PM pulled trigger on a Labor hit
Christine Holgate may not have been aware just how politically charged Australia Post was when she took on the job of chief executive in late October 2017 – but it was that reality that would quickly come to define her rise and nowinfamous fall.
Holgate had come from nine successful years running Blackmores. Unlike Australia Post, the publicly listed vitamins manufacturer backed by billionaire Marcus Blackmore was not stacked full of political operators, both Labor and Liberal.
There’s no doubt Holgate’s demise was a political hit. The silver bullet, a query about whether she had purchased expensive Cartier watches for senior managers, was fired by Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, an influential member of the Victorian Right.
Anthony Albanese was quick to agree; Holgate’s position was untenable.
But the Coalition did not come to her defence either. If Kitching brought a pistol, Scott Morrison arrived with a missile launcher. Ten days after her Senate appearance, Holgate was gone.
As she outlined at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, it was former federal Liberal Party director Tony Nutt — now on the Australia Post board — who told Holgate the writing was on the wall.
“I was told, Christine, you need
to understand it was the Prime Minister,” she said Nutt, a former adviser to John Howard and other senior Liberal figures, told her. “And I think that’s probably because of his previous life in government. When he worked for prime minister … John Howard, he had to work with all the political parties … to get law through so he was used to working with different political parties.”
Some of Nutt’s political acumen would not have gone astray earlier in Holgate’s tenure.
He was far from the only political figure at the organisation, after all. Another director, Michael Ronaldson, is a Liberal senator and former veterans’ affairs minister. Bruce McIver, also on the board, was until recently the president of Queensland’s Liberal National Party.
Even Jared Newton, Holgate’s chief of staff for a brief period, had worked for Coalition ministers Alan Tudge and Greg Hunt.
But Newton left quickly, as did scores of senior executives including Phil Dalidakis, a Victorian Labor MP who had quit the Andrews government to take on the high-flying, high-paying job as Australia Post executive manager of corporate services.
The arrival of Holgate led to a major clear-out. Chief Financial officer Janelle Hopkins left for REA Group. Then deputy chief financial officer Paul Urquhart was gone, followed by communications boss Amanda MurrayJohnson and company secretary Erin Kelly, shortly after her return from maternity leave. Bob Black, who ran the parcels and ecommerce business, took an “extended break”, never to return. Executive general manager of international services, Annette Carey, left to head up Linfox Armaguard after less than two years.
Dalidakis had replaced Chris Blake, who along with CIO Andrew Walduck and chief marketing officer Greg Sutherland now work under former Australia Post CEO Ahmed Fahour at Latitude Financial.
Many former staff describe a toxic managerial style that rapidly alienated Holgate’s colleagues and staff.
“Phil went from getting $200,000 a year having been demoted to the backbench by Dan Andrews, to having the capacity to earn $1m more than that with bonuses,” said one ex-senior staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If he couldn’t put up with Christine Holgate for six times the salary he was earning putting up with a different egotistical maniac for a boss, that gives you an indication of the problem.”
And, as the departures grew, so too did the leaks.
The most damaging came in September, shortly before the Cartier scandal, when it was revealed Holgate threatened to call police unless the City of Melbourne delivered 114 Pauline Hanson’s One Nation-branded stubby holders – intercepted by council workers – to every apartment in locked-down public housing towers months earlier.
That caused Holgate serious problems, but won her the approval of Hanson, who has become one of her staunchest defenders. On Tuesday, Hanson claimed Holgate was “still the chief executive of Australia Post by law” and called the Prime Minister an “arrogant bully”.
Among some former Australia Post staff, there is a view that the Coalition government is reaping what it has sown by stacking the board with political allies.
“The government needs to be held accountable because for years they’ve been appointing their dud mates,” said one.
“The last two months have proven that politicians can’t manage hiring and firing of staff and HR issues in their own offices. What skills does an ex-politician have for sitting on the board of a 30,000-strong multibillion-dollar organisation?”
But other former staff members told The Australian the problems at Australia Post were down to Holgate, not the board.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if the board was full of Libs, Labor, independents ... The issue was one of entitlement and largesse and failing to understand the responsibility that comes with leading the most important and largest government business enterprise in Australia,” a former executive said.