Christine Holgate: Australia Post chief delivers controversy

Christine Holgate, the first woman to lead Australia Post, was brought in to head the government company as it reeled from the departure of its hard-charging former chief executive Ahmed Fahour.

Australia Post chief Christine Holgate: delivering for One Nation?Credit:Joe Benke

Fahour resigned in 2017 amid widespread criticism of his $5.6 million annual pay packet only to walk away with a total payout of $10.8 million, accused of potential "fundamentalism" because of his Islamic faith by Senator Pauline Hanson.

Now Holgate's pay, the highest of any federal official in the country, is in the spotlight and Senator Hanson is once again in the mix too.

Who is Christine Holgate?

Born in Britain, the arc of Holgate's life is a story she has told many times. She moved to London from the county of Cheshire at 18 and befriended Flo, a kindly old woman who set up a cleaning business to support Holgate through university. Even at 18 "of course, you have that dream and ambition to one day become the chief executive," she has said.

There were then roles at telecommunications and banking firms in Europe and beyond before landing an executive job at Telstra in 2003. Her next job, as chief executive of the vitamin seller Blackmores, gave her a public profile Down Under.

As sales to China boomed during a period of bonhomie between the two countries, Blackmores rode the wave to a share price of almost $220 and Holgate was hailed as a corporate leader who understood the country. In today's chillier international climate, Blackmores trades at $63 a share.

Then prime minister Tony Abbott with Christine Holgate, chief executive of Australia Post, and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 meeting in Brisbane in 2014. The photo was taken on Ms Holgate’s smuggled iPhone. Credit:Alan Joyce

Perhaps Holgate's biggest coup at Blackmores was a photo with Chinese President Xi Jinping that gave an impression of the company's connections. Ahead of the meeting where she was determined to secure the image, Holgate told an Australia Post conference, she consulted a fortune teller who advised her to wear green. Her success, she says, was a "miracle".

Holgate clearly has a sense of the spiritual. Ahead of starting at Australia Post in 2017 she flew to Bhutan to help out at a Buddhist temple and clear her mind.

But she has not done poorly in the material world either. She's on the well-connected board of Collingwood Football Club, chairs the Australia-ASEAN Council (that is the Association of South-East Asian Nations) and is married to Michael Harding, a corporate powerhouse who now chairs engineering giant Downer and rare earths firm Lynas. He gifted her an electric blue Range Rover with custom "POSTY1" plates.

What was her brief at Australia Post?

To be the new broom. Fahour resigned in 2017 after criticism of his pay packet, accusations of a cosy deal with one faction of the posties' union and secrecy from the board about his compensation.

Holgate was to be "chalk and cheese" with Fahour, the Australian Financial Review reported, while still working on the long-term decline in the service's traditional letters business and saving posties' jobs.

How has that worked out?

Not perfectly. The posties' union and Australia Post have signed a peace deal to protect posties' jobs while the company slows letter delivery times, something the federal government allowed because of COVID-19. In other areas controversy has continued.

The Australia Post board this month vetoed millions in bonuses to the company's leadership Holgate had sought after it defied forecasts to record a jump in profit, despite previously committing to a 20 per cent pay cut for senior managers as part of the case for slackened letter requirements. It happened while Australia Post was asking for volunteers to deliver parcels in their own cars.

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald also revealed this week that Holgate's general counsel threatened to call police after the City of Melbourne blocked delivery of more than 100 stubby holders from Senator Hanson to residents of the locked-down Melbourne public housing towers.

The holders, which said the Senator has the "guts to say what you're thinking", were sent to the towers in July after Senator Hanson said residents were "drug addicts" and "alcoholics" and were accompanied by a note reading "no hard feelings". They were blocked because of concerns they would inflame anger at the towers, which had been placed in a strict lockdown amid fears of coronavirus transmission.

At the same time, Australia Post was lobbying One Nation to side with the government against an ongoing attempt from the Greens and Labor to overturn the changes to the letter delivery schedule.

Australia Post said it was acting to ensure parcels reached their intended recipient and Holgate had not spoken with One Nation before authorising the threat to call police. She will now have to face a Senate committee to answer questions over the incident.

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