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Wednesday, 15 February 2017
Page: 1026


Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (16:47): I rise to make a contribution on this matter of public importance debate. To put it mildly, Senator Hanson has jumped the gun. While there are not any One Nation senators on the Environment and Communications Committee, I would hope that if Senator Hanson is calling for the board of Australia Post to be sacked, she might have taken a slight interest in the opportunity to ask questions of the chair of the board at estimates in less than two weeks time. Typically, the Australia Post chair does not attend estimates, but last week I requested that the committee expand the requested witnesses from Australia Post to include the chair of the board, Mr Jon Stanhope. Mr Stanhope is also the chair of the remuneration committee and is conducting a review into the processes that led to how the managing director's salary was set. I thank my colleagues on the committee for agreeing to invite Mr Stanhope, and I look forward to pressing him and his colleagues on their decision-making processes for setting executive remuneration at Australia Post.

In this place we pride ourselves on hard interrogations of public and private officials on matters of interest to the Australian public. As senators, we have immense power to ask questions and command answers. But when faced with a problem such as excessive remuneration, simply throwing her hands in the air and declaring that it is all too hard and that a whole board should be thrown out might get a Senator Hanson story in the press, and the senator's outrage might appeal to her base, but calling for a specific board to be sacked because you are unhappy with the excessive salary package of one managing director demonstrates a lack of imagination and that there is likely something deeper at play.

Since coming to this place I have maintained a strong interest in the management of Australia Post, and in particular how decisions of management affect workers, licensees, contractors and rural and regional communities across Australia. Along with a number of colleagues from across the political spectrum—I notice in the chamber Senator Anne Ruston, who was the chair of the committee when we did the Australia Post investigation into LPOs sometime ago and had an inquiry that went for quite a long time—we have pursued Australia Post about their declining mail volumes, their service delivery, difficulties with the increasing parcel volume and management's treatment of contractors, licensees and workers. The managing director, Mr Fahour, and I have had numerous heated exchanges over the past few years. On many occasions I have been bitterly disappointed in the quality of Mr Fahour's answers. The issue before us today has come to air because of questions asked by myself and Senator Dastyari in estimates in October last year. We asked why the annual report from last year did not include a breakdown of senior executive salaries, as the report only listed an aggregate of $12 million, which is an increase of $4 million on the aggregate from the year earlier. At the hearing, Mr Fahour argued that Australia Post followed a direction under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act:

We followed the instructions issued to all GBEs two years earlier about how their annual report was to be presented and we are complying 100 per cent with the instructions given to us.

As Senator Paterson said in his contribution, Senator Dastyari and I insisted that Australia Post take on notice the breakdown of senior executive salaries. Australia Post responded to the committee in December last year, with the corporate secretary requesting that the evidence be treated as commercial in confidence and not disclosed to the public. In the letter, the short-term employee benefits and post-employment benefits for Mr Fahour were disclosed. However, the corporate secretary claimed that information on executive salaries contains personal and sensitive information and the disclosure of such information in the public domain might be prejudicial against those individuals to whom the information relates. I felt that this was an extremely weak excuse. Corporations in Australia must disclose their executive remuneration and must provide a breakdown of base pay, bonuses and other payments. And no mention of the section of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, referred to by Mr Fahour at estimates, was made in this letter.

The committee wrote back to Australia Post in January noting that Post did not make a claim of public interest immunity to withhold information from the committee. Rather, Post provided some information, namely Mr Fahour's salary, and requested that it not be published. The committee noted that Australia Post volunteered this information and that the committee believes it is appropriate for Mr Fahour's salary and the salary of all senior executive service at Australia Post be disclosed to the Australian people. The committee gave Australia Post an opportunity to respond before we were to make the documents public. The response did not convince any of us to not disclose the information provided. The second letter from Post cited legislative requirements, public interest immunity claims and commercial confidentiality as reasons that the salary of Mr Fahour and the Australia Post executives not be made public.

I note that the requirements under the PGPA Act changed in July 2015 on the direction of the Minister for Finance, Senator Cormann. In seeking to streamline reporting and reduce red tape, the minister changed the requirement from individual reporting to aggregated reporting of executive pay. Commonwealth entities could volunteer more information but were now able to be less transparent than corporations regulated under the Corporations Act. Given the outrage from government senators and members, including the Prime Minister, about Australia Post's lack of transparency and the excessive salary of the managing director, it would be interesting to examine in coming months if Minister Cormann seeks to reverse his 2015 instruction or if the outrage from the government is as confected as it seems.

As I mentioned earlier, the letters from Australia Post also made claims of public interest immunity based on the information being personal and the disclosure of this information may be prejudicial. Notwithstanding this ridiculous motion by Senator Hanson, the media attention that I have seen flowing from the disclosure of Mr Fahour's salary has been based on comparisons with comparable postal services across the world and other managing directors and CEOs in Australia. Further, Australia Post claimed that the public disclosure of executive remuneration would in no way be of any relevance to the community because no public money or resources are used to fund the company. I recall reading this part of the letter, and it really took my breath away. It was such a ridiculous proposition—that the shareholders of a corporation, namely the Australia people, should not have access to the remuneration of executives simply because no public money or resources are used to fund the company. No public money or resources are used to fund many of the corporations regulated under the Corporations Act, but they disclose their executives' salaries.

The final argument made by Australia Post against transparency of this information was on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. Post argued that, as over 70 per cent of its business operates in a commercial environment, disclosing the salaries and other payments to executives may 'harm the commercial interests of Australia Post'. This letter then goes on to claim that senior executive contracts include a confidentiality clause and that disclosing remuneration will be in breach of the terms of their employment. Come on! These arguments are not backed up with any evidence that the commercial interests of Australia Post would be impacted—it is just an assertion—and are in complete ignorance of Senate committee rules and orders.

I congratulate my colleagues on the committee and the committee secretariat for working together on this matter and for responding firmly on the grounds of the public interest in the disclosure. I really hope that Mr Fahour, Mr Stanhope and their team have learnt from this experience and that, in a fortnight's time at estimates, they come prepared to work with senators to explain the decision-making process for setting the remuneration packages of senior executives and to provide information that improves public confidence in Australia Post. While the business is changing and there is incredible strain on the traditional mail service which requires hard decisions to be made, this must not be done in secret.

Senators may recall a long Senate inquiry—as I spoke about earlier—into Australia Post and its relationship with licensees. It ran for over a year and reported in 2014. The Senate inquiry uncovered a range of issues with the management of Australia Post, and it is pleasing to note that Australia Post has acted on a number of recommendations of that inquiry to better support licensees and staff. But those licensees are still struggling. The average postal worker earns enough to get by but also faces a lot of uncertainty in their working future as the business restructures and seeks new opportunities.

I believe that it is vital that the Licensed Post Offices, who are the heart of so many rural communities, the contractors who deliver our parcels, the permanent staff in Post-owned stores and those who manage the complex logistics of sorting and delivering mail and parcels, and the Australian public are engaged in a respectful and honest fashion by Australia Post management. I do not support this motion from Senator Hanson. I look forward to questioning Mr Fahour and Mr Stanhope. (Time expired)