Australia Post Goes Postal


5pm on Friday, 4 February 2011. The Glebe Post Office closes its doors, not for the weekend as usual, but for good. The same thing happens across town in Woollahra. Just another small step in the march of progress?

What happened to public service and the social contract? It has been replaced by a vacuum overseen by a monopoly company run on private sector imperatives.The government collects its dividends as an absentee landlord.

There are other significant dates.

The Glebe Post Office was opened on 8 January 1886, providing the growing community with a crucial landmark of its suburban identity. Many local residents were amazed to find out about the imminent closure of their Post Office in the Daily Telegraph on 19 December 2010. An action committee, Post Office Group Action (POGA), was formed by interested parties but no information was forthcoming from Australia Post or government ministers until well into the new year.

In 1975, postal services and telecommunications were split out of the Postmaster-General’s Department. On 1 January 1989 was born the corporatised Australian Postal Corporation. Before that, Australian postal services were run by the government in buildings owned by the government and paid for by Australian taxes. From 1989 the postal services were run by a private corporation which used those same buildings given to them by the government. Several buildings were sold to private interests to boost the corporation’s bottom line. The Glebe PO building was sold in December 1990 for $1.36 million and the Australian Postal Corporation (AP) paid the private owners commercial rates for ongoing rental.

AP is a hybrid entity. It is a corporation with a legislated monopoly on certain types of letters; it has a board appointed by the Federal Minister for Communications; it has a mandate to provide "reasonable access" for all Australians in a minimum of 4000 postal outlets around the country; and it has only one shareholder, the federal Government. It is required to meet its own costs, to seek to achieve commercial "best practice" and to pay its sole shareholder an annual dividend.

The Australian Postal Corporation Act offers little regarding accountability, save for an attenuated Community Service Obligations section. The relevant section requires that AP ensures that "in view of the social importance of the letter service, the service is reasonably accessible to all people in Australia on an equitable basis". AP is currently in breach of this requirement.

Moreover, AP is a Government Business Enterprise (GBE), subject to additional regulation. There are seven GBEs, the other six being the Australian Submarine Corporation, the Australian Government Solicitor, Rail Track, Defence Housing, Medibank Private and the National Broadband Network. All have the same basic structure with the federal Government being the only shareholder. All come under a set of provisions known as Governance Arrangements for GBEs. These arrangements give disgruntled members of the public plenty of avenues for complaint.

Each of these entities has two Shareholder Ministers — in all cases the Minister for Finance (presently Penny Wong) and the other the relevant Minister for the area in which the business is operating. In the case of AP that is Communications, Stephen Conroy, who also has oversight of the NBN.

GBEs are prescribed in regulations under the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997. According to the Government Business Advice Branch of the Department of Finance and Deregulation:

"The governance regime in place for GBEs is a transparent and effective mechanism to enable active oversight and enhanced accountability of GBEs."

The "guiding principles" of governance arrangements include: Shareholder Ministers exercising strategic control consistent with their accountability to the Parliament and the public; GBEs and their officers maintaining the highest standards of integrity, accountability and responsibility and information being produced for the shareholder and the community according to the highest standards.

In addition, the GBE governance framework dictates that a publicly available joint Statement of Corporate Intent (SCI) be produced by the board of the GBE and the Shareholder Ministers. In general the regulations allocate substantial responsibilities and capacity for action to the Shareholder Ministers.

Even so, trying just to get a date for the proposed closure from AP was like pulling molars. At one point, POGA got an automated message that the Post Office had closed on 31 December. Eventually post box holders were told of the closure but assured that the boxes would stay where they were — merely because there is no room for them at the closest post office at the Broadway Shopping Centre.

Local activism grew in line with local anger.

A petition was organised; posters and leaflets were distributed widely, and people were urged to voice their protest and write to both Stephen Conroy and Penny Wong. By the time the rally organised by POGA was held on 20 January, the petition had 4500 signatures.

Two Labor ministers, one federal (Tanya Plibersek) and one State (Verity Firth), the Lord Mayor and a prominent Labor City of Sydney councillor attended the rally and called for the Post Office to remain open. Senior Labor figure Senator John Faulkner urged Conroy to intervene, as did minister Peter Garrett when he learned that Kensington Post Office in his electorate was under threat.

There was no evidence of any concern for the issue in the responses from either Senators Wong or Conroy. Senator Wong’s office replied that it was no good writing to them because it was Conroy’s business and they merely passed the messages on to his office.

In Conroy’s case there was a long silence and then, with just two days to go before the Post Office closed, he said he would not intervene because there was no precedent for it and suggested that it was something that the local member should handle. That local member happened to be Cabinet Minister Tanya Plibersek who had spoken at the rally and who had written to Conroy asking him to intervene!

The very creation of the National Broadband Network by Senator Conroy acknowledges that the telecommunications model, rooted in a wayward privatised vertically-integrated Telstra, is bust. It’s a small step for Conroy to acknowledge that the corporatised postal services model is also bust. It is time for him to meet the statutory requirement that "Shareholder Ministers … exercise strategic control consistent with their accountability to the Parliament and the public".

Furthermore, the closure of iconic and busy post offices demonstrates lack of foresight even on commercial grounds. In this instance, the population in and around Glebe is set to expand by some 7000 in the next few years.

AP claims that the 27 post offices to be closed are unviable and that they threaten the profitability of the organisation. Given that AP runs some 4400 postal outlets, the claim is very hard to believe. The bigger issue is one of information and of accountability to the community. AP has not produced the figures and has not made its case clear. When requests are made, spokespersons refuse with the insolence of private corporations.

The big hurdle facing the community is that the relevant minister decline to deliver on the legislated duties of their portfolios. Are we to accept the proposition that governments themselves have become corporatised and unresponsive to the communities they are supposed to represent?

The thousands of people who have been trying to save their post offices from closure do not accept that proposition for a moment. We want full disclosure. We want everything put on the table and thrashed out in public before any significant decisions are taken. We want those post offices in suburbs like Woollahra, Glebe and Turramurra reopened and those offices in threatened suburbs like Kensington, and dozens of others, removed from danger. We want a mechanism put in place which gives the community its rightful say in whatever is proposed by way of changes to essential services and all those similar concerns that lie at the heart of the way that society works.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.