Stamp of approval a one-horse race

stamp-winx-race
Australia Post celebrates Winx’s record-breaking 26th consecutive win with a commemorative stamp

You’d have to say Australia Post had a bit riding on the champion mare Winx winning her 26th consecutive race at Warwick Farm last Saturday. Let’s say at the outset that this is about stamp collecting, not horse racing (surveys show the latter subject turns FOMM readers off – or politics – that was a three horse race…Ed.)

Whether you like horse racing or not, the existence of Winx the super horse must have filtered through, as it is many a moon since any horse won this many races on the trot, which is racing parlance for an unbroken winning streak.

Celebrating the mare’s place in equine history, Australia Post released a commemorative stamp, pictured here by courtesy of AP and ‘with perforations’ as requested. Journalists received the press release from Australia Post about a minute after the race was run and won.

We plan ahead for important activities, achievements, and national events in the calendar, and had extra resources on standby to assist in producing the special stamps,” an Australia Post spokesperson said, in response to our obvious question.

So all ended well. If you are a stamp collector or philatelist as it is known in the trade, you will already have ordered your first day covers, special 26-stamp packs, a set of maxi cards and a medallion cover.

Horse stamps are not that unusual – examples include Black Caviar in 2013 and a set of four stamps issued in 1978. They featured Phar Lap, Bernborough, Peter Pan and Tulloch. The collection is notable for fine art work by Brisbane artist Brian Clinton.

Like Dusty Springfield, I was wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ that either Malcom Turnbull or his nemesis were philatelists so I could make this politically relevant. But it seems only one (former) Federal politician, Philip Ruddock, collects stamps. This seemingly innocuous hobby at times embroiled the then Immigration Minister in controversy.

Ruddock, now Mayor of Hornsby Shire, was a member of Amnesty International. Critics found his membership of the organisation was at odds with his government’s hard-line immigration policies. In 2000, Amnesty asked Mr Ruddock not to wear his lapel badge when performing ministerial duties and not to refer to his membership when promoting policies opposed by Amnesty. AM 18/3/2000

In a profile for The Good Weekend in 2002, writer Richard Guilliatt was given a look at Ruddock’s collection, which spans three generations. Guilliatt, perhaps innocently, suggested that the high dramas of the job had spurred the stamp collecting hobby on.

“…every month letters pour into Ruddock’s Parliament House office in Canberra, imploring him to liberate the men, women and children detained behind razor wire in Australia’s desert camps for Third World asylum seekers,” he wrote. “Those letters come affixed with all manner of exotic stamps, which Ruddock gets his secretary to tear off so he can take them home to his house in the leafy northern hills of Sydney, to be packed away for sorting.

“That’s one of the good things about getting a lot of letters from Amnesty International,” Ruddock told Guilliatt.

If few politicians collect stamps, at least a dozen former Prime Ministers featured on Australian stamps in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s important to note that all received the honour after their deaths.

“Until the introduction of the Australia Post Australian Legends Awards in 1997, the only living person allowed on a stamp was the reigning monarch”, the spokeperson told FOMM.

Nevertheless, the PM’s head on a postage stamp seems clearly out of fashion now, in this era when one is never quite sure if the PM will last his or her term. But there have been enough sporting celebrities, athletes, actors, singers, writers and decorated soldiers to compensate.

In an aside for crime fiction aficionadas, the most infamous stamp collector award must surely go to Lawrence Block’s fictional hit man, Keller. John Keller is the protagonist in Block’s crime series which began with Hit Man in 1998. Keller collects pre-1940 stamps and uses down-time between ‘jobs’ to visit stamp shops and exhibitions. It’s a kind of cover for his apparent lack of legitimate income, not unlike Block’s gentleman burglar and antique bookstore owner, Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Many famous people are listed in various publications and websites as stamp collectors. The collection does not have to be distinguished to command a price. Former Beatle John Lennon’s collection of 550 stamps from his childhood was bought by the Smithsonian Institute’s National Postal Museum in 2005 for about $A74, 000.

