Australia Post —
the privatisation by stealth of a vital public service
Bob Briton The ongoing dispute between Australia Post and its workforce over a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement has brought two important features of the country's postal service to the attention of the public. One is that the government-owned corporation is miserly, head-kicking, anti-union employer. Australia Post is a winner in the recent past of the Workers Online Tony Award for being the country's worst boss. Its performance during negotiations with the Communications, Electrical, Electronics, Plumbing and Allied Services Union (CEPU) over a number of modest claims for a pay increase and job security has certainly cemented its reputation. The other controversy relates to plans by Australia Post to "franchise" 150 retail outlets to private operators. The CEPU is concerned that the small business people will try to trim costs by stitching about 600 former Australia Post staff into inferior, non-union Australian Workplace Agreements. Postal workers are also protesting that the plan carries on the Federal Government agenda of privatising the service by stealth — allowing more and more functions of Australia Post to be taken over by private enterprise until only the husk of the institution remains. While the determination of the CEPU and public concern may yet derail the franchising moves, the more drawn out process of selling off of Australia Post is still undoubtedly the preferred strategy. According to neo-liberal observers, it is no longer essential to keep Australia Post in government hands. The functions it carries out could be done by private companies and pull in some nice private profits. It is largely a labour intensive enterprise — a "natural" candidate for capitalists, big and small, to go hard at their "screw the worker" brand of magic. The problem for the privatisation advocates is that postal services are an essential service, basic to our sense of community. For years Australia Post has subsidised its operations in rural and remote areas with income generated in more populated centres. Most people see this as logical, that affordable postal services are a basic right for all Australians. Business interests, however, see this arrangement — known as cross- subsidisation — as an obstacle to maximising profits. If people are determined to subsidise services to the bush — the "Community Service Obligation" in the Australia Post Charter — let the Federal Government make a separate budget allocation for that purpose and then make Australia Post compete like every other carrier in a totally deregulated market, they argue. This issue is now the backdrop to every struggle within Australia Post and to every discussion about the future of the service. Capital is aware of the ideological importance of its contest with the public interest and is using its heavy guns. These include "trade" agreements being made by the government such as the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and, of course, the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States. Some history A lot changed from the time Australia's first post office opened in George Street, Sydney in 1809 to the days when the Post Master General's Department carried on post and telecommunications throughout the country. However, in terms of guiding principles the biggest changes have come about in much more recent times. Australia Post was corporatised in 1989. As late as 1985 the service's first objective was "to operate Australia's postal services so as to best meet the social, industrial and commercial needs of the Australian people". In last year's annual report, anything resembling this pledge had slipped down the page. The corporation introduces itself this way nowadays: Our Business "Australia Post is a Government Business Enterprise (GBE) operating under the Australian Postal Corporation Act 1989. The Corporation is self-funding and makes the best use of its assets and resources in order to earn profits to reinvest in the business." Aside from a commitment to maximise returns to private investors, Australia Post talks the same language as Coca Cola Amatil, News Corporation and the rest. The people at the top of Australia Post are no strangers to the booster's mindset. Managing Director Graeme John is Australia's highest paid "public servant" ($1.88 million last year), a former player and coach at South Melbourne and a member of the Business Council of Australia. Chairman Linda Nichols has the standard sort of qualifications to be on the board of directors. She is Deputy Chairman of private health provider Healthscope, a director of the St George Bank and Sigma Pharmaceutical Group and an advisor to financial services outfit Goldman Sachs. It would be interesting to ask these people to talk about the relative merits of public and private enterprise without resorting to doublespeak. In any case — and in the meantime — Australia Post is still a challenge involving the control of lots of money. Last year Australia Post recorded a pre-tax profit of $462 million on total revenue of $3.97 billion. These figures are up on the previous year and represent a return on investment of a nice fat 11.6 per cent. In the past 10 years Australia Post has returned a whopping $3.44 billion to government coffers and under the Act of 1989 the corporation has to pay all federal and state taxes and charges. Australia Post is estimated to be worth between $4.2 billion and $6.18 billion. Australia Post does not have any bothersome obligation to be an "employer of last resort" to help soak up unemployment or give school leavers a chance. In fact, Australia Post has reduced its workforce since corporatisation from 46,490 in 1989 to 35,427 full-time and part-time staff last year. Despite achieving productivity increases of 23.3 per cent in just the past five years, the pressure is still on for further staff cuts and for the greater use of casual workers. With figures like these you can begin to see why Australia Post is a candidate for privatisation by hook or by crook. The phenomenon is not restricted to Australia. Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan is rumoured to be toying with the idea of selling off that country's postal services. It has already happened in the US, Germany and the Netherlands. The results have been negative for workers in those countries and it is important to note that it is dearer to post a letter in all those countries in spite of the smaller logistical challenges. 1997 — the year the debate heated up In recent decades Australia Post has experienced a number of challenges to its position. In 1982, the Bradley Committee of Inquiry put forward a recommendation that was subsequently adopted to break up the letter carrying monopoly of Australia Post. Competitors could carry letters but would be required to charge at 10 times the standard letter rate. In 1994, the weight of a standard letter was reduced from 500 grams to 250 grams and the minimum charge for a standard letter (then 45c and currently set at 50c) reduced to four times the Australia Post charge. Other carriers were allowed to carry outgoing international letters in 1994. Further discounts were given to customers with bulk pre-sorted mail. They were able to "interconnect" — i.e. arrange their own transport for the mail to designated mail centres — for further cost reductions. In 1997 the Federal Government's National Competition Council (NCC) was asked to wave its deregulating, privatising wand over the Australian Postal Corporation Act. In the end, the NCC's report of February 1998 argued rather disingenuously that Australia Post should stay in public ownership and that it should continue with its Universal Service Obligation (USO) to deliver a standard letter at a fixed price throughout Australia and its Community Services Obligation (CSO) to provide mail facilities to the bush. Its private competitors would be under no such obligation to provide universal or fixed price services. Because of this its recommendations concerning these obligations would have effectively killed off Australia Post as a public institution. To be sure the message was clear, it suggested 2005 as the year that Australia Post's official postal service status as the provider of a universal service should be reviewed. For the time being, the NCC recommended that Australia Post's USO should be restricted to household letters only. Even for this mail, competitors would only be required to charge two times the standard letter rate. Inward international mail would be open to full competition. Australia Post would no longer be able to cross-subsidise services to remote and regional areas from other income sources. The CSO would have to be funded from a separate allocation from the Federal Budget — a method that would ensure that these services would join the queue of beggars outside the Treasurer's door. And, of course, Australia Post would have to provide access to its infrastructure (such as the processing centres, GPO and other Post Office boxes, mail holding and bulk lodgement facilities paid for by workers' taxes) to its competitors on terms approved by the pro-business Australian Competition and Con-sumer Commission (ACCC). There are strong similarities with the treatment of Telstra which has had to give its competitors access to its infrastructure. All in all, the NCC report recommended everything that Australia Post's competitors could have dreamed of. Even though subsequent attempts by the Federal Government to implement the NCC recommendations — with the Postal Services Amendment Bill — have been defeated in the Senate, the ideological blowtorch is still being applied to Australia Post. The Australian Financial Review has semi-regular pieces urging the further "opening up" of Australia Post to competition and there has been a stream of reports from think tanks, business organisations and academics calling for the full privatisation of the postal service. One of these papers, by Terry Black and Susan Black for the Centre for Independent Studies, even enlisted Aristotle in the debate: "What is common to many is taken least care of, for all men have greater regard for what is their own than for what they possess in common with others." Left out or distorted in most of these lopsided treatments of the issues is the fact that Australia Post is no longer the truly public enterprise giant that the post office once was. A haven for private profit takers "Eighty-five per cent of Australia Post's revenue now comes from fully contestable [meaning areas open to private competitors — Ed] services — only 15 per cent is from the regulated standard letter", shadow Communications Minister Lindsay Tanner told the press last October. This figure only begins to tell the story of how private operators have moved in on the postal service. For example, while licensed agencies of the post office date back to colonial times most post offices were public property until historically recent times. However, the ownership and running of most of Australia's post offices has undergone a major change in recent decades. The names in the annual reports may have changed but the fact remains that the number Australia Post (now "corporate") owned post offices has slumped from 1395 in 1984 to 872 last year. More and more, Australia Post's obligation to maintain a network of outlets has been met by privately run licensed post offices (LPOs). There are now 2981 of these throughout Australia. Australia Post has proposed buying back 100 of these but only to kick-start plans to have a network of privately run franchises! In