The Senate Environment and Communications References Committee (committee) wishes to express its respect and support for the important institution of Australia Post. It is one of the country's oldest enduring entities that provides a vital public service to millions of Australians and countless businesses. The committee also acknowledges the tens of thousands of hard working employees, licensees and contractors that ensure its ongoing operations.
The committee further acknowledges the significant efforts made by the Board during the course of this inquiry, as well as those of Australia Post's senior management and staff. Various members of the Board and the executive management team appeared at each of the three public hearings. Australia Post management also responded to many questions on notice and other requests for information—often at short notice.
The committee nevertheless has significant concerns about Australia Post's engagement with this inquiry, each of which will be discussed in turn:
respect for the Senate's authority and processes;
potential interference with individuals, including Australia Post employees and contractors, wishing to make submissions or give evidence to this inquiry; and
allegations of false or misleading evidence provided by the Chair of Australia Post, Mr Lucio Di Bartolomeo, to this inquiry and to the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee (Legislation Committee) at Senate Estimates.
Respect for the Senate's authority and processes
Australia Post representatives repeatedly expressed support for the committee processes and specifically for this inquiry. For instance, at the committee's first public hearing, the Chair, Mr Di Bartolomeo stated that 'we are treating this process seriously, in line with our longstanding commitment, as a government business enterprise, to meet all of our obligations with the parliament'.
However, the actions of Australia Post often directly contradicted this stated commitment. For example, despite the committee's express invitation and strong preference for Board members to appear in person at the second hearing on 27 April 2021, the Board declined to do so, citing personal and other professional commitments. This resulted in the day's proceedings being significantly disrupted and delayed due to technical difficulties. The Board's remote participation also caused significant communication issues and poor engagement between committee members and witnesses. As a direct consequence, the committee scheduled a subsequent public hearing on
3 May 2021 at which six Board members appeared in person.
The committee also notes with concern the announcement by Australia Post and the Australian Government (government) of the appointment of the new Group Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director (CEO), Mr Paul Graham, the day before the committee's first public hearing and the much anticipated appearance of the former CEO. Given that the new CEO is not due to start in the role until September 2021, it appears that this announcement was rushed out to deliberately disrespect the committee's inquiry and without regard to the impact such an announcement would likely have on the committee's key witness.
Provision of inadequate or incomplete information
The Senate recognises that there may be instances where it is not in the public interest for certain information to be disclosed. The Senate's standing and other orders provide a process by which witnesses may make a public interest immunity claim. Whether such claims are accepted is a matter for the committee and ultimately the Senate.
The committee notes that in certain answers to questions taken on notice, Australia Post declined to provide information, or withheld or redacted information that may have been relevant to this inquiry, citing confidentiality or commercial sensitivities. Australia Post did not, however, properly substantiate these claims.
At a public hearing in Canberra on 3 May 2021, Senator Kitching requested the minutes of the Australia Post Board meeting held on 23 October 2020. This request related to the committee's understanding that the minutes of the
22 October 2020 Board meeting (which are central to this inquiry, as discussed later) would have been approved at the following day's meeting. It eventuated that the 22 October 2020 minutes were not approved until a Board meeting on 29 October 2020. The committee welcomes Australia Post proactively sharing the additional minutes of the 29 October 2020 meeting alongside the
23 October 2020 minutes, but regrets that the document was heavily redacted and without adequate justification.
With respect to these documents, Australia Post stated in correspondence to the committee that the redactions related to 'irrelevant and privileged content' and later clarified that parts of the 29 October 2020 minutes were 'confidential and commercially sensitive'.
The committee was eventually provided with portions of the redacted text that appeared most relevant to this inquiry. However, this was only provided after a subsequent request to Australia Post, pointing out that it had committed to provide the minutes with only irrelevant material redacted. The committee is concerned by Australia Post's overly narrow, literal, and legalistic interpretation of the committee's request for documents, and its failure to understand that merely stating that content is 'privileged' is not an acceptable justification for refusing to provide it to the committee.
It is well recognised that Parliamentary committees play a number of key roles in Australia's democratic system. Among these is the responsibility to 'probe and check the administration of the laws, to keep [the Senate] and the public informed, and to insist on ministerial accountability for the government's administration'.
Clearly, committees cannot effectively perform these roles without sufficient and appropriate access to the information required to address the terms of their inquiries.
