The audit also found the regulator forked out $69,621 to cover the cost of moving the deputy chair Daniel Crennan from Melbourne to Sydney.
Worse, the regulator then ignored the A-G’s appeals to address the matter. So, Hehir took the extraordinary step of writing directly to the Treasurer to ensure he could “gain greater confidence that appropriate action would be taken”. It was. Shipton has stood aside while the matter is investigated and Crennan has resigned. Both have agreed to repay the money.
Meanwhile, at Senate estimates hearings Labor’s Kimberley Kitching was digging in the rich mine that is Australia Post’s culture of excess. The company’s boss, Christine Holgate, revealed four already handsomely remunerated executives were gifted Cartier watches worth $3000 each as a reward for their work on landing a banking deal. The next day the total was rebased to $19,950.
The most telling exchange in estimates came when Kitching challenged Holgate over Australia Post’s largesse.
“I have not used taxpayers’ money. We are a commercial organisation,” Ms Holgate said.
It is both telling and terrifying that the woman who runs Australia Post so fundamentally misunderstands its nature. The “company” is wholly owned by the Australian government, represented by two shareholder ministers.
Australia Post has a long and sorry history when it comes to the salaries it lavishes on its executives. Its last chief executive, Ahmed Fahour, had his remuneration doubled by the board in his time at the helm and walked away with a $10.8 million payout. And this is the organisation that spent $2.5 million on hospitality for the London Olympics.
A furious Prime Minister reminded the post office of its place in the world when he declared he was “appalled and shocked” by its behaviour and demanded Holgate step aside while the affair was subjected to a departmental review.
Scott Morrison knows a political problem when he sees one. If Holgate has just hosed another $5000 in cash into the pockets of each of the executives, it would have vanished amid the millions they are already paid in bonuses. But luxury watches stink of conspicuous consumption. Wage slaves locked in their homes and losing their jobs by government fiat probably take a dim view of people with guaranteed public sector jobs living a Gucci (or Cartier) lifestyle.
So, the auditor and estimates have shone a light on more than the use and abuse of taxpayer’s money. They have revealed a culture of entitlement to taxpayer dollars among some senior bureaucrats. That culture goes beyond just those who delude themselves that they are at the helm of a commercial enterprise.
But the abuse of tax dollars goes higher up the tree. As this Auditor-General, and a long line before him has found, ministers also believe the privilege of government bestows on them the right to use grants as election slush funds.
Perhaps the most important sentence in the Australian constitution is Section 83: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury of the Commonwealth except under appropriation made by law.”
This means the executive has to ask Parliament to spend taxpayers’ cash and it must be done transparently. The lack of this kind of rule in other nations leads to kleptocratic regimes and revolutions.
The power of the Audit Office rests in the fact that it reports to Parliament and the people, not the executive. Recent events suggest there is a lot of heavy lifting to be done and Hehir’s team could use some help in the form of a long-awaited national integrity commission.
Chris Uhlmann is Nine’s political editor.
Chris Uhlmann is political editor for Nine News.