July 1995, Australia Post established a Property Division "to contribute to bottom line performance of Post's property portfolio", as the annual report put it. That year it sold off $23.2 million worth of "surplus or under-performing properties" and has continued to sell of its property to this day. Since 1995, the number of buildings owned by Australia Post in its "property portfolio" has gone down from 982 to 554 last year. The number leased has increased from 630 to 741 in the same period. The trend in all this is away from being a public asset owner. Private contractors Australia Post's deliveries are more and more the preserve of private contractors. As long ago as 1997, Australia Post revealed to the NCC that it hired 4741 mail contractors within its networks. In 1985, the services of these contractors cost just under $93 million. By 1995/96, that figure had blown out to $208.4 million. More recent annual reports do not even bother listing this as a separate item. Neither do they show the number of vehicles — trucks, vans, sedans, bicycles, etc. — that Australia Post has in its fleet. As a general rule, the older the corporation's annual report, the more frank and open it is. Australian Air Express — part of Australia Post's venture into logistics in November 2000 — is actually a 50/50 joint venture with Qantas. Last year it again went halves with Qantas in the $750 million purchase of Star Track Express freight logistics group. It is worth recalling that Qantas is no longer Australia's national airline but a private corporation whose largest shareholder is now (privately owned) British Airways. Australia Post also has 50 per cent joint ventures with iPrint Corporate Pty Ltd for printing services and Decipha Pty Ltd for mailroom and electronic document imaging solutions. For some time the effect of bank closures in the bush has been mitigated by the presence in these communities of agencies offering bill paying and other financial services. These services have also been a steadily rising source of revenue for Australia Post and have helped compensate to some extent for the declining importance of the letter in the message sending market. However, Australia Post's charter obligations do not include the provision of these services and, consequently, their continued existence in the bush is far from assured. The funds for the establishment of these centres in more remote areas comes from a $70 million pot of federal money called the Rural Transaction Scheme, which is due for review in June. Operators pay $122 a month rental for the equipment and 43 cents per transaction to Australia Post. So long as the number of transaction per year does not fall below 10,000, the facility is relatively secure. If not Australia-wide, the range of financial services available through Australia Post has expanded significantly. Finance capital calls on the network's services to collect all sorts of payments. Last year the US-based Citibank started collecting a $2 fee every time its customers pay a credit card bill in person in cash via the only means available to them — at the post office. "The government has no business in business" Over the years, a process has been taking place in which many of the services once the reserve of Australia Post have been encroached upon by privately run firms. The remaining services live in such close symbiosis with the private sector that the consumer would be hard pressed to know where the role of Australia Post stops and the private sector starts. This development has, no doubt, warmed the hearts of recent federal governments and managements at Australia Post. The end game for the privatisers could come if ever Australia Post were to lose its still unique role under its Community Service Obligation. If this were to be funded from a distinct Commonwealth budget allocation, rather than from cross- subsidisation, the cry would go up that the private sector could just as easily use those funds to provide services to the bush. Australia Post management — with its corporate mindset in considering business questions and in its dealings with its workers — will have assisted the privatisers, the ones that say "the government has no business in business". The privatisation proposal is always just below the legislative surface. Last October, Australia Post's Manager for External Relations let the cat out of the bag while he was talking to Sydney's Daily Telegraph about the intentions of the Federal Government: "If they can get the rest of Telstra away, and if that was successful, then maybe they would look at us again." This must not be allowed to happen. The CEPU has estimated that a deregulated (and then privatised) postal service would threaten 15,000 jobs in Australia Post. Services to people in rural and remote areas would be decimated. While the government might say that it would guarantee the universal standard letter service, if their previous attempts at legislation are a guide, they would dodge the questions as to how far a member of the public would have to travel to post a letter or how regularly they could expect a delivery. Rural services hanging by a thread now would be subjected to a combination of budget constraints and market forces. And government revenues needed to fund health, education and other essential public services would have to do without regular annual contributions of the order of last year's $462 million from the postal service's profits. It is time to insist on a change in the direction of change in Australia Post. The CEPU's current EBA 6 campaign should get the whole-hearted support of the labour movement. A call for an extension of Australia Post present Community Service Obligation to include parcel delivery to remote areas could be a good start in a campaign to claw back public control of this vital service.