13 April 2021




SUBJECT: Senate Inquiry into Australia Post.

ELIZABETH KULAS, HOST: Michelle Rowland is the Shadow Minister for Communications. Welcome to RN Drive.


KULAS: Watching the Inquiry proceedings today, what stood out most about Christine Holgate’s account of how she was treated?

ROWLAND: It wasn’t so much for me the substance of what she said, but her tenor. She was lucid, she was calm and she was very trained on the Prime Minister and the Chair of Australia Post, in particular. She knew exactly what she wanted to convey and I’ve seen her perform in many Estimates hearings, and I can say objectively I thought this was her best performance. In terms of substance, what really stood out for me was that she wanted it to be known that Australia Post was very dear to her heart and in her words, I think she was not popular for opposing a Government plan to slash postal jobs, to cut services, to cut LPOs and potentially privatise the parcels business of Australia Post. She was very clear that this was something she’d been resisting and this is something we hadn’t seen before. I must say, we’ve been trying to get a hold of this information for some time and kept getting blocked by the Government. But in terms of substance, that was the biggest revelation for me, that she had this particular information and that she was opposed to these cuts, she didn’t think this was the right strategy and it made her very unpopular.

KULAS: So you think it’s possible that Australia Post, because of her opposition to that proposal to privatise the parcel service in Australia Post, that that was the grounds for her no longer being in the position?

ROWLAND: I think it’s also related to her relationship with the Government in that sense. I think it does come back to the actions of the Prime Minister on the floor of the Parliament that day when he effectively stood up and sacked her in Question Time. I think it also needs to be made clear that the evidence we had from the Chair really does put to bed some of the thoughts we may have had about Scott Morrison, in the sense that maybe this was a short fuse he had, he hadn’t had time to think about it which is why he said what he did. He certainly said what he did, and we now have on the record from the Chair that he spoke to the Communications Minister before Question Time and he said that the Minister said that he wanted Ms Holgate to be stood down. The Chair asked him to reconsider his position, to decide if that’s what he really wanted to do. The Minister spoke to him a few minutes later and said yes it was. Before Question Time, they were pretty clear about the direction they wanted to go in, if you believe the Chair’s evidence this afternoon.

KULAS: According to Ms Holgate’s evidence though, she says that she’s been told by some in Government that the PM hadn’t been properly briefed before he went out on the attack in Question Time. What did you make of that?

ROWLAND: That’s her contention and this Inquiry is not over yet. I think it has today raised far more questions than answers that need to be explored both in terms of the Prime Minister’s knowledge and conduct, but also the Shareholder Ministers’, the Minister for Communications and the Minister for Finance. I think this has quite a way to play out.

KULAS: You also went on the attack in Question Time last year when this story broke. Given how this has played out, do you regret having done that? You weren’t alone in the Labor Party to ask Ms Holgate for more evidence and to ask for more information from her. But do you regret taking that position?

ROWLAND: Well, there’s two different things. We have been very clear from the outset, and I remain very clear, that those gifts of luxury watches to highly remunerated executives was not appropriate. It may well be appropriate in a corporate environment, but this is a government business enterprise. At the same time, the way in which she has not been afforded due process and the double standards is not acceptable either. We made it clear from the outset that the Board also demonstrated it is incapable of executive oversight and I don’t think any evidence disputes that either. That Board is a swamp of Liberal hacks and mates of the Prime Minister, and it’s got to go.

KULAS: Just to stop you there, on one of those points. Do you think that some of the language that Labor used at that time did contribute to how Ms Holgate was treated throughout that?

ROWLAND: To the contrary, we were very measured. We were measured in saying Australia Post is a cherished national institution, that what has gone on does not meet the appropriate test and that Australia Post must return to what matters, and that is delivering to the community. I must say, to her credit, when asked about this today, about the questioning she had in Senate Estimates, Ms Holgate made it very clear that it is the prerogative of the Senate to ask questions of government entities and people such as herself who are running government business enterprises. She even noted that she’s been asked many hard questions in her role, but she also made it abundantly clear and reserved her deepest criticism for the Prime Minister and the Chair for the way in which she was treated. She used words like bullying, intimidation, and she certainly did not use those words in relation to the accountability role that the Senate holds in our democracy.

