Cancel my 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.


If it doesn’t rain soon, mate

Baroon Pocket Dam March 8, 2017 (Photos by Bob & Laurel Wilson)

Conversations in the street of any Australian town often involve the weather, which over the past four months has been bereft of rain or “dry” (pronounced “droy.”

Tim: “How’s things, Harold?

Harold: “Droy, mate!”

Tim: “Got 10 points last night – hardly worth measurin’.”

Harold: “How’re dams holdin?”

Tim: “Nothin’ but mud and mosquitos.”

Mrs Harold: “If it doesn’t rain soon, mate, we’re gonna move back to the town.”

The latter is the narrator’s refrain from one of my songs; the laconic farmer, chin up as usual, watching the ABC. He’s being harassed by the banks, making do with pumpkin scones and home brew and tells the wife that if she must pay bills, pay the one with the lawyer’s letter – today.

Australian farmers are well-used Continue reading “If it doesn’t rain soon, mate”

In praise of small towns

By Laurel Wilson

I may have said (some dozens of times) how much I enjoy living in the lovely little Sunshine Coast hinterland town of Maleny. We moved here nearly 14 years ago, having had enough of the noise and hassle of the big city. In looking for an alternative to the often indifferent and isolating city suburbs, I told Bob that I wanted to live somewhere that, if I fell over in the street, people would not just ignore me and/or walk over the top of my prone figure. (Photo Qld Health Dept)

Fortunately, neither of us has actually fallen over in the street (though we’ve had our share of accidents – see below). However, we did recently witness an unfortunate who tripped over one of the bollards which are strategically placed to prevent cars from mounting the footpath when parking in the peculiar ‘back in’ manner that prevails in Maleny. The unfortunate trip-ee had barely hit the bitumen before at least three people rushed to her aid and helped her up, having ascertained that nothing more serious than a few bruises and hurt pride had occurred.

In general, we’re both country bumpkins and prefer the P&Q of small town life. Not that it’s ever boring – if so inclined, it’s possible to go out nearly every night of the week and on weekends there is often an ‘approach-approach’ conflict trying to decide which attractive option will win out.

Take this coming weekend for instance. The local Film Society is showing not one, but two films at the Maleny Community Centre on Saturday 16th April – a matinee with the film ‘Tanna’ – ‘a classic tale of forbidden love’, set on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. Then at 6pm, you can get a light meal, catered by one of the several local restaurants, followed by the film ‘Looking for Grace’.

If music is more your thing, you would regret news of the demise of the iconic ‘UpFront Club’. However, it is understood that the café will soon re-open under a new name and new management, but with an indication that music will play an important role. Meanwhile, local music promoter Paul ‘Richo’ Richardson is bringing country music stars Kevin Bennett, Lyn Bowtell and Felicity Urquhart to the local RSL hall on Saturday night.  There’s also a Ukulele festival on all weekend at nearby Kenilworth.

Market-goers are well catered for also. The Blackall Range growers’ market at Witta, a few kms out of town, is on the third Saturday of every month, while the RSL is also the venue for the weekly Sunday morning market.

Visitors and locals alike make good use of the Maleny Volunteer Information Centre (to use its full title) to find out about local events and ‘things to do’ in general. The ‘Info Centre’ operates out of a ground floor shop at the Maleny Community Centre, which is in the main street. I volunteer there a couple of times a month and it’s always enjoyable to let visitors know about the many attractions and activities in the area.

For a small town, facilities are quite impressive. We are lucky to still have a local hospital – the Maleny Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital. (It would be a foolish bean-counter who tried to close this hospital, on the grounds of ‘efficiency’. Malenyites are sometimes divided over what is good for the town, but this would be one battle that would surely unite the place).

The hospital offers 24 hour a day accident and emergency services, along with medical, palliative care, pharmacy, and a rehabilitation unit. And it still has a kitchen, making meals for the patients as well as for Meals on Wheels.

Bob and I can both vouch for the fine level of care and attention we received there – Bob after his argument several years ago with a small but upset Red-bellied black snake and some years later with an even smaller, but much nastier critter – a paralysis tick, to which he had an allergic reaction. Just prior to Christmas a couple of years ago, I misjudged my footing, fell down some steps and rammed my head into a door frame. All three incidents occasioned visits to our local A&E, where we were treated very promptly and professionally.

I have a small role to play in our local Meals on Wheels organisation, so am occasionally at the back door on the way to the kitchen. There’s a blackboard and chalk outside the door and various wits are known to add droll comments, sometimes about issues of the day (e.g. ‘go the Blues’) sometimes just something to bring a smile. On one day the question at the top of the board was “What makes you happy?” The board was nearly full with several responses, so I reckon that says something pretty positive about the staff at the hospital – a random sample:

“Going on a long walk”; “Being married for 40 years and still in love”; “Music” (I wonder who wrote that?); “Beating the boys at cards”.

A picturesque area, lots of local walking tracks, mild climate, a house close to town, good neighbours, several friends in the local area, a wide variety of activities and within an easy drive to the beach, or even Brisbane, when we are so-inclined. That’s why we love living in this small town. (The nasty little biting ticks and the loud, love-struck Channel-Billed Cuckoo, with his persistent one-note call, are just there to remind us that nowhere’s perfect…)








Three cheers for volunteers


Firefighters Stephen Mitchell
Country Fire Service volunteers, photo by Stephen Mitchell

In the twilight hours of the Illawarra Folk Festival, the call went out for volunteers. Not those who had already put in the hours to pull off the biggest folk festival in New South Wales. No, this was an urgent call for paying punters staying over on Sunday night to donate 12 hours of their time on Monday for the pack-down. Those volunteering for this task would be rewarded with a full refund of their weekend ticket.

