Ousted Australia Post boss Christine Holgate has slammed Scott Morrison for ‘humiliating her’ in public after she gifted Cartier watches to executives and revealed she was ‘suicidal’ after being forced out of the company.
Wearing suffragette white for a senate hearing on Tuesday, Ms Holgate said she was ‘thrown under the bus’ and ‘driven to despair’ when she offered to resign in November.
She revealed she was ‘going through hell’ in the days after Mr Morrison demanded her resignation, saying: ‘I was seriously ill, I was on [insomnia medication] temazepam. I was suicidal.’
Ms Holgate also claimed she was treated so poorly because she is a woman.
‘I have never seen any male public servant depicted in that way. So do I believe it’s partially a gender issue? You’re absolutely right I do,’ she said.
‘I think it would be fair to say I’ve never seen a media article comment about a male politician’s watch and yet I was depicted as a prostitute,’ she added, referring to media scrutiny over her gifts.
The prime minister last year roasted Ms Holgate for giving four executives luxury Cartier watches worth $20,000 in October 2018 as a reward for securing a $66 million deal with three big banks.
On hearing about the reward, a furious Mr Morrison told Parliament the Cartier gifts were disgraceful and appalling.
‘She’s been instructed to stand aside and if she doesn’t do that, she can go,’ he said.
Ms Holgate, who was born in Cheshire, north England, claims she offered to go on annual leave pending an investigation and later offered to resign.
But she said her contract has never been resolved and claims on LinkedIn that she is still CEO, despite the board appointing a new boss, former Woolworths executive Paul Graham.
Ms Holgate said she would be willing to return as CEO but only if chair Lucio Di Bartolomeo – aka Lucho – left the company.
She said she was treated ‘like a criminal’, ‘abandoned to a media firestorm’ and wrongfully ousted against her will.
In her opening statement to a senate inquiry on Tuesday, Ms Holgate said: ‘I was humiliated by our prime minister for committing no offence and then bullied by my chairman.
Christine Holgate in the senate hearing
She added: ‘Lucho unlawfully stood me down under public direction of the Prime Minister. This made my leadership at Australia Post untenable and seriously threatened my health.
‘I have done no wrong. Their bullying of me was far from over.
‘The simple truth is I was bullied out of my job. I was humiliated and driven to despair. I was thrown under the bus by the chairman of Australia Post, to curry favour with his political masters. But I’m still here and I’m stronger for surviving it,’ she said.
Chairman Lucio Di Bartolomeo has hit back at Ms Holgate’s accusations, insisting that he never wanted her to step down.
‘I view the purchase of the watches as an error of judgement made in good faith by an otherwise highly effective CEO,’ he said.
The chair said he did not believe she was owed an apology by the board but implied she was treated badly by the media and the government.
‘Christine Holgate has been treated abysmally, but I believe the board and management did the right things by her,’ he said.
Mr Di Bartolomeo revealed that Communications Minister Paul Fletcher called him at 1.09pm and 1.30pm on 22 October – hours after the watch scandal broke – to tell him that he wanted Ms Holgate gone.
The chair said he called a board meeting at 4pm that afternoon and the board agreed to ask Ms Holgate to resign and to take further action if she refused.
Mr Di Bartolomeo said Mr Fletcher did not direct him to oust Ms Holgate but made his desires clear.
In her statement to the inquiry which contained emails, photos of cards and a letter to her lawyers, Ms Holgate blamed Mr Di Bartolomeo for her being forced out of the top job.
The former Blackmores executive said the watches were bought legally and signed off by then-chairman John Stanhope, auditors, and Australia Post’s chief financial officer.
An independent investigation later cleared Ms Holgate of any dishonesty, fraud, corruption, or intentional misuse of taxpayer funds.
She insisted the gift of the watches was signed off and no-one raised any eyebrows.
‘[It was] widely celebrated within the organisation, and presented at a morning tea by the previous chairman and me with a thank you card signed by both of us,’ she wrote.
‘It was then found to be legal by the ‘review’ which was clearly intended to find it otherwise.’
Pictured: Australia Post Chair Lucio Di Bartolomeo appears before a Senate estimates hearing at Parliament House in Canberra on November 9
Mr Di Bartolomeo told an inquiry last November he would have blocked the purchase of the luxury watches if he was in charge when the gifts were handed out.
‘He lied repeatedly to the Australian people and to their parliament about his actions,’ she claimed in the submission.
‘Time after time he has made statements that I had agreed to stand down when I had done no such thing.
‘He then abandoned me to a media firestorm that he and others had created and cut me off from resources, despite knowing that these events had caused me to seek mental health care and medication.’
Last Wednesday Mr Di Bartolomeo hit back with a 1,000-word statement and said Ms Holgate was a ‘very good chief executive’ but accused her of making a series of incorrect claims in her submission.
‘Ms Holgate agreed with me to stand aside from her role pending the outcome of the shareholder departments’ investigation and any further actions taken by Australia Post,’ he said.
‘The board’s intent was to ensure that both Ms Holgate and the organisation could focus their attentions on full co-operation with the investigation.
Ms Holgate said the watches were given as a reward to four executives who worked hard over a deal with Australia’s big banks. Pictured: An Australia Post store in Sydney
‘The board did not stand down, or suspend, Ms Holgate from her role – that being an unnecessary consideration given her agreement to stand aside.’
He claimed the agreement was reached in telephone conversations, which go against Ms Holgate’s claim that the pair communicated in two emails on the same afternoon that Mr Morrison demanded she step aside.
Mr Di Bartolomeo said he and Ms Holgate did not speak after the Question Time comments, ‘however, phone records support my recollection – including that we had conversations at 4.27pm and 5.50pm on that day’.
In response to Ms Holgate’s comment that she only ‘offered to resign’ and never signed the deed of release, the chairman said she wrote to Australia Post at 10.46am on November 2 advising her immediate resignation.
‘We understand that Ms Holgate then released the statement at 2pm and subsequently advised the Australia Post Executive Team at 2.29pm that she had done so,’ he said.
Ms Holgate said she had two witnesses who could support her version of events, including Australia Post’s human resources boss Sue Davies who joined her on the three-hour trip to Sydney from Canberra after Mr Morrison’s comments.
It was within those three hours that Ms Holgate and Mr Di Bartolomeo exchanged emails, according to her statement.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the gifts were as unacceptable and ordered her to step down
In his lengthy statement, Mr Di Bartolomeo also said he did not try to restrict Ms Holgate from working elsewhere for 12 months.
‘Ms Holgate claims that I made a counteroffer which would have prevented her from working for 12 months without pay. That is not correct.
‘The existing provisions of Ms Holgate’s contract of employment contained non-compete provisions, as is common for such senior executive roles. These provisions apply only to working for a competitor for a period of six months from the end of Ms Holgate’s employment – and therefore expire on May 2, 2021.
‘Regarding payment, Ms Holgate had already advised the Board and stated publicly that she was not seeking any financial compensation.’
The ex CEO also said she asked Australia Post for support but was met with ‘continuous requests to examine credit card expense records, on the disguise that they must be made public, presumably to cause me even greater harm’.
But Mr Di Bartolemo said he was complying with a freedom of information request.
‘She also claims there were leaks of misleading reports regarding the management of expenses. This is not correct,’ he added.
‘Australia Post was obligated to disclose information regarding credit card transactions and other expenses, in response to Senate Committee questions and Freedom of Information requests.’