the situation was much more than a CEO would normally expect to get—certainly starting from a pleasant breakfast and you wind up going home for dinner.
Mr Nutt's comments at the hearing on 3 May 2021 are telling. Ms Holgate started the day on 22 October 2020 as a successful and popular CEO, one of the most influential women in business in Australia. She ended the day disgraced and humiliated, hiding from reporters, and feeling suicidal.
Ms Holgate's job, the future she envisaged for herself, her reputation, her dignity, and her mental health, were severely damaged that day. Yes, her unwise decision to purchase Cartier watches for executives contributed to this outcome, as did Ms Holgate's poorly-thought out response to Senator Kitching's question about spending taxpayers' money on luxury goods.
However, it was the Prime Minister's abrupt intervention in Question Time that elevated the story about Ms Holgate's testimony in Senate Estimates to front page news.
It was the Prime Minister's very public condemnation of Ms Holgate, along with the launch of an investigation by the Shareholder, which made her position untenable.
The committee believes that, as in the Chair's own words, Ms Holgate was 'treated abysmally'. The Board blames the Shareholder and the Shareholder says it's a matter for Australia Post; no one wants to apologise, and no one has been held accountable.
Recommendation 5 in Chapter 6 outlines the committee's recommendation that the Board of Australia Post, the Prime Minister, and the Shareholder Ministers should apologise to Ms Holgate for denying her the legal principles of procedural fairness and natural justice in her departure from Australia Post.