Former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate
Former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

When a highly paid executive parts ways unhappily with the government it’s always the taxpayer that foots the bill.

And that’s how things are shaping in the case of Christine Holgate, the Australia Post CEO who’s been returned to sender by Prime Minister Scott Morrison over watchgate.

Crikey can’t know for sure, but all the clues suggest manoeuvring is well underway for an expensive termination package. Through the media we’ve learnt that Holgate has spent days in tears (“She was devastated. It was awful.”) and that the way she has been treated has been “bloody disgusting”.

Holgate’s lawyer Bryan Belling has said Morrison’s response in question time — saying he was “appalled and shocked” that the CEO had given four executives $20,000 worth of watches for a job well done — was “humiliating” for her.

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Holgate had also not been informed “as to why she should be stood down”, Belling, partner at employment law firm Kingston Reid, said in a statement.

Distress. Humiliation. Lack of due process. No clear reasons given. Unfair.

Holgate’s salary is $1.6 million a year, with another $1 million in bonuses (at least) expected.

There’s pain and suffering. Loss of future earnings. Reputational damage. The price of a confidential settlement.

It’s all adding up to one hell of a case against the Commonwealth. Morrison’s dozen or words of outrage — real or confected — might be the most expensive he’s ever uttered.

Well, expensive for the taxpayer that is, given that the government is Australia Post’s sole shareholder.

US import Sol Trujillo set the benchmark for payouts when he left Telstra after only 10 months as CEO, with $3.8 million in termination benefits, taking his total pay to more than $9 million. That was in 2009.

The private sector has produced its share of telephone number payouts: in 2017, Commonwealth Bank CEO Ian Narev left the bank with at least $12 million in shares. At least.

The problem for Morrison is that Team Holgate is a well-resourced and formidable foe. Holgate is a seasoned business operator who has amassed a fortune over the years as CEO of Blackmores health care empire.

In her corner is husband Mike Harding, a powerful figure in Australia’s resources industry.

Harding was on the board of Santos for 10 years and according to the company played a “major role” in its “transformational” liquefied natural gas (LNP) projects.

This, you might think, is an awkward connection for the gas-led recovery Morrison government, especially given the donations which Santos has sent the government’s way over the last several years.

Harding has held other influential roles, including as chair of giant infrastructure company Downer EDI; Horizon Oil Limited chair; and Roc Oil Company Limited chair.

Judging by the favourable publicity, Team Holgate has received some smart PR advice to augment its legal strategy. In The Australian, veteran business columnist Robert Gottliebsen has sketched a conspiracy to remove Holgate so dark that he dares not spell it out. “I can’t reveal the motivation of the Holgate character assassins because that would reveal the identity of the assassins,” he wrote.

Gottliebsen has also taken aim at the Australia Post board, stacked as it is with Liberal mates.

As Crikey reported, the Liberal names include the influential Howard-era operative Tony Nutt, as well as Bruce McIver, who was Queensland LNP state director for seven years.

It all points towards a tremendous barney, with a mashup of leading Liberal party figures, corporate titans, and dueling media spinners from both sides, each trying to portray themselves as the champion of the public good and of what is right and fair. Cry me a river.

Is it a cheap shot to point out that as millionaires and political elites wrestle over the potential millions of dollars in payouts, there are people losing their jobs under a government which can’t even be bothered to measure what constitutes poverty?