Wed, 14 Apr 2021 - 17:36
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Transcript -- Interview with Ross Greenwood -- Sky News

ROSS GREENWOOD: Paul Fletcher, right now, Australia Post has an incoming chief executive. It has an interim chief executive, and it has chief executive who claims not to have resigned, that she is also the chief executive, so that’s three. How many chief executives can you manage as a Communications Minister?

MINISTER FLETCHER: Well, we have an excellent incoming chief executive in Paul Graham, currently chief logistics and supply officer at Woolworths, very deep experience in global logistics, including at DHL, the massive company where he was chief operating officer. Also extensive retail experience at Woolworths.

ROSS GREENWOOD: I get that, but look: Christine Holgate. The big question here is whether she has been dismissed properly as the chief executive of Australia Post.

MINISTER FLETCHER: She resigned. She resigned.

ROSS GREENWOOD: She claims she didn’t resign.

MINISTER FLETCHER: She resigned on the 2nd of November.

ROSS GREENWOOD: She claims she gave a letter that was actually a draft letter that actually has been then leaked out and to the media and as a result of that, effectively, her hand was forced. Did you force her hand?

MINISTER FLETCHER: On the 2nd of November, she emailed the board around 10.30am or so in the morning saying, I offer my resignation. She also issued a public statement shortly after 2:00pm where she said, “I resign.” So, look, let's be clear - Ms Holgate resigned. That put the board in the position that there was no longer a chief executive. They did two things appropriately. They appointed Rodney Boys, the Chief Financial Officer, who was acting chief executive - and he's been doing a good job over this period, including through the Christmas period where parcel volumes were up 20 per cent on the previous Christmas. And what they also did was immediately commence the search process for a new chief executive. And that's what you'd expect a responsible board to do.

ROSS GREENWOOD: But like any employee, Christine Holgate deserved due process. Was there due process? She says there was no letter given to her, that there was no proper resignation protocol undertaken by Australia Post.

MINISTER FLETCHER: Not to my knowledge, no. But the point I'd make is, what is very clear here is Ms Holgate has resigned. And she issued a public statement saying that she’d resigned. So it really is - there's no factual question that Ms Holgate has resigned.

ROSS GREENWOOD: Christine Holgate of course says she that was bullied and harassed to save the reputation, the political reputation of the Prime Minister, who stood on the floor of Parliament and said that she must go. Is that the way you see it?

MINISTER FLETCHER: Let's be clear on the facts here. A Labor senator asked a series of questions in Senate Estimates about whether Ms Holgate had, as chief executive, authorised the provision of $20,000 worth of Cartier watches as gifts to four executives. And as a consequence, the events of that day unfolded, including the Prime Minister and I speaking, agreeing on a course of action. I spoke to the chair on a couple of occasions, and he then dealt with the chief executive, communicated to her the position that she needed to stand aside while an investigation occurred into the facts. So that was the well-established process. I might say, it's a similar process that occurred with, for example, James Shipton, the chair of ASIC, when there were questions about spending at ASIC.

ROSS GREENWOOD: But look, they've been exonerated – James Shipton had to stand aside and then resigned as a result of an expenses scandal. He was exonerated. Now it’s found that Christine Holgate acted really within her own remit, she’s effectively been exonerated. Yet they’re both gone. That’s the question here.

MINISTER FLETCHER: Well, let me pick you up on something there, Ross. It is not correct to say that the report provided by the secretary of the Department of Finance and Infrastructure, the two shareholder ministers’ departments, and informed by the detailed report commissioned from Maddocks, the well-respected law firm: it's not correct to say that that it didn't find issues. In fact, it found serious issues. It found very specifically that the awarding of $20,000 worth of watches, of luxury watches was inconsistent with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act.

ROSS GREENWOOD: Would it have been better if she’d given Seiko watches, Casio watches, something cheaper than a Cartier watch?

MINISTER FLETCHER: Let's focus on what did happen, and what the inquiry found, because there's been a lot of rewriting of history over the last 24 hours. There was a full inquiry and it found that that behaviour was inconsistent with the Act, the Act which governs spending of public money. It found this was public money. This was taxpayers’ money. That's a very important point. It found that there was no policy within Australia Post which would have authorised the giving of such watches. It found that the board had not signed off on it. And the chair at the time advised that he was not aware of it and had not approved it.

ROSS GREENWOOD: Would she still be in her job today had she not given the watches, but given cash. Because the fact is she had under her authority the ability to award up to $150,000 in bonuses. This was only $20,000.

MINISTER FLETCHER: Let me pick you up on that as well. There was a $150,000 authority limit on her credit card, the chief executive's credit card. That is not the same as saying that she is authorised to go and spend $150,000 on whatever she wants. The key point is there need to be documented processes in relation to remuneration that are approved by the board.

ROSS GREENWOOD: Which she claims was approved by the past chairman, John Stanhope, who was there clearly before the current chairman was in place, who took umbrage at this.

