AUSTRALIA Post is so venerable we tend to think of its presence on our national landscape as permanent and immovable, like the Great Sandy Desert or Eddie McGuire.
Yet in 2015 we must face facts — the potential demise of Australia Post is not something that might happen one day. Without major, rapid reform it could happen any day.
International examples abound. Once a postal service hits “peak mail” — when letter volumes stop increasing and start declining — the demise is quick. Australia reached peak mail in 2008.
Canada got to peak mail a few years ahead of us. But the Canadians failed to move quickly and did not respond with bold reform. As a result, Canadians now have no home delivery postal service. Letters are sent to neighbourhood drop-off points, which, predictability, are not popular. In fact, the mayor of Montreal recently thought he would take to one of the new concrete community mailboxes with a jackhammer. He was loudly cheered.
Granted, in most parts of Australia a stroll to the neighbourhood drop-off point would likely be a little more pleasant than the equivalent journey in Canada. But the concept is still unlikely to sit well with Australians who consider home-delivered mail to be a basic right.
Australia Post management says the Canadian experience could not happen here. But the underlying fundamentals are the same. Like Canada, Australia is a big nation with a relatively sparse population. Other G20 nations, meanwhile, are looking at similar trends. So the lesson seems clear: Do nothing and Australia Post will disappear.
But if letter volumes are falling, would the decline of Australia Post really be such a bad thing?
Yes, on several key levels.
Australia Post is huge employer, especially in regional and rural areas. It is also a major employer of people with disabilities, who make up 6.9 per cent of its 32,500-strong workforce. Wholesale redundancies would tear huge holes in economies and individual lives.
Furthermore, Australia Post is one of the most trusted brands in the country. At a time when our faith in most institutions is falling we still trust Aussie Post.
This trust is an invaluable commodity. It can potentially be leveraged into providing smooth-running services, but if that’s to happen we need to innovate fast.
Malcolm Turnbull is about to cop a lot of grief for his plan to increase stamp prices. The Communications Minister wants a two-tiered system in which a standard postage stamp will get your letter to destination slower, and a premium-cost stamp will be required for what we now consider normal speed.
This kind of change will require strict safeguards.
Being able to receive and send post is a government service, not just a business. People who rely on the paper mail should be protected.
But the problem with Mr Turnbull’s plan is not so much changing the stamp price itself, but the fact that we need to be so much more creative if Australia Post is to survive.
One option, for example, would be using the trusted brand and its elaborate network to deliver sensitive services we might not trust a private corporation with.
Swiss Post has created Switzerland’s first nationwide electronic patient record. Meanwhile, its SuisseID service enables important electronic documents to be legally signed by one or more people. A similar program exists in New Zealand, NZ Post’s RealMe, which launched in 2013.
Australia Post outlets could be a hub providing modern and sensitive ID services. Fanning out across Centrelink and Medicare, while expanding passport services, is feasible.
Yet if this transition is to occur it requires one key factor: Australia Post must stay in public hands. The trust we have in the institution is because it belongs to us all.
If we want Australia Post to survive and prosper in the 21st century we need to modernise its offering but preserve its soul.
Sam Crosby is the executive director of The McKell Institute