13 April 2021



SUBJECT/S: Senate Inquiry into Australia Post

Michelle Rowland is the Shadow Minister for Communications. You’ve obviously been watching these hearings. How do you square away these two accounts? Christine Holgate was scathing of Lucio di Bartolomeo and he’s saying he has a lot of sympathy for her and wishes she was still at the organisation.

MICHELLE ROWLAND MP, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: It appears very difficult for these two versions to coexist. On one reading, it seems the Chair has in part thrown the Government under a bus by saying he is sympathetic with what has happened. Ms Holgate said very early on in her opening statement that she was effectively destroyed by Scott Morrison on the floor of the Parliament, where he effectively sacked her. She has a special grievance against him, grievances against the Shareholder Ministers, and it is very clear that she considers the Chair to have been lying in several forums of the Parliament and also potentially publicly as well.

NORMAN: I want to go to the role of politicians as well, but just sticking with the Chair. Christine Holgate has accused the Chair of lying. Contrary to what he says, she says she never agreed to stand down, she said there was never a Board meeting to approve the statement put out about her standing down. Given this evidence, is his position as the Chair still tenable?

ROWLAND: It appears to me that one version can only be correct. It is very murky around the circumstances of her employment contract or her engagement terms, whether or not the resignation was effective. She’s even said herself that she penned some words, and one should have checked with her that she did in fact intend to resign and in any normal circumstances, that’s what an employer would do. There’s that murky area here with whether or not she still remains the CEO, and there’s some questioning there you would have seen in the morning. Now questions are emerging because there are a series of provisions within the Australia Post Act that specify the CEO’s tenure and how they are to be removed. It appears that potentially that has not been properly followed, but we’ll wait to see more evidence.

NORMAN: She said today that her contract has never been resolved and in fact, many people know that because on her LinkedIn page, she’s still listed as the CEO of Australia Post.

ROWLAND: Which is quite extraordinary given the quite provocative actions to appoint a new CEO only yesterday. It’s quite disrespectful to the incoming CEO, because he does not start until September this year, but also disrespectful to the Senate because it’s well-known the Senate was undertaking this Inquiry today.

NORMAN: Do you think that the Government needs to be reconsidering the Chair’s tenure on the Board now?

ROWLAND: The Government needs to reconsider that Board. It is a dysfunctional Board of Liberal Party hacks and mates of Scott Morrison. It is incapable of executive oversight, and it should go.

NORMAN: Let’s look at the role of Parliament because of course context is important. When she made this Cartier confession, it was during a COVID-induced recession, public servants were taking pay freezes, we had lines outside Centrelink offices. At the time, the Prime Minister was coming out against corporate largesse. Do you acknowledge that at the time perhaps politicians have been caught in the heat of the moment?

ROWLAND: Let’s remember though that it was very clearly stated under the questioning from Labor in the Parliament that this was something that had appeared two years prior. The Prime Minister would have been well aware of that, and if he wasn’t, he should have made himself aware of that –

NORMAN: Apparently, he wasn’t properly briefed, according to Christine Holgate.

ROWLAND: Well, that may well be the case. The reality is that no one forced the Prime Minister to say those words, macho, saying what he said. Everything since that time has been retrofitted to suit what he said on the day. This is really unravelling, and even yesterday’s panicked announcement shows that this is a Government that’s making it up as they go. Let’s get back to what’s really important here: this is a 200 year old entity, a government business enterprise and a multi-billion dollar one at that employs tens of thousands of people, that Australians rely on especially in rural areas, especially during a pandemic. To have a situation where we haven’t had a full-time CEO for that long, it’s cost at least half a million dollars in the recruitment process compared to the cost of those watches at the time, I think that Ms Holgate has made very clear that she considers there to be disproportionality with respect to her treatment, and of course, she goes to expressly using terms like bullying, intimidation, thrown under a bus, reversed and run over again, it is a sorry state of affairs.

NORMAN: What about Labor’s role in this? It was a Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching who first asked about the Cartier watches. She had obviously been told behind the scenes that these watches had been awards to these executives. Within days, Anthony Albanese described her position as untenable. So really, Christine Holgate was left completely friendless among the halls of power here.

ROWLAND: Well, let’s be clear: even as Ms Holgate said today, it was no state secret that these watches had been awarded. She said words to the effect that every person on the 19th floor of the Bourke Street Australia Post Office knew about it and it happened some years previously. To her credit, she admitted that it is the role of the Senate and Senate Estimates to question public servants and agencies about the way in which public money is spent. She even named checked Senator Kim Carr and said you’ve asked me some very difficult questions over the years. So, she’s taken no issue with that. What she has taken issue with is her treatment. She accepts that being in that role that she was required to answer tough questions during her tenure, but it is the way in which she has been treated by the Prime Minister, and the ghosting from the Finance Minister and Communications Minister that has really left her aggrieved. But in particular, the double standards she clearly calls out, with respect to the men in the Prime Minister’s team as opposed to herself.

