Interview with Narelda Jacobs, Ten News First Midday

NARELDA JACOBS, HOST: When was the last time you posted a letter or received one that wasn't a bill? Well, chances are it's been a while. Which is why it's time to modernise Australia Post and the Government wants to know your thoughts. Joining us now is Federal Communications Minister Michelle Rowland. Minister, thanks for joining us on Midday. You're making your debut, actually.


JACOBS: It's nice to have you with us. Okay, so what changes are needed?

ROWLAND: We know that Australia Post is a cherished national institution and they particularly service rural and regional Australia in a way that the private sector cannot. But unfortunately, things are changing people's habits. With letters, for example, and with parcels. Australia Post needs to be responsive to that. Currently, letters are on the decline and the average person receives about two letters a week these days. In the next ten years or so, that'll be about one letter. Meanwhile, parcel businesses are surging, but Australia Post faces great competition from international players and other competitors who are building their own networks.

This is an important opportunity to ask Australians what they want out of a modern postal service, what they want out of their delivery services, the kinds of technology they want and we particularly want to be responsive to the needs of small and micro businesses.

JACOBS: So, is it the cost of servicing and delivering those 2.4 letters a week to residents around Australia that is just becoming unaffordable?

ROWLAND: Essentially, that is the case. We know that is making some hundreds of millions of dollars of losses this year alone, just in the letters section. We know letters are important to many people. I want to make it clear - as long as Australians want to send letters, Australia Post will be delivering them. But we are moving to an increasingly digitised world, and I think many of your viewers will be surprised to know that the regulations that are in place around Australia Post and these obligations are actually 25 years old. They might also be surprised to know that some 97 per cent of letters that are sent now are from business and government, and they are increasingly becoming digitised as well.

There is that great challenge we have there. But I think Australians want to see this as an opportunity. In the initial discussions I've had with key stakeholders, this is an opportunity for people to say what they want to see in a modern postal service. We know around the world, postal services are facing great challenges and some of them are in a diabolical financial situation. We want Australia Post to succeed. It's an iconic company that services the needs of Australians and we want to see it go forward into the future in a really sustainable way that supports good jobs and, above all else, supports Australians.

JACOBS: So, when you talk about government mail, that comes out, and if you consider that a $1.20 a letter, not that it probably costs the Government that much to send, but would it save the Government - there's a couple of issues here. So, would it save the Government money if everything was digitised? But then if everything is digitised, then you need better security, which I don't know if the Australian public have confidence that we have the security to protect our data.

ROWLAND: That's a very good point, and we've seen that recently with some of the cyber breaches that have been happening. It’s why the Prime Minister held a roundtable earlier this week where cybersecurity was very high on the agenda. I want to make clear this consultation paper is about setting out the facts and seeking viewpoints. We welcome all comments such as that, for example.

But at the same time, we want people to understand the opportunities that come with this as well. There is a decline that's happening in letters, but what can we do to make Australia Post relevant to Australians and particularly, to support small businesses and regional Australia?

JACOBS: All Australians are invested in this because Australia Post has been such a big part of our lives. We do a lot of business, some of us do banking there. We get to know people in the Post Office, we get to know our posties, I mean, are those kinds of jobs on the line here?

ROWLAND: The most important aspect of Australia Post is its workforce - some 60,000 people. We want to make sure that those workers have good-paying jobs, jobs that are sustainable as well. Exactly as you say, in many parts of Australia, the Post Office isn't just the Post Office; it's providing banking services, it's providing retail services, and they're an important part of the community. The necessary thing here is to make sure that we've got a sustainable Australia Post that can sustain good, well-paying jobs and jobs that are relevant to Australian's needs as well.

JACOBS: It's also something that Australians have always been confident that we will own as a public company. And I know that - because I know some people who run businesses delivering, who have been pinned against other businesses fighting for the business because things have been privatised. So are you going to privatise Australia Post the whole operation?

ROWLAND: Absolutely not. We make that very clear. One of the first principles in our discussion paper is that Australia Post, nor any part of it, will not be privatised. That's the context we're working in here. We want this to succeed for the Australian people. It is iconic, we value it and we want to make sure that it succeeds.

JACOBS: Succeeds in a way that will line the pockets of executives?

ROWLAND: Let’s be very clear. We've been very critical as an Opposition and now as a Government, over having bonuses, particularly to GBEs (Government Business Enterprises) where bonuses are not based on performance. I've made that very clear to Australia Post and other GBEs that that needs to change. I'm in constant dialogue with the new chair of Australia Post on that as well, and we expect to see changes. We expect that the Australian community expects there that if there are bonuses, they be based on performance, and we've made that crystal clear.

JACOBS: Well, what can the community do to voice their concerns?

ROWLAND: They can make a submission to this inquiry. Just search up 'Department of Communications' and have your say. We welcome anyone who wants to make a submission, whether they be individual consumers or groups. It's open for two months, so there's a good period of dialogue open there.

JACOBS: Oh, yes, the posties union has made a comment on the modernisation plan. Let's have a listen to see what National President Shane Murphy has had to say.

SHANE MURPHY, CWU: Whilst we are committed to the review of Australia Post, in the interest of protecting the thousands of jobs of our members and the services they provide to the communities, we will not stand back and accept millions of dollars of bonuses being paid to executives at the same time, the company faces significant financial pressures for the future.

JACOBS: There you go. The union isn't convinced that they can take you at your word.

ROWLAND: This is a very consistent position that they have and certainly we are very much aligned with that as well. I would commend the union and the workforce for being very constructive in this process so far, because Australia Post has been looking at trials of delivery models. They've jointly developed some of those trials. We'll get feedback on those between April and June, and it's great to see that the workforce has been participating in that. And as I said, they are the most important part of Australia Post.

JACOBS: If I could just turn to another issue, if I can, just very quickly, about donations and gifts, and you've said that you're not going to be receiving gifts from certain organisations, but when will the threshold start to change?

ROWLAND: Well, the Government has made it very clear that we are seeking to have these thresholds changed. We know that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is due to report at the end of the year. When those findings come out, we'll be supporting that review.

JACOBS: All right, Minister Michelle Rowland, and thank you for joining us.