Interview with Hamish MacDonald, ABC RN Breakfast

HAMISH MACDONALD, HOST: It’s 6 minutes past 8 on Breakfast and we have been talking a bit about Australia Post this morning. You will have heard this in the news and on AM – after months of consultation the way you receive letters and parcels will officially change with new reforms announced for Australia Post. It’s well known that the outlet has been struggling, and the changes will mean letters, which have significantly declined over the last decade, will only be distributed every two days while parcels, which have drastically increased with the advent of online shopping, will keep being delivered daily.

Michelle Rowland is the Communications Minister. She joins us now. Good morning to you.


MACDONALD: Do we really not need letter delivery every day?

ROWLAND: It is a situation where the letters business has changed dramatically over a period of time whilst e-commerce and the rise of parcels has seen demand on that side of the business dramatically increase. We’re now in a situation where Australia Post has reported a $200 million annual loss, and that is primarily as a result of the unstoppable decline in letters, with the average Australian receiving about two letters a week.

The important thing here is that we have conducted an open, transparent consultation process but, importantly, worked with the Australia Post workforce in a very collaborative way to determine how we can best make use of our excellent postal workers and the great Australia Post network, because we know how important Australia Post is.

MACDONALD: Can you explain something for me, though: given that the posties are out on the roads every day anyway and it’s acknowledged that the parcel delivery component of the business is booming, why is there a $200 million loss because they’re delivering letters? It doesn’t seem to quite make sense to me.

ROWLAND: This is also a combination of the services that Australia Post is required to provide under regulation, which are very important. And those community standards are actually run at a loss as well. But they are vitally important –

MACDONALD: What are they?

ROWLAND: They include maintaining a minimum number of retail premises, particularly in regional areas, providing services at those premises. A lot of the time Australia Post in regional areas serves not only as the postal service but also the general store. Often they are the bank providing the only service as well. It’s important for Australia Post to be responsive to needs but also to continue to service those really vital community service obligations that Australians rely on. And that’s why, exactly as you say, with the rise in parcels, parcels are going to be delivered daily while letters will be delivered every second day. But, again, it recognises that consumer habits have changed. It also recognises that the needs of the community have changed, including small businesses.

MACDONALD: It’s not really the letter delivery that’s the drag on returns for Australia Post? Is that what you’re saying? It’s actually the provision of these physical services in remote and regional Australia?

ROWLAND: Letters do provide a significant component of that loss. They are actually lossmaking for the business. But because they are in decline and also combined with the fact that we have these existing performance standards that still assume the prominence of letters, this is what needs to be addressed as part of these reforms.

And I should stress again, this was the result – what we’re announcing today – is the result of a very thorough consultation process, strong engagement with stakeholders to determine how we can ensure Australia Post continues to serve the needs of Australians, and those needs have changed. When you look around the world, Hamish, government-sponsored postal services are in decline. Royal Mail, for example, is a key case in point where thousands of jobs have been lost. It is not providing the services that citizens expect. But Australia Post serves a unique place in Australia. It is a trusted brand and in an era where the market has fundamentally altered with the rise of digital giants, the gig economy, these competitors in the parcels business in particular that are run by multinational companies owned by private equity firms, Australia Post needs to be able to stand on its own two feet, and that’s what this is about.

MACDONALD: Sure. When we say every two days, what does that mean? Does that mean twice a week or three times a week?

ROWLAND: Every second day, and depending on the particular rounds which are constructed, that will be determined according to the specific delivery depots.

MACDONALD: But you might only get twice a week, then? Is that because obviously a five-day working week, a seven-day week. Two doesn’t fit neatly.

ROWLAND: Well, some of the rounds are actually conducted on different cycles, for example, 10 days. But, then, this has been worked out in close consultation with the unions and Australia Post. It has been trialled, and the intention is to roll this out nationally. Now, that will take time as well. So the process from here on is that we expect to be consulting on the regulations to give effect to this in the new year and for Australia Post and the workforce to continue to rollout this new delivery model, which, as I said, has been proving successful and has actually resulted in increased productivity.

MACDONALD: For us consumers that’s not a very clear response, though, is it? We don’t know when to expect the post?

ROWLAND: Well, currently all of your listeners who basically live in metro areas can expect that a postie will go past their house every day. But they are only going to be receiving on average two letters a week. So what this means now is that Australia Post workforce will actually be able to be more productive delivering parcels every day, every second day getting letters. So, a short answer to your question is: yes, your listeners could expect to be getting letters every second day.