Most of Australia’s music festivals make heavy use of volunteers – (shortened in typical Aussie fashion to “vollies”). The logistics involved in training and managing 2,500 volunteers (Woodford Festival) or 1,300 (The National Folk Festival) is only one side to recruiting a (free) but willing workforce. The fact is there are very few paid positions behind the scenes at music festivals, big or small. Volunteers do the forward planning, the publicity, the volunteer co-ordinating and, once the festival has started, vollies are assigned tasks such as checking wristbands at entrances and exits, managing venues, MC’ing, helping find lost children, looking after artists, spreading straw on muddy patches and the never appreciated but vital task of collecting rubbish and removing it from the site. Volunteers invariably keep the toilets and showers clean and make sure there is plenty of toilet paper. (Except when other people come in behind them and make a mess).

Sometimes being a volunteer at a music festival can be really cool “I got to MC the main stage and actually shook Harry Manx’s hand”. Or “Kate wrote a smiley face on my plaster cast.”

Volunteering has long been a noble task where those who perform work for non-profit organisations and charities do it for no monetary reward, either in cash or kind. Festival volunteers at least get free tickets. In the case of Woodford, a season ticket with camping now costs close to $700, so that is a good inducement to offer one’s services. In return for a ticket, Woodford volunteers are required to put in five hours a day. If you do the math, volunteers are working for about $20 an hour (in kind) over the six-day festival.

That’s a pretty good deal for festival fans whose budgets do not stretch to paying for a full season ticket. (You might be rostered on somewhere else just when Kate Miller-Heidke is playing, but what the hell – she’ll probably write a song about it.)

Firefighters, lifeguards and emergency services

Circling out into the deeper water of volunteering in Australia, I found some statistics which gave me pause to worry about our youth unemployment rate. Close to six million Australians volunteers each put in an average of 135 hours a year. That’s 743 million hours of unpaid labour (per year). It makes you wonder.

Melanie Oppenheimer, chair of history at Flinders University, who has written books about volunteering, said in a 2015 co-authored article in The Conversation that the rate of volunteering has slipped from a 2010 high of 36%. An Australian Bureau of Statistics social survey found that 5.8 million Australians volunteered in 2014 – 31% of people aged 18 or over.

Why is it so?

A panel of academics headed by Flinders University has begun a three-year study to find out why volunteering appears to be in a long-term decline. They hope to find answers to these questions and more:

  • Are increasingly busy Australians finding it harder to prioritise volunteering as part of their lives?
  • Are we becoming more selfish as a nation and less inclined to help others?
  • Is volunteering “on the nose” with young people, the next generation of volunteers?
  • Does the decline in volunteering reflect the long, slow decline of rural Australia, where volunteering rates have always outstripped those of their city cousins?
  • Has population decline and an ageing population in these areas reduced the supply of willing and able-bodied volunteers?

Adelaide University’s Dr Lisel O’Dwyer has estimated the economic value of volunteering to Australia at $200 billion, using methodology which includes calculating the worth of lives saved by volunteer fire fighters, SES crews and life guards.

But she warned that a focus on the economic value of volunteering can be dangerous, and does not show the whole picture.

Work 70 hours a week for nothing – why not?

Volunteering has come in for a bit of criticism in the past few years, with unpaid internships (sometimes known as ‘work experience’) attracting world-wide opprobrium. Just google “interns and controversy” and you’ll wish you had never started.

There’s also been some media coverage of something dubbed “voluntourism” where predominantly young people can travel abroad and have adventures in exotic locations. The deal is usually food and accommodation in return for a set number of hours working for not-for-profit groups. You can do the legwork yourself, but beware, there are scammers out there all too ready to charge gullible youngsters a fee for finding them an unpaid job overseas.

While volunteers do not get paid for the work they do, local, state and federal governments treat them as part of the workforce. When you volunteer you are covered by workers’ compensation, public liability insurance and the same rules about discrimination and bullying in the workplace apply to volunteers as well.

The biggest exercise in recruiting and training volunteers was in 2000 for the Sydney Olympics, when 45,000 people said “yes” to the concept of being involved in an event that would put Australia on the global stage.

But volunteering is more often about small tasks not even identified as such, like staffing the tuckshop at your children’s school or mending shirts, shorts and skirts for the second-hand uniform shop.

Another star in heaven

Maleny Music Festival director Noel Gardner said even small festivals like the one staged in Maleny last August required 180 volunteers, all of whom were given a free pass in exchange for two shifts of three to four hours over the weekend.

“Festivals couldn’t work without their volunteers,” he said. “The only inducement apart from a free ticket is the joy of helping and perhaps an extra star in heaven.”

Gardner says volunteers often form a family-like bond and friendships are created and cemented year after year.

“I think we (humans) are at our best when we work together for a common cause.”

Friends of ours look after the co-ordinating of volunteers for just one Woodford event (the Fire Event and closing ceremony). Planning for the 120 volunteers needed for this event starts in August, and as our friend said, rarely does a day goes by without something needing to be done.

The upside is that by the time the festival starts, their job is done.

“Obviously we enjoy the tickets to the festival. But we also like the feeling of contributing to a festival we value, and enjoy being part of the organisation and seeing some of the behind-the-scenes planning.”

You, you and you – latrine duty!

Men of my generation probably had fathers like mine (with military experience in World War II). “Never volunteer for anything,” they’d say. Perhaps this is why I have done so little volunteering – car park attendant at the Maleny Wood Expo, MC at Woodford a few times, running a monthly folk club with She Who Only Got Mentioned in the Penultimate Paragraph.

Apart from that, I keep my head down. Evidently there are six million people out there who will do my share for me.