NORMAN: Do you regret that your leader described her position as untenable? When you’ve got the leaders of the two major political parties basically saying she had to go, when then, she had to go.

ROWLAND: Well, again, let’s be clear: her position was made untenable as a result of the actions of the Prime Minister. Her effectively sacked her on the floor of the Parliament.

NORMAN: But Anthony Albanese doesn’t shy away from criticism. He could have said it was inappropriate for him to say this, that the context wasn’t there at the time. He didn’t exactly defend Christine Holgate at the time.

ROWLAND: I think you should be looking at the issue of the fact that we all at the time in Labor, and I do not think that anyone would dispute it to this day, we do not believe that the awarding of those watches was appropriate. Government business enterprises need to be held to a higher standard, and this did not meet the test of that higher standard. Even today, Ms Holgate affirmed why her position was made untenable, and she even used that word, was as a result of the Prime Minister’s words on the floor of the Parliament.

NORMAN: For the past couple of months, we’ve been talking about a reckoning happening here about the treatment of women, and as we heard from Christine Holgate about the double standards applied, do you think there has been a bit of a reckoning in the five months since her ousting, because it was interesting to see some of the Senators on the Government side acknowledging her treatment had been pretty poor.

ROWLAND: I think it was impossible not to feel sympathy for Ms Holgate when she talked about being suicidal, when she talked about the fact that she was seeking treatment, and I think we should always be supportive of people who reach out and need help. But again, this comes down to the Prime Minister and this Government – I don’t think they’ve learnt anything since October and the ensuing months since this initially came to light. If they had, they would not have announced the appointment of a new CEO, effectively this was saying to Ms Holgate and the Australian Senate, we don’t care what you find in this Inquiry, we have someone new coming in. I mean no disrespect to the incoming CEO. In fact, I think all the disrespect has been meted out by this Government by what I think is a really stupid act in doing that the day before this Senate Inquiry is taking place.

NORMAN: Just before we finish, Christine Holgate today was wearing white. She was clearly a woman who had nothing to lose here and her evidence was really damning. To what extent do you think she was really tapping into that sentiment that we have right now?

ROWLAND: I think that conversation needs to be had, and someone of her stature, I think she would feel perhaps some obligation to that. I think words to the effect that she didn’t want this to happen again points to a very genuine desire to see change. I must say as someone who came from the corporate sector before coming into Parliament, it is a very different set of rules here. It is difficult in many aspects when you come into an environment that is incredibly blokey. I must say that during my time as a commercial lawyer, I always felt supported by the men around me, whether they were lawyers, the partners I worked for, the managing partner, the clients, there was never a time I didn’t feel supported and encouraged to be my best. Parliament is a different kettle of fish –

NORMAN: [inaudible] support from your male colleagues?

ROWLAND: Most male colleagues within the Party are very supportive. There’s never been a time when I’ve not felt supported within the Party. But my point is is that the adversarial nature here is one in which it is difficult often when you’re a female. It doesn’t operate as a meritocracy, it doesn’t operate to certain standards we would expect, even to being family friendly, and I know there have been attempts to rectify it over the years. It is difficult being a woman in public office. You are judged on your appearance; you are judged on measures I don’t think blokes are judged on. My attitude to that has always been to get on with it, but certainly I believe I have an important role in trying to foster leadership outside the organisation and within it as well. My point in phrasing all that is that I believe that Ms Holgate has come to this from a very genuine place as well.

NORMAN: Before I let you go, what happens from here? We have an unresolved contract for Ms Holgate, we have an unresolved account from the Chair, what does the Government need to do even before the Inquiry hands this Senate report to them?

ROWLAND: As you rightly point, they need to do their job. But I think this Board is one that cannot be allowed to continue, certainly not the way it has been. If I can give some overarching comment to sum up: I mention how this is an organisation which is a trusted brand which serves an important purpose. One of the reasons why Ms Holgate said she was made unpopular was because she resisted some of the Government’s secret attempts to cut postie jobs, some 5,000 jobs, to close post offices and to privatise the parcels business. In her words, this was not the kind of approach or strategy to allow it to grow. This Government needs to get back to what Australia Post is supposed to be doing, and that is serving the Australian public.