Which brings me to the best-selling commemorative stamp of all time – the Elvis stamp released in 1993, Perhaps the delay since the rock singer’s death in 1977 was due to persistent ‘sightings’ of the late Mr Presley. Even today you will find folk who will tell you he is still alive and living under an alias, like someone in witness protection. Elvis would be 83 if still alive today.

The US Postal Service printed 500 million commemorative stamps – three times the usual print run. It was the most highly publicised stamp issue in the USPS history. The people were asked to choose between two designs (1.2 million votes), the majority preferring the stylised image of the young rocker, microphone in hand.

Stamps can be highly controversial items. For instance, the first secular Christmas stamp in the US, with its pair of white candles and a wreath with a red bow, was released in 1962.

Critics said it crossed the line between church and state. The public was also unenthused about a 1963 design – an illuminated Christmas tree in front of the White House.

Public takes dim view of Surfing Santa

The most controversial Australian stamp was also a Christmas release.  The 1977 stamp featured a humorous depiction by Adelaide artist Roger Roberts of Santa Claus riding a surfboard. Some members of the public were affronted, saying the postal service was not taking Christmas seriously. Until 1975, all Christmas stamps featured religious themes, often based on the traditional nativity story. There was no such fuss about the mix of secular and Christian stamps released in 1976.

If you thought the popularity of email would adversely affect stamp collecting, the market is as robust and profitable as ever. As an extreme example, the One-Cent Magenta from British Guiana, issued in 1856 and thought to be unique, sold at a New York auction in 2014 for a record $9.5 million.

In 2007, the Australian collection of Arthur Gray was sold through Shreves auction house in New York for more than $7 million. Among the spectacular results was the $265,000 paid for a block of four 1919 £1 brown and blue Kangaroos.

So did you collect stamps as a child? Did you, as I discovered, learn at some point in your cash-strapped adulthood that the collection was worthless?

We had a family friend who spent most of her younger years travelling to exotic climes and would write, with bundles of stamps included ‘for wee Bobby’.

I gave away stamp collecting and its fussy handling (gloves and tweezers and corners to mount the stamps rather than pasting them in the album), around about the time I realised girls were interesting.

I still have those two old albums tucked away somewhere – among Father’s Letters, I’m thinking.

Somewhat related reading:

Cancel my PO Box

PO-Box
Photo of PO Box Warburton (Vic) by Mick Stanic

Some of my rural readers have been writing impassioned letters about a troubling domestic issue (the rising cost of renting a PO Box).

“Dear Mr BobWords, (wrote Perplexed Pensioner of Reeseville)

“When we knew we’d be moving to Maleny, we applied for a PO Box. “When we arrived here on Dec 22nd, 1993, the post office was still in the old house on the corner of Teak St.

“They kept saying (once we presented ourselves in person), that there were no private mailboxes to spare, so we had “poste restante” status for quite a while. Once the new Riverside Centre post office opened, we were finally able to rent our new PO Box: the fee was $40 p.a. (1995-96).

“When I recently received the renewal notice for my standard P.O Box, I could see it was going to cost me $129. Frankly, it seemed a waste of a Pensioner’s Pittance. Australia Post offered a $5 discount if you paid before March 31st (but nothing for pensioners!)

“So, after almost 24 years I have let go of my town lifeline.”

Yes, we hear you, Perplexed Pensioner. We decided there was not enough mail arriving in our private mailbox to justify the expense.

Ironically, when we inquired about getting a six-month mail redirection, we found that these rates too would rise on April 3.

When reviewing essential household mail, I discovered that 80% of our bills and official communiques arrive via email.

In line with similar issues facing postal services in all countries, revenue has been squeezed by online transaction services. Moreover, operating costs in this labour-intensive business (Oz Post employs 36,000 people), keep on rising.

As always, Australia Post is constrained by its obligation to offer postal services to all, no matter where they live.

Next time you gasp at the cost of posting a letter or parcel, Australia Post’s 2016 annual report confirms that losses for its regulated postal service over five years now total $1.29 billion.

Increasing the cost of letter postage from 41c in 1989 to $1 in 2017 does not seem to have done the trick.