MINISTER FLETCHER: And our government had that investigated. The Maddocks report says that the previous chairman did not authorise it. So we have the benefit of that advice. But again, I make the point, the government did not dismiss Ms Holgate. The Australia Post board did not dismiss Ms Holgate. She was asked to stand aside during the course of an investigation. And, on the 2nd of November, she informed the board that she was resigning and she put out a public statement to that effect.

ROSS GREENWOOD: I want to just take you to another area that you’re the Minister for, and that’s NBN Co. Late last year, NBN Co handed out $77 million worth of bonuses to its executives. So on one hand we’ve got $20,000 worth of watches, on the other hand, $77 million worth of bonuses. The balance really isn’t quite there.

MINISTER FLETCHER: Because it's very important that there be a process. in that, where money is being paid, remuneration is being paid, including incentive payments—at-risk remuneration—that it's done in accordance with documented procedures. Now, both NBN and Australia Post have procedures in relation to the payment of at-risk remuneration. I might add, NBN was set up as a government business enterprise by Labor, including with arrangements for the provision of at-risk remuneration. There’s been a lot of revisionism by Labor on this, and they seem to have completely reversed their position on whether or not they think Ms Holgate should have been awarding these watches.

ROSS GREENWOOD: But this was all largely about the pub test, and the pub test of $77 million worth versus $20,000 worth of watches. The chief executives gone there, the chief executive is celebrated over here. This is where the balance – in my opinion – seems a little out from that pub test.

MINISTER FLETCHER: What it was about was a political hit job carried out by Labor Senator Kitching, who asked this question in estimates. There were other ways to handle it if she had that information and she wanted to raise it with a view to resolving it rather than achieving a political hit.

ROSS GREENWOOD: But if, “If she won’t aside, then she must go,” is not a political hit job, I’ve never heard of one.

MINISTER FLETCHER: Well, to be very clear, what the Prime Minister was doing was making it clear what the process was in relation to Ms Holgate. The government, as the 100 per cent shareholder in Australia Post, committed to seeing public money dealt with safely and prudently, expected that there would be an investigation and during the course of that investigation Ms Holgate would stand aside. So the Prime Minister was clear on that. Now he's commented today publicly that if that's caused Ms Holgate distress, that wasn't his intention, and he regrets that. But the same time, we do take very seriously the spending of public money. And let's be clear, $20,000, that's a pretty significant fraction of the average income in a year of a typical Australian. So we do need to see –

ROSS GREENWOOD: Not at the scale of the sales and scope of Australia Post.

MINISTER FLETCHER: Regardless of the scale of the organisation, we want to see money being dealt with carefully and appropriately, and that means in accordance with the documented procedures of the organisation. And it must be consistent with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act. This is about the careful and appropriate spending of public money. And that is something that we take very seriously.

ROSS GREENWOOD: The other view that Christine Holgate has got, is that she is really gone because of the Boston Consulting Group recommendations that Australia Post be split up, the parcels division be sold off, and as a result there would be dilution in the services of both the rural and the regional post offices. She believes that is the real reason she is gone from Australia Post.

MINISTER FLETCHER: Well I think that's not correct at all. Let's be clear. First of all, Australia Post is a government business enterprise, 100 per cent owned by the government. That will not change. That's our policy, it’s always been our policy, and it’s going to continue.

ROSS GREENWOOD: Okay, so Australia Post is government owned, but that doesn't address the other part of this, and that is that the parcels business could be split off into a separate business and sold. It still leaves Australia Post there. What about that parcels business?

MINISTER FLETCHER: Well, the parcels business is key to Australia Post. It's growing strongly at the same time as mail volumes, letter volumes, are dropping. And indeed, last year, over the period March to December, parcel volumes were 44 per cent higher than the corresponding period in the previous year, driven significantly by the pandemic—people staying home, people ordering goods online, and those then being delivered by Australia Post parcels delivery.

ROSS GREENWOOD: Okay, so that actually almost justifies, Christine Holgate’s point that it should be an integrated business. But BCG recommended that it should be split off, according to her. So what you’re saying to me is, is that parcel business for sale—is it going to be split off and sold under this government, future governments, do you believe?

MINISTER FLETCHER: The parcel business is a key part of Australia Post.

ROSS GREENWOOD: But is it for sale?

MINISTER FLETCHER: No.

ROSS GREENWOOD: Will it be sold under this government?

MINISTER FLETCHER: That is not our intention, no.

ROSS GREENWOOD: That is not your intention. And so as a result, what Christine Holgate fears, is that she lost her job because she opposed those recommendations from BCG.

MINISTER FLETCHER: I think that is not at all an accurate characterisation of what's happened. Look, can I say, I understand this has been a very difficult process for Christine Holgate. I worked closely with her for a year and a half, as she said, we would meet quite regularly, speak quite regularly. She was a very passionate and committed executive, and as Lucio Di Bartolomeo, the chair of Australia Post has said, she was an effective chair [CEO] of Australia Post. So I understand this has been a very difficult process for her. And naturally, when you look at somebody going through that, you wish that that didn't have to happen.