MACDONALD: Okay. Team Global Express, which is the logistics and freight service which is run by the former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate has been lobbying for that company to access post offices and local delivery services run by Australia Post so that they can pick up some of the services that Australia Post doesn’t want to do. Are you considering that?

ROWLAND: Well, I think we need to be very clear that Australia Post already carries parcels for some of its competitors. And its network is highly valuable and it already provides some commercial arrangements for those as well. I would expect that Australia Post would consider negotiating any appropriate commercial arrangements for that that are put before it. But, again, I think it’s important to recognise –

MACDONALD: But what does that – what does that mean? Are you going to give Christine Holgate what she wants or not?

ROWLAND: These are matters to be determined by Australia Post, and I would expect them to be making sound commercial decisions on that basis.

MACDONALD: Australia Post struggled to make money since Christine Holgate was sacked. Have you thought of trying to get her back?

ROWLAND: I think we have a very strong management team in Australia Post. And, again, I think that’s evidenced by the co-operation that’s been undertaken between management and the workforce to date. We also have a new Chair who has been appointed and a Board that has been refocused under this Government about the importance of delivering the services and products that Australians rely on. So I think this stands Australia Post in good stead for the future.

You know, it is the case that around the world, as I said, we’ve got government postal services in decline. Given the strong brand recognition, the trust that Australia Post has built up over such a long period of time, its reach, particularly in regional areas and the services it provides to the community, I am very optimistic about the future for Australia Post. But doing nothing is absolutely not an option here. That's why the Government has considered these reforms very carefully.

MACDONALD: I’m talking to Michelle Rowland who’s the Communications Minister. On another matter, you’re looking at the reforms of the misinformation and disinformation bill. One of the big concerns over this bill is that it doesn’t include politicians. Why are you lot exempt?

ROWLAND: Well, part of this process that we’ve undertaken in consultation is to genuinely engage people in this because we know that some 70 per cent of Australians are concerned about the impact of mis- and disinformation online. The scale and the speed of spread. But we also recognise –

MACDONALD: Sure, but I think it’s fair to say many Australians are concerned about the level of mis- and disinformation from our politicians. Why on earth would that cohort of people and political advertising be exempt?

ROWLAND: I should be clear that the issue of truth in political advertising is an issue that is often conflated with this issue of mis- and disinformation. This Bill that I have been consulting on is about the systems and processes of the digital platforms. The need for transparency and the need to codify the currently voluntary code that is in place that has basically no enforcement powers and no ability for the regulator to get under the hood. The issue of the truth in advertising –

MACDONALD: But if you’re codifying it for the platforms, why wouldn’t that apply to political advertising?

ROWLAND: This is specifically about the conduct of the platforms, their systems and processes. But I also want to make clear that one of the reasons why there’s an exemption in the draft consultation bill at the moment is because that is already regulated under the AEC rules. Similarly, there have been calls for the media to be included as part of this regime. Again, the media is regulated under a separate set of standards.

I want to be very clear to your listeners that this is specifically about the conduct of the digital platforms, holding them to account for the policies and processes they say are already in place. And I would also point out to your listeners that only in the last couple of weeks Twitter, now known as X, has actually been found to be in breach of that voluntary code. But there is currently no ability for the regulator to hold them to account on that point, and that’s precisely what we are seeking to address.

MACDONALD: So in an instance like that, what should be the penalty?

ROWLAND: The penalties that have been proposed in the draft bill are actually high.


ROWLAND: And, again, we are proposing – they are in the millions – could amount to millions of dollars in some cases or a percentage of revenue because, again, we recognise the scale and wealth of these platforms. But, again, we are consulting on all these issues in the draft consultation bill at the moment. But it is vitally important that we keep Australians safe because we know that there are bad actors out there in particular, who are seeking to harm Australians through the use of mis and disinformation.

MACDONALD: Very briefly before we leave you, when will you be announcing a new Chair for the ABC? Do you have a successor chosen?

ROWLAND: We are going through the independent Nomination Panel Process at the moment and we’ll have more to say in the near future. But, again, I pay tribute to Ita Buttrose who has served Australia and the ABC very well as Chair. She was the right Chair for the right time, and I’m sure all Australians appreciate that.

MACDONALD: Okay. What does near future mean?

ROWLAND: We are going through the Nomination Panel process at the moment. Ms Buttrose’s term expires in March, so it will be in good time before then.

MACDONALD: Michelle Rowland, thank you very much.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.