Senate debates

Monday, 24 August 2020

Regulations and Determinations

Australian Postal Corporation (Performance Standards) Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Regulations 2020; Disallowance

5:21 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

There's an important principle that should be stated clearly at the outset of this debate: the government should not be using COVID-19 as a sneaky back door to cut services or implement pre-existing agendas. Labor sends this message loud and clear. The postal service changes before parliament began as an opportunistic cost- and job-cutting exercise. These changes do not arise from circumstances that are brought about by the pandemic but, instead, were planned well before the pandemic and are intended to be snuck through by the government at a time when people are looking to the government for trusted responses. These are not intended to be temporary changes but permanent cuts that bypass normal consultation.

The structural direction of the long-term agenda is outlined in the $1.3 million Boston Consulting Group report that was commissioned by the finance minister and handed to the government on 21 February. We understand that that report proposes cuts to service standards, cuts to jobs and the closure of post offices. The secretary of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications has even revealed that the cabinet had already resolved to continue the recommendations of the report prior to COVID-19 and, indeed, that that report did recommend cuts, cuts, cuts and closures. This is what Mr Atkinson, the secretary, had to say:

My recollection was it was commissioned by cabinet to come back to cabinet for consideration, and it came back in its normal scheduled time. That just happened to be in COVID-19.

That's pretty clear, isn't it? The government had been planning to consider recommendations to cut the postal service well before COVID-19.

The tricky foundation—and it is tricky—of this approach and the regulations that are before us has been made clear by the number of untruths the government has felt compelled to tell to justify this position. First, they said Australia Post was going to go broke and would have to cut costs because of declining revenues. They laid all that out in an article in The Australian on 31 March under the headline 'Australia Post forced to slash costs as coronavirus hits revenues'. This story happened to be dropped on the very same day a formal request was made to shareholder ministers for the regulatory changes. There's a problem with that story—quite a big problem. Overall revenues were going up. They were not going down, as was asserted in the story, and the Senate has learned that, in fact, Australia Post was forecasting more revenue as a result of COVID and this, in fact, is what occurred.

Evidence to the Senate established that parcel volumes were 37.2 per cent higher in April 2020 than they were in March. It makes sense, doesn't it—if you think about it for even a moment before you drop your story to The Australian? Of course revenues will go up. Parcel volumes have gone through the roof, and Australia Post is the primary carrier of parcels in Australia. So, once that narrative fell apart, they then tried to claim that addressed letter volumes had collapsed by 50 per cent. Uh-uh. In response to written questions on notice by Labor senators, Australia Post submitted that addressed letter volumes went from 139 million in February 2020 before the pandemic to 155 million in March, when the lockdown began. That's a 12 per cent increase. That's another misleading narrative taken apart by Senate scrutiny. Then, in the third attempt, the minister tried to claim that postal delivery workers were not busy enough and that, through these regulations, he was giving them work to do. What a disrespectful and ignorant thing to say. Frontline postal workers have never been busier. That is a statement of fact. They are incredibly busy. And they have been working endlessly for our communities throughout COVID—busier than ever. They deserve respect, not insults from an uninformed minister.

The minister then wrote to a Senate committee and claimed that posties were previously dedicated to handling and delivering letters and that he was liberating them for redeployment to deliver parcels. That is also not true. There is no such thing as a postie dedicated to delivering letters in Australia. Posties deliver parcels and letters, including essential medicines, and they have done so every day of the week for years. And, if the minister won't take advice from the representatives of workers, perhaps he should read what the executive general manager of deliveries at Australia Post said to the Senate back in 2018. Mr Barnes said:

Today we see nearly 45 per cent of all parcels delivered by posties. So when you think of the context of the letters declining at 10 per cent per year, that's been a big boost for our posties in keeping them busier out there. We expect to see that close to 50 per cent within a year and a half.

The critical point is that, when a postie visits your home five days a week, they're also carrying parcels five days a week. So why would the government feel the need to make unnecessary and incorrect assertions that posties only carry letters? The minister has used this language to imply that postal workers have less and less to do as letter volumes decline. But, in fact, as letter volumes decline, postal workers deliver an increasing volume of small to medium-sized packets and parcels.

Finally, Australia Post wrote to members of parliament last week saying that the alternate day delivery model was only just coming into effect on 31 August. If the changes were so urgent that the minister, as he claims, couldn't have undertaken any consultation, why take four months to implement them? The answer is that the reduced delivery model was designed on the assumption that one in four postal workers would not have a job. We've had unions and postal workers give evidence to the Senate that postal workers across the country were being told that one in four wouldn't have a role. So my colleague Senator Green asked this question:

Can I just be clear so that this is understood: there is the document that you were briefed with, which shows that Dan … no longer has a round to perform. And what you're saying today is that that information was not only briefed to you, it was also briefed to senior management and also out to workplaces?

The witness, Mr Murphy, says:

Correct. They were briefed at workplaces similar to Lisarow … that one in four posties no longer had a job to do.

Senator Green asks the other witness to confirm that that was the briefing, and Mr Morton says:

Yes, from our management at our delivery facilities.

So once the government had to give up on the idea that, in the middle of a pandemic, they were going to implement massive job cuts at Australia Post, they were forced back to the drawing board and spent months trying to figure out how to integrate the fourth postal worker into a model that was designed for three. This government have been making this up as they go along. The foundations of their arguments and their policy rationale were dishonest to begin with. That's why they tried to use COVID-19 to bypass consultation with workers in the community. This is a joke, and it's also not the standard that the community expects from their government at this critical time.

We have a minister unwilling to be straight with the public. We have a $1.3 million review into Australia Post that the government refuses to release. We have a government making it up as they go along. The Labor Party will seek to disallow these regulations because the government needs to get a clear message: COVID-19 should not be used as a cover to sneak through existing agendas. It's an important principle, and one that's at stake in a number of areas of public policy.

5:30 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians) Share this | | Hansard source

Australia Post is not immune to the difficulties posed by a global pandemic. To support Australia Post to continue providing the postal services Australians need during the COVID-19 crisis the government has granted it temporary regulatory relief until 30 June 2021. These changes provide Australia Post with the flexibility to redeploy its workforce to manage the dramatic increase in parcel volume and decrease in letters accelerated as a result of COVID-19. Australia Post have made a commitment that there will be no forced redundancies or across-the-board reductions in wages due to the temporary arrangements. The government will review the changes before the end of the year.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that business of the Senate order of the day No. 1 be agreed to.