The committee reminds Australia Post that information withheld from the Senate must be based on a properly substantiated claim of public interest immunity. Such a claim must state the recognised grounds on which it is being made and must specify the harm that may result from the disclosure of the information. The committee may then determine whether the claim is warranted. It is not the role of a witness to determine whether evidence is privileged. Regrettably, Australia Post has been reminded of the Senate's well established public interest immunity processes as recently as August 2020 by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee.
The committee also reminds Australia Post of its important accountability obligations. In this regard the committee endorses comments from the recent report of the Senate Legislation Committee, which raised similar significant concerns:
…officials representing publicly-owned entities [such as Australia Post] have particular…responsibilities to engage in a way that is honest and transparent, upholding various legislated rules and codes of conduct under which they are employed.
While statutory authorities and GBEs like Australia Post are not 'subject to direction or control by the executive government' in relation to their operational decisions and day-to-day operations, the Senate has resolved on multiple occasions that such entities 'are accountable to the Senate for their expenditure of public funds and have no discretion to withhold from the Senate information concerning their activities'. However, the Senate has also recognised that there may be instances where it is not in the public interest for certain information to be disclosed. Senate procedural orders provide a process to be followed by public sector witnesses for making public interest immunity claims.
It is highly regrettable that for the second time in less than 12 months a parliamentary committee has been compelled to remind Australia Post of these important obligations.
Allegations of interference with submitters and witnesses
The Senate and Senate Committees take any obstruction or interference with its processes extremely seriously. These matters may be treated by the Senate as a contempt.
The committee received several verbal reports of potential submitters or witnesses being actively discouraged from participating in the inquiry. Allegations were also made that Australia Post had attempted to 'vet' submissions before they reached the committee.
To avoid the possible continuation or escalation of these alleged interferences, the committee pre-emptively wrote to the Acting CEO of Australia Post,
Mr Rodney Boys, advising Australia Post of these concerns to ensure the organisation was fully aware of the protections afforded to witnesses to Senate inquiries. The letter cautioned Australia Post that taking action against a submitter or witness to a parliamentary inquiry may constitute a contempt of Parliament.
In a written response, Mr Boys stated that Australia Post had communicated with its 'people leaders' in relation to the inquiry, including to 'reference the key themes referred to in [the committee's] letter'.
The committee notes that it received no written allegations of interference with witnesses.
Allegations of false or misleading evidence
The term 'parliamentary privilege' refers to the privileges or immunities of the Houses of Parliament and the powers of the Houses to protect the integrity of their processes, including the power to punish contempts. These powers, privileges, and immunities are essential in enabling the Parliament and its committees to carry out their functions of inquiring, debating, and legislating. The committee therefore takes very seriously any allegation of false or misleading evidence and its potential to harm or undermine the work of the committee and the Senate.
In light of this, four key allegations of providing false and misleading evidence to the Senate have been made against the Chair of Australia Post, Mr Di Bartolomeo, in relation to this inquiry.
The first example relates to the standing aside of Ms Holgate from her position at Australia Post. Mr Di Bartolomeo gave apparently inconsistent evidence to the Legislation Committee about whether Ms Holgate was 'stood aside' or 'agreed to stand aside'. Evidence to this committee from Mr Di Bartolomeo and Ms Holgate also differed as to the facts of the matter, as detailed in Chapter 6.
The second example relates to the extent of Mr Di Bartolomeo's knowledge of the BCG review into Australia Post commissioned by the Shareholder Ministers. During a Senate Estimates hearing on 9 November 2020, Mr Di Bartolomeo responded to a question about the content of the review, claiming, 'we haven't seen the report… [it] remains with the shareholders'.
The third example relates to whether Mr Di Bartolomeo gave false or misleading evidence to the Senate regarding discussions on privatising Australia Post's parcel business. In evidence given to the Legislation Committee on 23 March 2021, Mr Di Bartolomeo claimed, 'there has been no discussion, no plans and no undertakings to privatise any aspects of Australia Post's business.' Mr Di Bartolomeo similarly stated to this committee:
There is no secret privatisation agenda. Privatisation has consistently been ruled out by government, and I can confirm to the committee that it has never been discussed by the board.
The fourth example relates to whether Mr Di Bartolomeo gave false or misleading evidence to the Senate regarding the existence of recommendations in the BCG report. On 13 April Mr Di Bartolomeo told the committee:
There were no recommendations in that report, and if that was the report that was sent to the government then it doesn't have any recommendations on what should take place.
This position was restated to the Committee on Tuesday, 27 April 2021.
On the knowledge of the BCG review, Australia Post subsequently clarified Mr Di Bartolomeo's position in writing, informing the committee that:
An Australia Post witness advised the Committee that Australia Post had not seen the report arising from that review. To clarify, Australia Post did not see a final report but was provided with a draft report during the later stages of the review.
