Communications minister Paul Fletcher has asked Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate to stand aside after Senate Estimates heard the organisation spent $12,000 on Cartier watches for four of its employees in 2018.
Holgate told Senate Estimates on Thursday that the watches, worth $3000 each, were gifted to four senior staff who had “put in an inordinate amount of work” on the [email protected] deal with Commonwealth Bank, Westpac, and NAB.
She said former AusPost chair John Stanhope had recommended that the staff, including executive general manager for business, government and international Gary Starr, receive a reward for their efforts.
Following the hearing, Fletcher told question time that he was “shocked and concerned” by the revelations, and that an independent probe into the gifts would be undertaken. He said Holgate would be asked to stand aside for the duration of the review, and that AusPost chair Lucio Di Bartolomeo had been asked to “provide the full support of the company for this investigation”.
“I have explained the government’s view is that the boards and managements of government business enterprises need to take great care with taxpayers’ money,” he said.
“This is a matter that the Australian government takes seriously. We expect the daily management of government business to deal with taxpayers’ money with scrupulous care and and it will examine the conduct of all involved in how the matter occurred.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told question time that the investigation would look into the conduct of the board members, their governance, and the actions of the management and executive. He said if Holgate did not wish to stand aside, then “she can go”.
The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications and the Department of Finance will conduct the investigation, with the support of an external law firm. The probe is expected to be completed within four weeks.
In a statement on Friday, Di Bartolomeo revealed the watches actually cost the organisation $19,950.
“Since the [estimates] appearance, I have become aware of further details of the purchase and wish, as a matter of urgency, to clarify that the purchase was of four items costing $7000, $4750, $4400 and $3800 totalling $19,950 (including GST), and was made in November 2018,” Di Bartolomeo wrote.
AusPost did not use taxpayers’ money to purchase the watches in October 2018, estimates heard.
“I have not used taxpayers’ money. We are a commercial organisation. We do not receive government funding,” Holgate said.
Holgate and the organisation’s chief financial officer, Rodney Boys, could not say which corporate credit card was used to buy the watches.
“Australia Post has $7.4 billion worth of expenses. We look after those expenses and take great care of those expenses,” Boys said.
Shadow minister for communications Michelle Rowland has described the situation as “unacceptable”.
“Australia Post is a cherished national institution and it must set a high standard. Today’s evidence that $12,000 was used on luxury watches does not meet that test,” she said in a statement.
“The Australia Post Board is a dysfunctional swamp of former Liberal politicians, party hacks, and mates of Scott Morrison. This board is incapable of executive oversight and 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.”