Is the government hiding the report into Australia Post’s gifting of Cartier watches?

Christine-Holgate

Former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate. Source: AAP/James Ross.

It’s well known that the Morrison government is a fan of taking out the rubbish — dropping an unflattering report or announcement on a day when people aren’t paying proper attention.

As such, four days before Christmas the government announced it would not release a report into expenses at Australia Post under fallen chief executive Christine Holgate.

That report was triggered by Holgate’s admission she’d paid bonuses to four staff in the form of gold Cartier watches, totalling almost $20,000. The whole affair infuriated Scott Morrison who launched a scathing attack on Holgate in parliament.

Holgate ultimately left the job, admitting the bonuses simply did not pass the pub test.

What happened to the report?

If Holgate’s behaviour was, as Morrison claimed, “disgraceful”, why was the report shelved?

Well, it turns out the final report might not be the damning takedown of Holgate the government had hoped for.

According to The Australian Financial Review, it made a specific finding that Holgate had “not breached any rule, policy, procedure or governance requirement or committed any impropriety”.

And as The Australian’s Robert Gottliebsen writes, it found she was acting within proper Australia Post board procedures which, essentially, allowed her to make bonuses of up to $150,000 without board approval.

She chose to deliver those four bonuses in the form of $5000 Cartier watches, and did so in the presence of the chairman. Those bonuses went to executives who’d helped secure a deal between Australia Post and the banks, which added to the corporation’s coffers, and propped up nearly 3,000 post offices.

In the scheme of things, that $20,000 was a mere drop in the ocean. In 2019, 13 Australia Post executives received bonuses in the six figures, totalling $3.4 million. And in 2017, former chief executive Ahmed Fahour resigned shortly after it was revealed, to much outrage, that he earned $5.6 million a year.

So while the salaries of Australia Post executives are mind-bogglingly high to regular people at least, everything we know about the report suggests Holgate did nothing wrong by giving away the watches. What brought about her downfall was “optics” — no doubt exacerbated by Morrison’s parliamentary rant.

What Morrison said

The shelving of the report right before Christmas is pretty convenient for the government, because it probably makes Morrison look like a bit of a mug. The prime minister repeatedly criticised Holgate — telling parliament he was “appalled” by her behaviour.

“The chief executive … has been instructed to stand aside. If she doesn’t wish to do that, she can go,” Morrison said.

Later Holgate’s lawyer said those remarks had been “humiliating”.

There’s a good chance the final report makes all that language look like an overblown attack on Holgate. But regardless, the decision to keep it secret is pretty consistent with the Morrison government’s approach to transparency.

For one, it represents a U-turn. In November, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told the ABC the report would be released with appropriate redactions. He’d had the report a whole month, but waited until right before Christmas to announce it wouldn’t be made public.

It’s hardly the first time the Morrison government has kept uncomfortable reading hidden.

During the sports rorts affair, Phil Gaetjens, Morrison’s former chief of staff turned head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, put together a report appearing to let the government off the hook. It’s never been released.

So while Morrison’s attacks on Holgate last year still seem nasty and uncalled for, everything else about the affair is business as usual.

This article was first published by Crikey.

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