However, evidence subsequently put before both this committee and the Legislation Committee indicates that Mr Di Bartolomeo was significantly engaged with the BCG review on multiple occasions, including:
chairing a lengthy Board meeting the evening before the BCG report was handed to the government. This Board meeting considered the findings of the BCG review, including receiving a detailed presentation from BCG of the review's findings and 'pathways to reform' (discussed further in
Chapter 9); and
receiving a 'final draft' of the report on the day it was handed to Shareholder Ministers.
With regard to the discussions on privatising Australia Post's parcel business, evidence was subsequently published by the committee showing that on 20 February 2020, BCG presented to the Board of Australia Post a series of potential 'pathways for reform'. One such pathway consisted of 'exploring the potential for a divestiture of Parcels'. Mr Di Bartolomeo confirmed the content and timing of the BCG presentation to the Board, but reiterated that the Board had neither considered nor discussed the recommendations.
On the existence of recommendations in the BCG report, Mr Di Bartolomeo's evidence conflicts with that given by BCG and with BCG's report (tabled by Ms Holgate on 12 April 2021), which states clear and specific recommendations on page 10.
When asked to take on notice and clarify the evidence given by Mr Di Bartolomeo and the BCG report provided to the committee, Australia Post responded with:
Australia Post reiterates the position that has been repeated on a number of occasions during inquiry proceedings – the Australia Post Board has at no time discussed privatisation.
Australia Post acknowledges that, during a presentation from BCG on 20 February 2020, at which Shareholder Department representatives were also present, BCG presented to the Board a summary of the considerations and findings of its review. That presentation involved BCG informing the Board of its work but did not involve a Board discussion relating to privatisation—either in full or partial—and the Board has not had any such discussion since.
The committee notes with concern the apparent inconsistencies and discrepancies with the evidence provided by the Chair of Australia Post, Mr Di Bartolomeo. The committee has decided to examine these matters thoroughly and will decide when and how to report its findings on this issue to the Senate after detailed examination and deliberation.
In the committee's view, such inconsistencies and discrepancies raise serious questions about the veracity of evidence provided by Mr Di Bartolomeo and about his ability to defend the independence of the Australia Post Board as outlined in Australia Postal Corporation Act 1989 (the APC Act). The content and recommendations of the BCG report are discussed further in Chapter 9. This view also leads the committee to Recommendation 13 on Mr Bartolomeo's unsuitability to hold the position of chair, as further outlined in Chapter 8.
The committee further notes with respect to the provision of partial, inadequate and redacted information, that committees have drawn similar issues to the attention of Australia Post on previous occasions. Related to this, the committee is concerned at what appears to be a recurring pattern in which the directors and senior executives of Australia Post repeatedly demonstrate inadequate transparency in their dealings with the Senate and its committees.
The committee notes that the Legislation Committee recommended in August 2020 in its report on The future of Australia Post's service delivery, in line with Procedural Resolution 53, that:
All Australian Government entities including Australia Post, provide regular training and support to senior staff and officials to ensure they can meet their responsibilities to the Senate and its committees through understanding Senate procedures, including the:
principles governing the operation of Parliament, and the accountability of departments, agencies and authorities to the Houses of Parliament and their committees;
proper processes for raising claims of public interest immunity including:
acceptable and unacceptable grounds for making a claim of public interest immunity; and
the requirement to specify the actual harm that may result from the disclosure of information.
The committee understands that Australia Post employees subsequently undertook training on parliamentary accountability and privilege, but regrets that this does not seem to have been sufficient to address the issues raised above. It is the committee's view that renewed efforts are needed to address these failings and that such training should be coordinated and conducted in partnership with the Senate to ensure its effectiveness.
The committee also notes the importance of Australia Post taking a more open and transparent approach to Senate inquiries in the future. The committee reminds Australia Post of its obligation to be open and accountable to Parliament, including its committees, consistent with Procedural Resolution 50. It is the committee's view that throughout this inquiry, Australia Post has not adequately fulfilled its accountability obligations to the Senate or to this committee.
Noting the repetition of issues related to Australia Post's engagement with the Senate, the committee observes that the Legislation Committee may in the future consider inquiring into and reporting on the performance of Australia Post under Standing Order 25.
As previously recommended by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, the committee recommends that Australia Post provide regular training and support to senior staff and Board members to ensure they can better meet their responsibilities to the Senate and its committees through understanding Senate procedures.