Interview with Alex James, ABC Central West

ALEX JAMES, HOST: Do you still post letters? How often? Earlier this year, the Federal Government released a discussion paper looking into the future of Australia Post as fewer and fewer letters are sent the old-fashioned way. But out here in the regions where internet and even phone service can be patchy, the old-fashioned way might be the only way you've got. Michelle Rowland is the Federal Communications Minister. Minister Rowland, thank you for joining us this morning.


JAMES: What was the need for this survey on Australia Post?

ROWLAND: Well, firstly, we understand that in rural areas in particular, Australia Post doesn't only just serve its job as a postal service. Often, it's the news agency, it's the general store and in a lot of cases with the withdrawal of a lot of bank branches, it ends up being the bank. So, it's very important. But Australia Post is facing some really challenging times. 

We know that it has an obligation in regards to its letters business, but it is also facing increasing competition from international players in the parcels market. It's that eCommerce parcels market that has really boomed and is really determining the health of Australia Post at the moment. So, when we have a situation where we've got a regulatory framework that's actually around 25 years old, at a time when eCommerce was still a new concept, it's really timely that we examine Australia Post as not only an institution, but also ensure that it's servicing the needs of Australian consumers and small businesses - including in different parts of Australia that has different needs. 

We decided to open a wide-ranging consultation which actually closes next week on the 27 April. We've had this open for quite a bit of time because we want to maximise the amount of input that we get. I do encourage your listeners to have your say about what you expect in a modern postal service. 

The last thing I'll say on that, Alex, is we've seen around the world that government-sponsored postal agencies are failing. Royal Mail in the UK is very much challenged. There are institutions right across the world that are going under. We don’t want that to happen to Australia Post because we understand how important it is and it serves a really unique set of purposes right around Australia.

JAMES: Is the Government considering winding back letter delivery?


ROWLAND: We haven't made any decisions yet. But as you said in your introduction, letter volumes have been on the decline for some time now and the average person receives about two letters a week now. We expect that within ten years, that’ll be about one letter a week.

Letters, of course, are important to a lot of people. But I think we need to put it in context. Businesses and governments send over 97% of the letters in Australia – and with the move to digital— that is unlikely to go forward.It has been a key driver of the losses that are being made in Australia Post. We want to ensure that this is an institution that can keep servicing the needs of Australians. We know that in regional areas like the Central West, things have changed in the last 25 years. The pandemic also heralded in a lot of changes where people decided to go and live in the regions. We've got small businesses and micro businesses that are emerging in the regions. It is a really challenging set of circumstances, but we also see it as an opportunity to deliver what Australians expect in a modern postal service. No decisions have been made, but really keen to base any decisions we do make on the feedback that we get.

JAMES: On that, then, Minister. I mean, particularly older residents out here in the bush rely on the post. How are you going to ensure that they don't get left behind with this?

ROWLAND: Absolutely. We know that for many people, Australia Post remains important. Australia Post will always be delivering letters as long as people want to send them. As I said, we've made no decisions on those regulatory changes. But we do also need to recognise that it's not a one size fits all. There's different demographics, different regions that have different needs. If we're going to be able to service all of them, we need to really have a good, hard look at Australia Post as an institution, a good, hard look at its regulatory requirements at the moment, and determine how we can best service Australians, irrespective of where they live or work.

JAMES: 22 minutes past seven o’clock and you're listening into ABC Central West and Western Plains. Michelle Rowland is the Federal Communications Minister. That's who you're hearing from at the moment. I'd love to know what you're thinking about this. Minister, you did mention before that many Australia Post outlets are operating as banks in communities that may not have a specific banking service anymore, alongside multiple other services. Are Australian Post outlets likely to close?

ROWLAND: We haven't made any decisions here, but I think your listeners will be aware that post offices open and close all the time for a range of reasons. You've got some licensed post offices that are small businesses. Sometimes those small businesses decide they want to retire and so they hand in their licence. We haven't made any decisions there. I will say, we actually see – and Australia Post sees –regional Australia as an opportunity for growth. Much of the feedback that we have received so far from small businesses and some of the representative organisations, is that the Bank@Post service needs to be expanded. At the moment, they’re are pretty basic banking service, but they're very important. In some case, they’re the only place where you can withdraw cash.But for some small businesses, they need to have, for example, bigger cash floats that are available at those LPOs, they need to have a couple of better services with the banks.  

I think the focus here is on how we can leverage what is already being done at these postal outlets and make them better for people and more responsive to those changes. I think many of your listeners will be really aware of the reality, that once a bank branch closes in an area, it is really difficult for that to come back. Australia Post has been filling that gap and so it should, because it is an important institution, it is there, it's serving a crucial community function. My key takeout here for your listeners is that Australia Post will always have these community service obligations. The real question is, how do we ensure that it remains a viable institution that can continue to do that and meet the needs of residents in rural and regional Australia?

JAMES: Just before I let you go, Minister, as you mentioned, there's only a week left until just over a week, I should say, until submissions do close. How can people put a submission in?

ROWLAND: They can go to the Department of Communications Have Your Say website. You can do that by email or, of course, post as well. So, if any of your listeners want to have their say, go to the Department of Communications, Have Your Say website. We're going to be considering all the submissions before announcing the next steps. This is a really genuine consultation. I look forward to hearing what the residents of the Central West have to say.

JAMES: Minister, I appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for joining us.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.