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voodoo economics

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 27-Jan-2011

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 11

Wordcount: 976

Why post offices are going the way of cheap airport parking



Gabon’s recent arrest of smugglers in possession of the head and hands of an endangered gorilla, plus 30 chimpanzee heads with assorted hands, shows the ongoing cost of voodoo. But what of the ongoing cost of voodoo economics?

Voodoo economics – aka Reaganomics, Friedmanism, Thatcherism or, endearingly in NZ, Rogernomics – dispatched into the wild those services that had long been protected as civilisation’s core, including aviation, banking and post. So it is hardly surprising that now, although the sharp-toothed among them have flourished, those gentler, service-oriented species (such as cheap airport parking, local banks and post offices) are now endangered to the point of extinction.

Australia Post is the latest poacher to be caught red-handed. Entrusted as guardian of some of our most treasured building stock, Australia Post has been sneaking neighbourhood post offices across the border into private hands for a good 20 years.

Glebe, Woollahra and Turramurra are the latest casualties in a long list of post office closures and relocations. My local in Redfern has gone from a handsome, purpose-designed and civic-minded old building into a trashy and mindless new one. From Dubbo to Widgiemooltha, if Australia Post is allowed its ruthless profit-taking, more will follow.

Allowed? It is pretty much obliged. Certainly its 1989 enabling Act sets Australia Post’s commercial obligations above those to the community, although it is silent as to which should prevail in case of conflict.

It’s silent, too, on the question of buildings. They may be some of the best we’ll ever have, our communities’ staunch point-of-origin, but in time-honoured Aussie tradition, they’re classified “expendable”; expendable to the business, and expendable, period.

I speak from experience. In the early 1990s, as a Sydney City councillor, I was closely involved with the GPO redevelopment. From the first, Australia Post acted with breathtaking cowboy nonchalance. The GPO is probably the best building in the country but I swear they would have demolished it if they thought they could. “Just treat us like any other developer,” argued the nice chaps from Australia Post.

But it was worse than that, because they were developers with total government protection who, being only “semi”-privatised, didn’t actually need development consent. We were confronting jackals with a pea-shooter.

Eventually, desperate, we flew to Canberra to beg Paul Keating’s architectural sympathies. He responded somewhat wistfully (and I’m paraphrasing): “When we were in charge, we could tell them to stuff their heads into their rubbish bins.”

And regret he might, since it was down to Keating, voodoo primate, that we were in that pickle at all.

The track from corporatisation to sell-offs to closures was clearly signposted back in 1989. Yet at last week’s Glebe rally, not a single political speaker made the connection. Not Clover Moore, not Meredith Burgmann, not Tanya Plibersek – who, as Minister for Human Services and Social Inclusion (no, really), was so moved by Australia Post’s breach of the accessibility obligation that she developed a touch of the Max Headrooms.

“Hands off Glebe Post Office, hands off Glebe Post Office,” Plibersek exhorted her appreciative crowd (posing, as you do, for the cameras). “We must show them we value this community service, value this community service.”

Even Senator John Faulkner – Glebe resident, rally attendee, long-time opponent of privatisations and, as it happens, member of the Hawke-Keating government that shooed Australia Post from the kraal – regards corporatisation and closure as “completely separate issues”.

They had their emotions on show but did either of them undertake to tackle the feds on leashing its solely-owned enterprise? Not a bit of it.

It took historian Max Solling to point out what the rest of the audience knew: that “having sold off our post office, the Australian Postal Corporation’s handsomely paid executives are telling us we’re not economically viable and … we should trek off to that dingy little thing at Broadway”.

And a dingy little thing it is, this low-rent hole tucked sideways into a crevice near the car park entrance. Dingy, yes, and small but it represents a triple tragedy.

First, there’s the death of civic-ness, once valued, now despised. What with both post offices and churches now indistinguishable from the tackiest of two-dollar shops, we’re almost accustomed to towns without landmarks or centres. We used to measure distances to post offices; to what will our grandchildren measure? The TAB? The mall? The pub?

Then there’s the obscenity of those who, like Australia Post’s chief executive, Ahmed Fahour, suck $3 million a year from a system that increases executive salaries 11 per cent while their profits drop by 70 per cent and they sack 1000 workers. After the GFC, and what you might call GSS (Goldman Sachs Syndrome), we’re almost used to that, too.

But what’s really infuriating is that, despite these sacrifices, they’re not even decent shops. They’re dreadful, selling a desultory range of wares from camping lanterns to first-aid kits to dog-ball throwers that gives more the feel of some failing import-export outfit than anything resembling a post office.

In other words, even their commercial obligations are swinging in the breeze. You mightn’t mind so much if they’d grabbed the wide-open opportunity to create a first-rate stationery chain, such as Officeworks or Britain’s Ryman. But to kill the Post Office for a bit of rubbish retail is yet more proof that jungle law may favour the strong but does not favour civilisation.

Governments provide services. That’s why we have them. Jungles provide competition. Semi-privatising Australia Post condemned it to fail at both, being neither wild nor tame. But it also gives a single slender hope, since its sole shareholder, the minister, may direct its board in the public interest. Deluge Stephen Conroy.

But let’s be clear. The GFC shows plainly that while civilisation’s role is to rescue us from the jungle, voodoo economics drops us straight back in, sociopaths in charge.

In Gabon, at least they bother catching the smugglers.




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