Australia Post chairman Lucio Di Bartolomeo has denied encouraging former chief executive Christine Holgate to quit.
Appearing at a Senate inquiry into Ms Holgate’s departure on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Di Bartolomeo said she had been a valued and dedicated chief executive at Australia Post.
His appearance followed Ms Holgate’s explosive attack on Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Mr Di Bartolomeo, in which she accused the chairman of unlawfully standing her down to protect his position amid political pressure.
Ms Holgate earlier told the inquiry she was left “suicidal” after departing as Australia Post CEO and being “humiliated” by the Prime Minister. She claimed she was fired for political reasons so Mr Di Bartolomeo could “curry favour” with the federal government.
Ms Holgate left the job in late 2020 after it was revealed she bought $20,000 of luxury watches as bonuses for staff. She has sensationally denied she resigned, maintaining she was pushed out despite “committing no offence” and having been blasted in Parliament by Mr Morrison.
“I don’t know why the Prime Minister took the action he did,” she said in an explosive opening to a Senate inquiry on the Cartier timepieces on Tuesday.
Ms Holgate said she was “suicidal” and on prescription medication after Mr Morrison’s high-profile attack. She said she had never agreed to stand down.
She said the tone of her email to government ministers asking for a meeting about her job showed the damage to her mental health.
“If you read that note and I apologise in advance, that it is rambling and it is rambling because I was seriously ill. I was on temazepam. I was suicidal,” she said.
However, Mr Di Bartolomeo maintained Ms Holgate did resign, and that he wanted her to return as CEO after an investigation into the Cartier watch gifts. He claimed that Communications Minister Paul Fletcher “asked” him to stand Ms Holgate aside, but that he did not consider it a direction.
Mr Di Bartolomeo admitted Ms Holgate had been “treated abysmally” – but not by him.
“I don’t believe Australia Post owes her an apology but I do believe she has been badly treated,” he said.
Ms Holgate contrasted her sudden sacking with Morrison ministers being allowed to remain in their jobs despite being accused of “terrible atrocities”.
“I was bullied out of my job … I was thrown under the bus so the chair of Australia Post could curry favour with his political masters,” she said.
“I’m putting to you that I was unlawfully stood down … I’ve only ever asked for respect, and I’ve never been allowed it.”
The outcry began after Ms Holgate revealed at a Senate hearing in October that she had approved the $20,000 purchase of four watches for employees who helped secure a $200 million deal to facilitate banking at post offices.
That admission was met with outrage, with Mr Morrison standing up in Parliament minutes later to thunder that “she has been instructed to stand aside. If she doesn’t wish to do that, she can go”. Labor leader Anthony Albanese said her position was “untenable”.
An internal investigation later cleared Ms Holgate of any wrongdoing. She has previously accused Mr Di Bartolomeo of lying about the circumstances in which she left the company.
On Tuesday, Ms Holgate – who appeared furious – took aim at both her former boss, and Mr Morrison. She said she was authorised to spend up to $150,000 on such expenses, and that the watches had been signed off by the Australia Post board, and the expenses properly authorised.
“I lost my job, a job I loved, because I was humiliated by our Prime Minister for committing no offence,” she said.
“I do not want what happened to me to happen to any individual, in any workplace.”
former Aus Post CEO Christine Holgate compares her treatment (near-instant dismissal over the Cartier watches) to how Scott Morrison responded to "terrible atrocities" alleged against cabinet ministers #auspol pic.twitter.com/uwALLarSIO
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) April 13, 2021
Ms Holgate claimed neither Mr Morrison nor any relevant minister had spoken to her directly about the watches incident.
She said she was told not to speak to media or other people about the episode, alleging Australia Post “silenced” her.
Ms Holgate said she had tried to meet finance minister Simon Birmingham after the watches outcry, but he did not agree to a meeting. She alleged she was “hung, run over by a bus, and reversed again” by Mr Morrison.
“You would have hoped I’d deserve the opportunity for either the minister or the Prime Minister to speak to me,” Ms Holgate said.
She claimed Australia Post board member Tony Nutt, a former Liberal Party director, told her she was being stood down at Mr Morrison’s request.
She claimed Mr Nutt said: “You have to understand, it is the Prime Minister so they needed to find something”.
Appearing later on Tuesday, Mr Di Bartolomeo maintained Ms Holgate was not sacked. He said he asked her to “stand aside” pending an investigation into the spending, but that he hoped she would return.
“[Mr Fletcher] wanted us to look at standing Christine down. I queried whether that was what he really wanted. He said, “look, I am going to come back to you.” We had a later discussion where that was all reaffirmed,” Mr Di Bartolomeo said.