Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.
Letters bleed money? I'm sorry? Did I miss something? Do we just stand by and watch as Australia Post, this ridiculous griffin of a "wholly owned government corporation", tells us the daily mail delivery might die?
Are we supposed to agree that this cornerstone of civilisation is simply dispensable?
It's not about technology, or population, or changing times. It's about government, and what that means as an idea. It's about what we pay government to do.
First principle: government is not business. Indeed, government is the direct inverse of business, yet this basic axiom seems to elude it. Just as a motor is an inverse generator, or photosynthesis is inverse respiration, so with business and government. Business makes money from selling goods and services; government spends money to provide them.
That's not so hard to grasp, is it?
This principle, and the opposition it implies, is society’s core creative tension. One regulates, the other strives to transgress; one serv(ic)es, the other sells. Push, pull. Child, parent. The tension itself is the energy.
But as increasingly, and despite worldwide disproof, government conceives itself as business, business – inevitably – starts to set policy. So we get coal lobbyists writing energy strategy and the Urban Task Force dictating planning. The creativity vanishes, and the whole becomes a flaccid mess.
It's not new. Back in 1992, when I was a City alderman, Paul Keating was prime minister and Australia Post was his newly corporatised creature. We found ourselves facing the organisation's urge to redevelop its most sacred site, the Martin Place GPO.
"Treat us just like any other developer," was Australia Post’s constant refrain. What did it mean?
What it did not mean was "you apply the rules fairly and impartially and we'll abide". Hardly. What it meant was, let us haggle and browbeat; accommodate our venal philistinism, our base values and our blatant ambit claims; above all, do not expect decency or altruism just because we are a government agency in possession of a sacred site.
In truth we had little choice. That Australia Post bothered to talk to us at all was a mere sop to appearances, since as a Commonwealth body, building on Crown land, it did not need the City of Sydney's permission. In fact, it didn't need anyone's permission. It could do what it liked.
Never mind that the GPO was one of the best buildings ever built in this country, designed by government architect James Barnet when the word "government" carried expectations of excellence. Never mind that, after 130 years, this grand institution was decamping voluntarily to one of the country’s worst buildings – the prosthetic-pink hulk of the Strawberry Hills sorting office – for the least honourable of reasons.
Never mind, in other words, that every advantage Australia Post enjoyed as a developer (free beautiful building, free prime land, business monopoly) had been bought, and might now be trashed, at public expense.
This move – from slow, gracious, solidly built and hand-carved to fast, ugly and cheap – was every bit as symbolic as the old sandstone dowager herself. The institution demanded the right to be as badass as the rest.
I felt we did well, given our powerlessness, to extract some small concessions. We insisted it use a decent architect (Daryl Jackson Robin Dyke), that it neither demolish nor overwhelm the lovely sandstone colonnade and clock tower, and that it retain a postal "presence" – which dwindled to the sad little Australia Post shop – within the ground floor arcade.
That was the building: gutted, violated from behind but still, at least, extant. No one doubted for a minute that the institution itself was safe; protected by regulation that required the provision of full mail services in perpetuity.
Now we’re told delivering letters is too hard. Letters "bleed money" was the memorable wording from Australia Post CEO Ahmed Fahour, on his fat $4.8 million per year.
On current trends, says Fahour, Australia Post will lose $7.1 billion in eight years. Anyone else would have their pay docked, or worse. Fahour blames government; specifically the requirement to deliver the daily mail.
It will retain parcel delivery of course. Indeed, parcel delivery, made profitable by online shopping, will extend to Saturdays.
But the non-profit parts must go. Government, says Australia Post, must allow reduction of mail deliveries to three days, losing 900 jobs, for starters. Bye-bye, postie.
This was wholly foreseeable. From the moment Keating decoupled service from government, the carriage was careering back down the track. If daily letter delivery was profitable, it would never have been a government role at all. It would have been business.
There are two, and only two, reasons to have government. One is to regulate. The other is to provide services that are necessary but (if done properly) unprofitable. Free schooling. Universal healthcare. Local roads. Prisons. Building certification. Public housing. Post. And – dammit – moral leadership.
Government, in other words, exists to embody principle. Not for any other reason.
I used to have this argument with the government property agency LandCom. If it uses public money and land, I argued, it should provide leadership: zero-carbon housing in Minto, seductive sustainability at The Ponds. It should take us where the market alone will not or cannot. Government? Leadership? Very old school.
Government now conceives itself as Australia Post did, way back, insisting on the right to be as venal as the businesses it regulates.
The 2014 federal budget encourages an unprecedented transfer of public assets into insatiable private hands. Schools. Prisons. Power stations. Roads. (Personally I love how we privatise things just as, like coal-fired power, they’re about to change beyond recognition.)
This is big. If it’s what we want, fine. But let’s have the discussion. Let’s not just lose the postie by stealth. My view is we need to re-see it. Turn the machine around. Letters don't bleed; they are the lifeblood.