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Under-fire Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate has sensationally been told to step aside or be sacked, by prime minister Scott Morrison, over the gift of $20,000 worth of luxury watches to four senior AusPost execs in 2018.

'Any employee with the courage to come forward must be taken very seriously': Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate.
Stand aside or go: AusPost CEO Christine Holgate

Holgate is not expected to return to the role, her departure will not be mourned by the print and mailing industries, where she has few friends. Under her tenure AusPost has caused angst and outrage for the recent approach to letters and mail, a strategy that can fairly be summed up as doubling costs and halving services, as it chases after the more lucrative parcels business.

Holgate told a Senate estimates hearing that her office had bought four $3000 Cartier watches, as a reward for the execs nutting down a $70m deal with Australian banks for the Bank@Post programme.

The prime minster, hearing of the revelations at Question Time said: "I was appalled, and it is disgraceful and not on." Morrison said: "I spoke with ministers and from those discussions, decided that there had to be an independent investigation done by the Department, not by Australia Post, and that the chief executive should stand aside immediately.

“That report will come back to me and my members of my Cabinet and if there are issues to be addressed with board members, then they will be addressed then."

Federal communications minister Paul Fletcher said he was “shocked and concerned” over the allegations and told the chairman of Australia Post that an investigation is being opened. Analysts say it is unlikely Hogate will return to her job.

Holgate told the committee that “no taxpayers money” was used and said that AusPost was a commercial organisation. She said the AusPost chairman at the time John Stanhope recommended the reward of the watches. He left Australia Post a year ago, and he says he does not remember authorising the watches. The AusPost board later said it had no minutes thatshowed the matter was discussed or agreed by the board.

Australia Post is not taxpayer funded, but is government owned, ie taxpayer owned, and does have a mail monopoly.

AusPost chief financial officer Rodney Boys - now acting CEO - told the committee he did not know which credit card was used to buy the watches, as AusPost has $7.4bn worth of expenses.

Calling the gifts “unacceptable” Labor committee member Michelle Rowland said the AusPost board was "incapable of executive oversight and must be cleaned up".

Holgate was asked at the hearing if she was wearing one of the watches, she said she was not, but it was later revealed in case of ill-judged optics that the watch she was wearing as she was asked the question was from luxury brand Bulgari, and one that retails for  $48,300.

Holgate is already under the pump for cosying up to One Nation leader Pauline Hanson. Holgate took Hanson on a tour of a Brisbane parcels facility shortly after AusPost forced Melbourne City Council to unblock delivery of 114 stubby holders Hanson had sent to mainly immigrant residents of a locked-down tower block. Hanson had described the residents as "alcoholics". At the time, AusPost was trying to win Hanson's senate vote to allow alternate days mail delivery. Holgate claimed the timing was a "coincidence".

Holgate redeployed a quarter of the company's 9000 posties to the parcels business from letters, as volumes fell by half during Covid.

Holgate is Australia’s highest-paid civil servant, pocketing $2.5m a year. She stepped into the role three years ago from running "wellness" empire Blackmores, following the departure of former AusPost CEO Ahmed Fahour, who went when politicians realised he was trousering a stratospheric $5.6m a year for his troubles. HIs final year including payoff topped $10m. By comparison the head of US Post earns around $1m a year, as does the head of the Australian Reserve Bank, and the managing director of the ABC.

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