The chief executive of Australia Post has been ordered to stand aside as Scott Morrison orders an independent investigation into the organisation spending $12,000 on gifts of designer watches for bosses who stitched up a deal with big banks.
The Prime Minister blasted the spending decision as “disgraceful”, the latest scandal to prompt outrage at the embattled organisation’s spending.
Already under a storm of controversy over winding back delivery schedules, and recent decisions such as intervening in the postage of Pauline Hanson stubby holders to residents in locked-down Melbourne public housing towers, the corporation also revealed it had splurged on gifts for senior staff.
Australia Post executives fronted a federal Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Thursday, revealing four executives received Cartier watches, valued at $3000 each, after the finalisation of a deal with major banks for the Bank@Post arrangement in October 2018.
Under-fire chief executive Christine Holgate said the watches were an “award” to the senior staff, on behalf of the Australia Post board, for their work on the deal which allowed people to do their banking at post offices.
“They were a small number of senior people who’d put an inordinate amount of work in,” she said.
Ms Holgate said the watches were not paid for by taxpayers, saying “we [Australia Post] do not receive government funding”.
“I have not used taxpayers’ money, we are a commercial organisation,” she said.
But following instant outrage at the luxury gifts, communications minister Paul Fletcher and Mr Morrison both took action.
“I was appalled and it is disgraceful and not on,” the PM said in Parliament.
He said he had ordered an independent investigation into the spending, which would report to him directly, with Ms Holgate asked to stand aside as that probe was carried out.
“She has been instructed to stand aside, if she doesn’t wish to do that, she can go,” Mr Morrison said.
“This all happened within an hour, so appalled and shocked was I by that behaviour, because as any shareholder would in a company raise their outrage if they had seen that conduct, by a chief executive, the management or the board, they would insist rightly on the same thing.”
“We are the shareholders of Australia Post on behalf of the Australian people.”
Mr Fletcher said he too was “concerned”.
“They need to take great care with taxpayers’ money… This is a matter that the Australian government take seriously,” he told Parliament.
“We expect the board management of government business to deal with taxpayers’ money with scrupulous care.”
The New Daily has contacted Australia Post for comment.
Ms Holgate told the estimates hearing that she did not receive a watch but senior executive Gary Starr, who also appeared before the committee, did.
Australia Post chief financial officer Rodney Boys was unable to say how the watches were paid for.
“You spent $12,000 on watches and you can’t tell me which credit card you put that money on?” Labor senator Kimberly Kitching asked.
Michelle Rowland, Labor’s communications spokeswoman, said the gifts were “unacceptable”.
“Australia Post is a cherished national institution and it must set a high standard,” she said.
“Today’s evidence that $12,000 was used on luxury watches does not meet that test.”
Ms Rowland called the Australia Post board a “dysfunctional swamp” that “must be cleaned up”.
“The focus of Australia Post must return squarely to what matters: Community services, consumers, its workforce and enabling the broader digital economy,” she said.
Australia Post has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, following a string of controversial revelations as it cut back its delivery schedule – even as the pandemic and lockdowns vastly expanded demand for online shopping and delivery.
The board has also come under fire for lavish spending on gifts, entertainment and events for staff. It was revealed last week that, from January-July 2020, Ms Holgate authorised spending of more than $85,000 on such expenses.
‘Chaotic’ One Nation incident
Regarding the One Nation stubbie holders, Australia Post managing director Rod Barnes called the public housing tower stand-off “a very chaotic situation”.
In July, residents in one of the locked-down public housing towers in Melbourne were mailed Pauline Hanson-branded merchandise. The coolers bore the phrase “I’ve got the guts to say what you’re thinking”, and were accompanied by a note reading “no hard feelings”.
It came after the Senator Hanson claimed many of the residents, who were controversially locked down in their towers due to a COVID outbreak, were “drug addicts” and “alcoholics” who “haven’t adhered to the rules of social distancing”.
Senator Hanson’s comments, made on Nine’s Today show, led to her being axed from the program as a regular guest.
Mr Barnes said One Nation had asked for an update after the packages had not been delivered, several days after postage. Ms Holgate said it was just a “coincidence” that Senator Hanson had been given a tour of the Australia Post facility just weeks earlier.