A lawyer representing embattled Australia Post boss Christine Holgate has said there are no legal grounds for the high profile executive to be stood down, accusing Prime Minister Scott Morrison of “humiliating” his client in Parliament.
Morrison and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said Holgate would stand aside last week, pending an investigation into $20,000 worth of Cartier watches purchased as gifts for senior executives in 2018.
But in an extraordinary development on Thursday afternoon, Holgate’s lawyer Bryan Belling issued a statement saying Australia Post’s board had not formally notified Holgate that she had been stood down, or provided grounds for such an action.
“It is now exactly seven days since Ms Holgate was the subject of a humiliating answer during Question Time,” Belling wrote.
“… Legally, in my opinion, there are no grounds for Ms Holgate to be stood down, and ‘optics’ is not a legally valid defence.”
The watch scandal was sparked last week after Holgate revealed the purchases in an appearance before Senate Estimates.
An incensed Morrison then took to Question Time to rail against what he described as “disgraceful and not on”.
“[Holgate] has been instructed to stand aside, if she doesn’t wish to do that, she can go,” Morrison told Parliament last week.
The government has also sought legal advice about whether Holgate should lose her $27,000 a week salary while an investigation into the purchases is underway.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Australia Post said Holgate agreed to stand aside in a telephone conversation.
“Australia Post has been communicating frequently with Ms Holgate regarding the current situation and ensuring appropriate support has been provided,” the spokesperson said.
“The chair stands by his previously made statement on Thursday 22 October that Ms Holgate will stand aside and this was agreed to by both parties in a telephone conversation.”
Speaking on 2GB on Friday, Morrison said whether Holgate has been stood down is a matter for Australia Post’s board.
“It’s a government business enterprise. The Government owns Australia Post on behalf of taxpayers, which is why we’ve set out our very clear standards on this. But the direct engagement between the board and Ms. Holgate is for the board,” Morrison said.