“Australia Post is part of the fabric of Australian life. Through our people, products, services and community investment, we contribute to everyday life and business success across the nation. We are part of every day.”

Thus starts the website description of one of our few remaining public service corporations.  Once we owned banks, airlines, airports, roads, insurance companies, railways, energy  and a range of other institutions that either offered us services in competition with private firms or were sole monopoly providers of what were seen as essential services. These were often labelled public utilities (see the Monopoly board), and served public needs.

I had an argument some years ago with a NSW Treasury cumquat (the smaller, bitterer mandarin) who claimed that governments controlled water to make money. When I suggested that this control was originally a health measure he was incredulous and went away to look it up.  I quote this to illustrate the culture gap between the ideas and ideals of public ownership that were prevalent until the neo-liberal revolution versus the current view that markets are the model even for publicly owned institutions.

I raise this argument because last week I was involved in a process of  biting, or at least nibbling, the hand that fed me. Australia Post produced four stamps honouring my contribution, with three other prominent feminists, as Australian Legends. I do appreciate the honour and sincerely thank all those people in Australia Post who made it all happen flawlessly. However, the contrast between that recognition and the continuing process of closing post offices that fail to meet profit targets became very clear as on the day of the Melbourne lunch launch, there was a demonstration in my home suburb against the stated intention to close the Glebe post office in Sydney.

I recognise it is losing money and there are other post offices, particularly one in the nearby mall, that are less but somewhat accessible. However, the loss of this particular main street-fronting post office reminds us clearly of the gradual and continuing loss of the public icons, as listed above. I realise they sold the Victorian building years ago and are only tenants now, but it stands on a prominent corner of two roads, one of which forms the boundary between the public housing Glebe estate and the more affluent Point.

The post office is one of the few services that residents from both sides of the road share. It is also an anchor point for struggling main street shops, still suffering the aftermath of roadworks that undermined local profits, including for the PO, for the past couple of years.  Removing it would make a serious difference because of its symbolic value in an area that lacks unifying connections.

I searched the community services obligations on the Australia Post website and found the quote that starts this screed. Unfortunately, the rest of the listed obligations never seriously address the iconic status it recognises above, just accessibility and distribution of services. These are obviously cross-subsidised because the organisation is self funding, makes a profit and even pays dividends to the government, as sole shareholder. With falling revenue and pressures to perform more efficiently, the new CEO, an ex-bank boss, is obviously under pressure to cut financial costs. My question is at what other costs?

Australia Post it is a publicly owned corporation. Presumably, the shares are held on our behalf, so maybe the government should ask voters whether they want social as well as economic priorities set for the remaining publicly held assets. There are many signs that voters are not particularly supportive of either privatisation or governments who behave like corporate thugs. There is current flak in Queensland about selling the railways, in NSW about power, which suggests voters still regret the selling of what is sometimes described as the family silver.

The Australia Post decision-making process for closing offices is primarily commercial so I am suggesting an option for reform. Engaging communities in the process of decisions making would allow for much more satisfactory outcomes. It would allow for questions such as:

  • Is there particular significance to this site that needs to be addressed?
  • Are there possible local social consequences that need to be considered?
  • Are there ways of improving the service and the returns on this site?
  • Are there other government services, e.g. Medicare, Family Assistance, that could be delivered through such sites and improve access for all?

Such a change in approach could serve as a model for other government-run services and may improve relationships, particularly with groups often hostile to the government. If the minister and CEO decided to delay the closure of Glebe, set up a local consultative group, and talk to other ministers about better use of public facilities.

This should include the Glebe local member, who happens to be the Minister for Human Services, Tanya Plibersek, about extending the site to other Commonwealth users. The process could be a pilot for  other sites and create a win win for everyone.

Any takers?