10 June 2020



SUBJECT: Government’s Australia Post regulation changes
LEON DELANEY, HOST: Labor has announced that they will move to set up a Senate Inquiry into the challenges facing Australia Post amid concerns that changes that have been announced could lead to reduced services and job losses, and it could be a permanent change. The Opposition is also planning a disallowance motion to prevent those changes from happening at all. Joining me now is Shadow Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland, good afternoon.
DELANEY: Thanks for joining us today. I spoke with Shane Murphy from the CEPU the other day and obviously as you would be aware the union is quite concerned about these changes. We’ve been told by the Government and Australia Post that these changes will be temporary, and they are in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Why do you fear that they may not be temporary?
ROWLAND: Well, the weakest arguments we've heard so far are actually around them being no more than temporary and no more than pretty much housekeeping. But the reality is that we are very concerned that the pandemic is being used as a cover for some long-term detrimental changes to jobs and conditions. This is supposedly a temporary change to cope with the pandemic, but when you are talking long-term structural change and job losses, those things can't be undone by a date in regulations.
DELANEY: Now even before there was such a thing as COVID-19, there was talk of changing the structure of the service at Australia Post and specifically talk of reducing letter deliveries to focus more on parcel deliveries. This has been brewing for quite some time, hasn't it?
ROWLAND: Well, the reality is that parcels have been booming and that is a good thing particularly in light of COVID-19 and the opportunities that brings for Australia Post, particularly in the post-COVID world, to make the most dollars and to leverage off its logistics, its technology, its banking services. They really are a national asset and it's time for us to capitalise on those strengths. You have a look around the world, global companies such as Amazon and even locally our retail grocery sector is looking to grow its business, understanding that people’s habits changed before COVID but changed even more afterwards and are likely to become more entrenched. So, it just doesn't add up that we should have a cutting of the workforce and at the same time expect to deliver on those expectations.
DELANEY: Yeah, obviously, there's greater demand for deliveries than ever before, isn't there? So you'd think there's plenty of work for Australia Post to do and plenty of work for the current employees to do. Now again, Australia Post says, it's not about retrenching anybody. They'll be redeploying people and retraining them and putting them into different parts of the service delivery chain. Again, the union says “well no under this restructure it would be possible to cut staff numbers”. Who do you believe?
ROWLAND: Well, in fact Australia Post has said that there will be job losses. What we need is for the Government to be upfront about this and explain how halving the frequency of postie delivering rounds – leaving the jobs of up to one in four posties in limbo and many other indirect jobs at risk – is actually a good thing. I mean we've had no scrutiny whatsoever of why there is a need to cut some services by half in order to resource other services. There has been a complete lack of scrutiny, which is why we believe not only is disallowance warranted, but also we should have before the Parliament an inquiry into these changes and also what the alternative are, the merits and impacts of alternative approaches, none of which were consulted on prior to these regulations being issued.
DELANEY:  Yeah, you've been quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying “Labor will not consent to this cheap shot on the workers of Australia Post and this breach of trust with the community”. It's a cheap shot on the community, isn't it, if services get reduced?
ROWLAND: Oh, it certainly is and I think the other thing to note is we have had many essential service workers going above and beyond during this crisis. This includes frontline health staff, but also outside of that everything from the communications sector, media and also Australia Post. The fact that these posties have been working during this period and can you imagine being a postal worker heading into Christmas after a year like this being uncertain about what the future holds? I mean, we should be using the parcels boom to create jobs and improve services, not cut them.
DELANEY: Steady on, it's only June. What do you mean heading into Christmas?
ROWLAND: No, it's nearly the end of the financial year. It's all downhill from there.
DELANEY: It goes quickly doesn’t it? Now as I said earlier there were already previously moves afoot to reduce the level of services. Now, obviously the motivation is suspected to be cost-cutting here. Now, Australia Post is profitable. It delivers a dividend to the government. It's not costing the taxpayer anything and at the end of the day wouldn't the most appropriate philosophy be to determine what is the appropriate standard and level of service that the community expects and then figure out how to fund it adequately?