Nevertheless, Australia Post returned a profit after tax every year between 2012 and 2014. Though producing its first after-tax loss of $221.7M in 2015, it was in the black again last year ($36.4 million).

Email rules – for now

If I had to mail this newsletter to FOMM subscribers, it would cost more than $500 per week, including envelopes, stamps, printing and labour. That would mean I’d have to pass the cost on to you, dear reader, market forces driving me to embrace the profit ethos.

Australia Post’s letter volumes peaked in 2008, according to its 2016 annual report. In the eight years since, volumes have declined by 41% per letterbox. We have seen this happen in our private mail box too.

Perplexed Pensioner referred us to a blog by Anny, a calendar-maker. She took Australia Post to task in 2014 and again this year for what she sees as price gouging, including a list of PO Box price rises compiled from her records of invoices (from $55 in 2004 to $129 in 2017).

While price increases in recent years have been well above average annual inflation, increases have been smaller since 2014.

“From February, Post Office (PO) Box prices increased by an average of 2.7% across the product range,” an Australia Post spokesperson told FOMM. “Like many businesses, Australia Post is operating in a challenging economic environment with increasing costs and competition.”

Local correspondent Little Bird says the cost of private mail boxes is a can of worms for the minority of Australians who do not have street delivery.

“Because we don’t have street delivery we pay a discounted rate, but I think it’s still a bit rich when everyone else gets their mail delivered for nothing.

“Also, since we live out of town it also means they won’t deliver parcels out here. The Australia Post-aligned couriers won’t deliver here either. (There are some which contract to Australia Post and some which do their own deliveries). So the sender pays a courier rate to have something delivered and it still goes no further than the PO Box.”

Australia Post responded: “Residents living in areas that receive a street delivery service less than once per week can collect mail over the Post Office counter for free. As PO Boxes are an optional delivery service (they), may be eligible to lease a PO Box at a reduced rate.”

Hefty price increases are not uncommon after government-owned essential services are corporatised or privatised.

So let’s be clear about one thing – Australia Post is still 100% owned by the Commonwealth Government. However, since 1989 (when, incidentally, a stamp cost 41c), it has been run as a Government-Owned Corporation.

It is run very much along private company lines – many of its post office shops are privately owned and along the way Australia Post bought its own courier service (StarTrack) to compete with rival courier services.

The Institute of Public Affairs has lobbied for the government to fully privatise Australia Post and found supporters in the Productivity Commission and the Australian competition watchdog (the ACCC).

There are examples aplenty of countries which have done so. Britain privatised the Royal Mail in 2013. Japan Post, which became a government-owned corporation in 2003, was privatised in 2007 and listed on the stock exchange in 2016. Deutsche Post was privatised in 2000.

Australia Post was ranked fourth in a survey of the world’s best postal services, interestingly led by the government-owned and operated US Postal Service

While Australia Post competes with the digital world by offering an array of electronic services, most people just want to post a letter, card or parcel to someone and trust it will arrive within the week.

So while we have cancelled our private mailbox, we can still rely on the humble postie delivering to our letter box. They deserve a medal, going out in all weathers, dodging swooping magpies, skateboarders and hostile dogs. We were given updated figures that show there are 11,000 ‘posties’ servicing 11, 240 postal routes around Australia. Motorcycles are used for delivery on about 6,000 routes, bicycles on 900 routes and about 900 intrepid posties walk their routes, all delivering to 11.6 million locations.

On a round-Australia trip in 2015, we encountered a group of 40 men and women riding 110cc ex-‘postie’ bikes from Brisbane to Adelaide via Birdsville and remote desert roads. Members of the group paid about $5,000 each for the privilege. The cost included an ex-‘postie’ bike, all accommodation and support while en-route and a flight home. Riders were encouraged to donate their bikes to Rotary at the end of the ride.

This seems a worthier use of energy than complaining (futilely) about Australia Post and its ongoing quest for profit. You could instead enjoy a vicarious few weeks experiencing much what it must feel like to be an all-weather ‘postie’. You could send postcards to your friends from every destination (at $1 a time), confident in Australia Post’s claim that it delivers 96.2% of domestic mail on time.