KULAS: Your point that you don’t think that these Cartier watches were an appropriate gift to give to these executives. The Chair himself gave evidence to the Inquiry, and when he was asked as to whether or not these were business as usual for the organisation, he could not give an answer to that. There’s been multiple examples of first-class airfares, tickets to the Olympics, other gifts to executives within Australia Post, things that predated Christine Holgate’s time as CEO. So, as part of a culture in the organisation, are these watches even something out of the ordinary?

ROWLAND: Well, I think we need to get to the bottom of what is the culture in the organisation, and we started getting to some of that today. I certainly believe and I think the Australian public would agree, that public money needs to be treated with great care. I take issue with, for example, $77 million in bonuses being handed out to NBNCo during a pandemic. Now, these watches were gifted two years prior, and that was made very clear in the questioning. It is really incomprehensible that the Minister or Prime Minister wouldn’t have known or made themselves informed of this, because again as Ms Holgate said, it was well known that these gifts had been given. In contrast, the Prime Minister chose to take the action he did. He ordered the Maddock Review into these circumstances, which also allegedly was supposed to be covering the Board and governance issues around this. Any lessons that come out of there need to be explored.

KULAS: We should say that the independent review found that Christine Holgate had no wrongdoing in this matter.

ROWLAND: Correct. I think that’s why she has sought an apology in this matter and –

KULAS: Is she owed one, do you think?

ROWLAND: What I think she should, and what I found particularly appalling was the treatment she received around this review. She gave evidence she was interviewed over four hours and again did not seem to be offered the due process that the Prime Minister has given to his buddies in his own team. Part of her big grievance today, and it came out many times in her language, was the double standards, and the double standards are completely intolerable.

KULAS: Should she be reinstated then?

ROWLAND: We need to let this Inquiry run its course because it’s even examining issues as fundamental as to whether or not her position has been terminated or whether it continues. It raises questions about whether or not the provisions of the Act governing Australia Post have been followed by the Minister for Communications. We’ve got this circumstances in which she has accused the Chair of lying and there is clearly animosity there. As a practical matter, it is difficult to see how that is resolved. As a factual matter, yesterday, a new CEO of Australia Post was announced, and I don’t think it was any coincidence that it was done the day before in a very provocative, highly disrespectful move. It’s both disrespectful to the Senate and to the incoming CEO, Mr Paul Graham who isn’t starting until September.

KULAS: Back to the Boston Consulting Group Report. That report laid out some of the privatisation options that might be available to Australia Post. It has now been tabled with the Inquiry. Are you keen to read it?

ROWLAND: Absolutely, and Labor has been trying to get our hands on this report for some time, but interference has been run on it. Every reason under the Sun as to why we can’t see it. It proves everything Labor has been saying for the last twelve months about this regulatory relief that has been given to Australia Post and what the Government’s real objectives are here. They are looking at some 5,000 postie jobs being cut, some 200 post offices being closed, the divestiture of the parcels business. All of these issues were essentially only put on the backburner because Labor opposed the regulations proposed. Those regulations are due to expire, and we await to see what the crossbench Senators are going to do, because it’s very clear this Government has another agenda.

KULAS: If this report does in fact lay out proposals for the privatisation of Australia Post, including the privatisation of the parcels business which we know is the more profitable parts of the business, would Labor oppose future attempts by the Government to do that.

ROWLAND: We certainly do not support the privatisation of Australia Post. We believe that when people’s habits have changed following the pandemic when e-commerce is booming. When issues such as the priority mail service, which Ms Holgate even pointed out was suspended under the regulations but is really important for small business. All of these issues need to be examined very closely by the Senate and I think the Government has been exposed about not being upfront with the Parliament and with the crossbench or the Australian public with what their intentions are with Australia Post.

KULAS: Michelle Rowland, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for being on RN Drive tonight.

ROWLAND: My pleasure.