Seriously, where has Tony Nutt gone? The rusted-on Liberal Party operative and Australia Post board member — known for having an almost ubiquitous presence in every big Liberal Party win in the past three decades — was missing in action at yesterday’s shambolic Senate hearing into Christine Holgate’s controversial departure from Australia Post.

Nutt and his fellow board members have been under pressure to explain why they pushed Holgate out of her role as CEO over the Cartier watch fiasco. Now, as the government seeks to get to the bottom of the scandal, the former Howard adviser remains notably absent.

Nutt told the inquiry he was unable to attend due to ill health. He has been asked to return to the inquiry on Monday, along with the chairman, Lucio Di Bartolomeo.

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Key witness

Nutt’s absence from the inquiry and his silence over the Holgate saga in general has become problematic for the government. Nutt had a front row seat to the discussions that happened on the day in October last year when Morrison called for Holgate to “go” over her authorisation of the watches as bonuses for executives. 

In her statement to the inquiry Holgate claims she spoke to Nutt shortly after the events in question time when he suggested she prepare a brief statement saying she would take annual leave and support an investigation.

Holgate claims she never agreed to resign and was unlawfully stood aside in the aftermath of the incident. She alleges Australia Post chair Di Bartolomeo lied about the circumstances leading to her departure. Australia Post and Mr Di Bartolomeo deny these allegations.

A shambles

Yesterday’s chaotic committee hearing only muddied the water further. The inquiry was beset with technical glitches, with Australia Post board members choosing to dial into the inquiry from different locations, frequently talking over one another.

It didn’t take long for point-scoring to bubble to the surface, with former Liberal senator and now Australia Post director Michael Ronaldson accusing Labor of trying to get “scalps” rather than answers. 

The seven board members refused to offer Holgate an apology, with Ronaldson putting the blame on a frenzied media rather than the PM. 

“The situation we’re in today — this inquiry, media frenzied, a former CEO who’s clearly suffering — is not of the board’s making, and most definitely not where we want to be or ever imagined we would be,” he said.

Question of independence 

Australia Post is supposed to be an independent statutory body. But the question behind the Holgate saga has always been: just how independent is it?

The board is stacked with ex-Liberal party staffers, including Nutt, who was John Howard’s personal private secretary. Since then he’s maintained a significant backroom presence in several successful state and federal campaigns, including Mike Baird’s 2015 victory and Turnbull’s re-election in 2016.

Nutt was appointed to the Australia Post board by Malcolm Turnbull in 2018. His term was extended for another three years in March last year by Communications Minister Paul Fletcher. But the appointment — which saw him collect $114,000 a year as a non-executive director — quickly thrust him and the board into the spotlight when the Cartier watch scandal became front-page news.

Holgate said in her evidence that Nutt had told her: “Christine, you need to understand it was the prime minister.” But senators hoping to find out what exactly that meant will now have to wait until next week. 

Di Bartolomeo yesterday distanced himself from Nutt’s conversation with Holgate. “Mr Nutt was not authorised to speak to Christine Holgate on behalf of the board,” he said. “Mr Nutt spoke to Christine Holgate on a personal basis.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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