ROWLAND: Well, certainly that seems like a very logical approach and the reality is we know that people are spending more time with e-commerce. We know that that won't change but, exactly as I said, the lack of consultation on these regulations, the complete lack of an opportunity to examine the merits and the impacts and any alternative approaches here other than simply cost-cutting, really is a cause for concern. We should really be investing in the future and leveraging off great assets and the Australia Post brand remains a trusted asset in public ownership.
DELANEY: Well, I'm not entirely sure how trusted it is these days because here’s one thing that we've had from one comment on our Facebook page today. Listener Grant says “I'm still waiting for a parcel from Melbourne. ETA was 15th May. Australia Post have been less than helpful. It’s lost, tracking is a waste of time. Maybe if they provided better customer service, they may have more customers” and he's not alone. There have been lots of people complaining in recent months about parcels taking a long time to be delivered and going astray.
ROWLAND: Well, certainly and that all points to the fact that there needs to be greater investment in Australia Post delivery management. It doesn't add up when you talk about this surge in parcels and at the same time, you're talking about halving some of the frequency of other services being delivered and slashing staff. And I mean if we're talking about current or old standards not being met, the reality is that these new standards effectively half the delivery frequency of postal services.
DELANEY: Now you hope to get a Senate Inquiry set up to look into this. Is that likely to happen?
ROWLAND: Well, this depends on the Parliament and I can assure anyone who's listening that we are certainly consulting widely across the Parliament to get support for this and also it's been demonstrated by the level of angst in the community about this that there is strong grassroots support as well. So, I would urge Senators and Members to listen to their constituencies.
DELANEY: Well, there’s certainly a lot of community concern, there's no doubt about that. Just from people that have left messages here or called in to tell us about it. I think there's certainly concern in the community that the standard of service has declined even though customers want more service than ever before.
ROWLAND: Well exactly and they are the kinds of delivery models and, precisely as you say, determining what customers want and I think one thing will always be constant, and I came from a background in retail many years ago. It's that consumers expect the service that they pay for and that is not unreasonable when it comes to Australia Post, but the ability to be able to do that will be severely compromised by these regulations.
DELANEY: Are you concerned as the union appears to be that this might be another move in a longer road towards privatisation?
ROWLAND: Well, that is a genuine fear that is held and that arises as a result of a focus on cost-cutting rather than on community standards and meeting expectations. And again, I would simply say that Labor welcomes transformation. We welcome sectors where there has been a response to community needs and reflecting changes in people's buying attitudes and the way they interact. But, it is very concerning that we have a situation where we're talking about job cuts in a sector which is actually growing. It will be a challenging economic time, those sectors that are growing – particularly a government business enterprise – should be kept in public hands and should be leveraged off for the benefit of all Australians.
DELANEY: And with regard to the letter service, where the idea is to move letter deliveries to every second day and to allow as many as five days for intrastate posting and the suspension of priority letter services. Okay, maybe the demand for letter services generally might have declined but those people who are still using it want it to be delivered promptly, don’t they?
ROWLAND: That's exactly the feedback that I've been receiving, particularly in terms of priority delivery services and in terms of people actually still needing that for business purposes. I think we need to remember that whilst letters have been on the decline, and that is a fact as a result of technological change over decades now, businesses still rely on this. Let's remember also you've got all those businesses, micro businesses in particular, who are working from home who rely on Australia Post services that might not necessarily be parcels but might be other items that require that service.
DELANEY: I don't understand what the problem is. If they are delivering more and more parcels than ever before, they still need the infrastructure, and the trucks and the vehicles and so forth to deliver those parcels. Can't the letters be distributed at the same time?
ROWLAND: Well, these are all very valid questions that haven't been explained it by Australia Post, but we certainly hope to do that through the Parliamentary processes.
DELANEY: Thanks very much for your time today.
ROWLAND: My pleasure.
DELANEY: Michelle Rowland, Shadow Minister for Communications.