Bush Matters Op-Ed – “Don’t cut the service that delivers”

3 October 2014

It could be argued the Australian Postal Service operators have been combating harsh economic rationalist sentiments since their humble beginnings in the 1700s.

As many readers would know, tall ships were the only method to transport mail between the colonies during the early years of British settlement.

Ship Captains often complained of poor remuneration for the work and, as a result, were reluctant to dedicate any time or effort to collecting mailbags from the harbours.

It was not uncommon for post office workers to have to climb into a row boat and brave dangerous waters to force the mail bags onto these passing ships.

Ignoring any community service obligation, it was also not uncommon for Ship Captains to simply order the unwanted mail bags be thrown overboard.

The great turning point in our nation came when overland mail routes were developed. This often enabled the government to award a contract to someone within the community to oversee mail service delivery.

Gone were the days when large shipping companies would toss the mail overboard.

Instead, community members took pride in work that connected their town with the outside world and provided a steady and sufficient income to raise a family. In fact – our nation could not have developed without the proud historical efforts of our national postal system.

For many generations of people, delivery of the mail became a matter of pride and societal obligation. 1

Take, for example, John Conway Bourke, who was Victoria’s first mailman.

Riding his horse with a mailbag draped over his front, Bourke is reputed to have travelled 18,000km on any given year on the overland mail trail to Yass.

His exploits became legend in 19th century bush folklore.

One story tells how, when being chased by savage dogs, he stripped naked to swim the flooded Murray River.

On reaching the other side he then was forced to shimmy naked up a tree with the mail bag.

When later recounting the story, someone asked why he took such extreme measures to protect his precious freight. His reply: “I am Her Majesty’s Mail.”

Like Tom Kruse on the infamous Birdsville Track more than a century later, John Bourke would take great pride in minimising the isolation of his rural community.

Across many decades, Australia’s pioneers would prove able to brave floods, drought, fire, war and economic depression. But they also proved they could not do it alone.

The issue of community service obligations has again raised its weary head with the release of the Federal Senate Inquiry report into Australia Post last week, of which I was a participating committee member.

Among the recommendations, the committee concluded that Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull should commission an independent audit of the functions of privately-owned post offices (known as, Licensed Post Offices) and Australia Post should be required to renegotiate the terms and conditions of some agreements with Licensed Post Offices to ensure they are fair and equitable.

The report details clearly how central Post Offices, many of which are privately owned businesses, remain in the economic and social life of rural Australia. These businesses are the maypole that prop many towns.

There was sufficient anecdotal and empirical evidence provided during the Senate inquiry to conclude there are hundreds and hundreds of small businesses unnecessarily suffering as a result of not being properly and adequately renumerated for delivering what are the Commonwealth service obligations.

Australia Post has said it is reviewing the report and recommendations. It is expected this report will push the company towards ensuring a fairer price, which at least keeps pace with the consumer price index, which would enable privately-owned post offices to remain viable. 2

This battle is about more than the future direction of Australia Post – it is about pushing against a tipping point in the decline of service delivery across regional and rural Australia.

The Post Office has become, in many ways, a simple yet poignant symbol of government investment in a rural community.

Across many communities, the schools have closed. The medical clinics have closed. The railway station does not function anymore. A hairdresser drives into town every two months. There are more and more empty shops in the main street.

But the Post Office remains. The fresh red and white signage stands out, and provides some example the town has not completely fallen.

The post office in these communities is seen as an integral part of the social fabric of that society.

Since many banks, government services and offices have left regional areas and centralized in cities, rural post offices have become essential for the provision of banking, bill paying, financial transactions, communications and general business services within many country towns.

There is often an expectation that even if a problem does not relate to the post office, someone in the post office will be able to assist.

Many of these Post Office operators have invested their life savings into these businesses, yet some are receiving payment less than $10 per hour. This is simply not sustainable and must be addressed.

There are almost 1800 of these privately-owned post offices across rural Australia. That’s 1800 communities with some vestige of government services that must be protected.

When the hungry hounds of economic rationalism attempt to chase down the last vestiges of public service delivery in rural communities, we need to ensure there are strong enough voices in parliament and across the bush to stop them.

We will be carefully watching Australia Post’s response.

The executive of Australia Post needs to take some inspiration from that mailman extraordinaire, John Conway Bourke.