The controversies currently blighting Australia Post regarding service delivery, spying on staff and extravagant executive bonuses, have their genesis in its corporatisation during the Hawke/Keating era. ‘Corporatisation’ is when you operate like a private enterprise, but dividends are paid to the government and you’re obligated to produce them just as you would if the shareholders were private.
Around this time, I was employed as a postie. The role involved strict protocols and required lengthy training periods. The priority was to provide an essential service rather than maximise profit.
One day, middle management told us of a grand plan to rationalise postal delivery. That meant consolidating those roles in the post offices of a given suburban area into one super-centre. The posties were unenthusiastic about this proposal, mostly for its effects on our workplace environment and the logistical issues which would be added to our tasks. However, as a workforce we were generally reluctant to go on strike, mainly due to ‘vital service’ expectations. Union militancy then was mostly confined to the mail-sorting centres. In any event, the restructuring went ahead without much protest, apart from attempts to negotiate better outcomes. Little did we know.
Over time, corporatisation went beyond frustrating posties and led to a fortress mentality. Staff were ordered to the bunkers. Phone calls to post offices and posties were diverted to a central number. Assets were gradually sold off, and post offices franchised. Mail-sorting centres were also closed and centralised. Delivery deadlines were routinely extended and services progressively outsourced to those lacking formal training, which promoted casualisation. Post offices came to resemble newsagencies or general stores. Their transformation into automated kiosks is another recently rumoured plan, the disclosure of which, led to the allegations of spying on staff.
Not that the cost-cutting reinvention stemmed the bleeding cash flow, or adequately prepared the organisation for the e-revolution that would further undermine letter post (online services are still archaic and lack customer friendliness, based on my recent use). If anything, it emphasised the false economics of economic rationalism.
The reinventing gathered pace alongside free-market globalisation, and the staff sub-contracting ultimately led to several scandals – one of which was revealed following a review by Victoria Police chief commissioner, Ken Lay – involving worker exploitation, immigration rackets and education fraud, while CEO, Ahmed Fahour, parted the organisation as Australia’s highest paid public servant, in 2017, with a $10.8 million windfall.
The board had aligned Mr Fahour’s pay with global competitors in ecommerce and logistics. He returned Australia Post into the black, as reported by Patrick Durkin in the Financial Review, by means of job cuts, price hikes and reductions in service, and by selling off assets, including the Sydney GPO – this, amid claims that previous losses and the letter-business decline had been overstated. By now, I was no longer a postie but, as a customer, observed the ongoing price increases and service demise.
As an international comparison, when I first visited Thailand, in 1985, both nations had cheap and efficient postal services. When I returned, twenty-five years later, that could only be said about one country, and it wasn’t Australia.
Fast track to today and a parcel delivery boom turbo-charged by COVID restrictions has led to a surge in revenues. When it comes to providing an essential public service, the profitable arm ought to fund the loss-making one, just as it pays for any other cost, such as workers’ wages. (There’s also an argument that an indispensable service should be covered by general government revenue, anyway; but corporatisation can cut those umbilical cords). Instead, CEO Christine Holgate lobbied the government to further cut back suburban letter-delivery frequency. The proposal intends the latter to be temporary, but thin-edged wedges, history and all, suggest those pigs might fly by express post.
In a recent ABC 7.30 interview, Ms Holgate flagged the possibility of granting executive bonuses and blamed service delays on COVID restrictions imposed by the Victorian government. The unintentional irony here is that the previous staff-outsourcing and centralisation programs resulted in larger numbers of mail-sorters, posties and drivers – many of them casual – being concentrated in one location and, hence, more susceptible to catching the virus, and were further impacted by social-distancing requirements.
Australia Post’s corporatisation was viewed by many as a step toward privatisation, based on the notion that private enterprise is more efficient than the public service. However, as we know, ‘efficient’ is a relative term. Typically, when it comes to privatising vital utilities, what suffers most is service. With regard to corporatisation, however, we can end up with ‘public enterprise’, which is akin to being half-pregnant. And that’s how Australia Post became an organisation in limbo, caught somewhere between public and private, the past and the future – an essential service compromised by profit motives.
Not that I’m looking back at those postie days with nostalgia. Change isn’t the problem per se. Our postal system was once part of a much larger public entity, including telecommunications, called the Postmaster General’s Department (PMG), which was established at Federation in 1901. This was a time of innovation, particularly in terms of progressive workplace relations and democracy. Australia Post’s current demise reflects a cynical idea that endeavours are only worthy if measurable in dollar terms. That’s change for the worse.
Some might suggest it could’ve been more dire; deregulation and the outright privatisation of Australia Post would have left us with a myriad of profit-driven postal agencies competing for custom, and providing Clayton’s service, especially in remote areas, with the price of a stamp becoming astronomical. Does that ring any of your bells?
The COVID crisis can be the mother of reinvention and an opportunity to unscramble privatised and corporatised omelettes. At the very least, we can shred the ideological recipe. It’s also imaginable that Australia Post could be remodelled to focuses on its primary role of providing a crucial service, and in ways that better adapt to technological change.
Image by Les Haines