Christine Holgate’s out the box thinking, while fuelling her meteoric rise as one of Australia’s best CEOs, won her enemies inside the federal government.
Christine Holgate’s out the box thinking, while fuelling her meteoric rise as one of Australia’s best CEOs, won her enemies inside the federal government.

Holgate’s big ideas included taking over the NBN

Christine Holgate revealed Telstra potentially had the capacity to hand over recordings of phone calls from more than six months ago, shocking observers to her testimony at a Senate inquiry into her controversial departure from Australia Post.

But those who have worked closely with Ms Holgate know such outside the box thinking is business as usual for her, and it can be revealed that Ms Holgate had big plans for the postal service.

The most ambitious plan was taking over another government-owned enterprise, NBN Co. Five different sources inside and outside Australia Post say Ms Holgate was a big talker on such a merger, even hiring former NBN chief operating officer Greg Adcock as a consultant to assist on developing the project.

While such a takeover did not make it into a formal strategy document, it was canvassed widely.

Ms Holgate also spoke about installing Wi-Fi nodes on top of red post boxes, which would have required them to be connected to power and telecommunication services.

Christine Holgate once planned to combine the NBN with Australia Post in an on organisation that would have resembled the PMG of yesteryear. Picture: Bianca De Marchi
Christine Holgate once planned to combine the NBN with Australia Post in an on organisation that would have resembled the PMG of yesteryear. Picture: Bianca De Marchi

But such thinking is not that extraordinary, in theory. After all Telstra was Australia Post's stablemate in the Postmaster-General's Department before they were split in 1975. So the idea of once again combining two government-owned enterprises that specialise in communication is not unprecedented.

And the plan to make better use of Australia Post's infrastructure, such as the red street post boxes, is similar to what Telstra has done with payphone boxes by turning them into Wi-Fi hotspots as their traditional use has plummeted with the rise of mobile phones.

"I believe Australia Post can have a strong future if it's allowed to grow and interference is minimised," Ms Holgate told the Senate inquiry.

But it's understood an NBN takeover was quickly scotched, with Ms Holgate floating a simpler proposal of selling NBN plans via the post office network.

Ms Holgate mentioned Telstra in her evidence as a way of backing up her claim that she never agreed to stand aside in phone calls with Australia Post chairman Lucio Di Bartolomeo.

"I used to be a senior executive at Telstra. We used to work with the police very closely," Ms Holgate said.

Christine Holgate believed Australia Post boxes could be used as Wi-Fi access points. Picture: Penny Stephens
Christine Holgate believed Australia Post boxes could be used as Wi-Fi access points. Picture: Penny Stephens

"I think it would be extremely helpful if we could ask Telstra could they have recordings of those phone calls because I'm sure what you will see is that they will evidence there was no phone call with me agreeing to stand down."

It was certainly creative thinking. But in reality, Telstra, unless it has a warrant, only records the numbers of incoming and outgoing calls and their duration - not the physical recording of the conversation.

The notion that the telco could record every conversation from its millions of customers and store them in a big enough data centre, retrieving them at will - is, in the words of one source familiar with the matter, beyond the capacity of the US National Security Agency, let alone an Australian telecommunications provider.

Ms Holgate's other plans included lobbying the federal Opposition before last election on the expectation of a Labor win to create an Australia Post bank - similar to Kiwibank, which is a majority-owned by New Zealand Post, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Australia Post would have achieved this in a partnership with ME Bank, which at the time was owned by 26 superannuation funds, including Australia Super. Australia Super has since become the default fund at Australia Post after it ditched AMP.

Australia Post chair Lucio Di Bartolomeo. Picture: AAP
Australia Post chair Lucio Di Bartolomeo. Picture: AAP

Another plan was to become a de facto Services Australia, with Australia Post providing more services on behalf of the federal government, such as Centrelink payments, via its post office network.

Australia Post also lobbed a bid for a billion dollar contract from the federal government to process visa applications, which would have been an extension of the current work it does with passport applications. Then there is its work on creating a digital identity for Australians.

While out of the box thinking may have helped fuel Ms Holgate's meteoric rise as one of Australia's top performing chief executives and won her praise among licensed post offices - which are similar to franchisees - it did her no favours inside the federal government.

In her words: "It would be fair to say ... I wasn't popular".

After all, Mr Di Bartolomeo said when he was appointed chair of Australia Post in late 2019, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told him he wanted three things out of the postal service: deliver mail and parcels on time, be profitable, "and if you make that profit a little bigger that would be nice".

Originally published as Holgate's big ideas included taking over the NBN