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Thursday, 25 September 2014
Page: 7210

Senator WILLIAMS (New South Wales) (18:22): I rise to take note of the final report of the Environment and Communication Legislation Committee's report on the performance, importance and role of Australia Post in Australian communities and its operations in relation to licensed post offices. I chaired a lot of this inquiry and this is a very, very important issue. We have some 2,900 licensed post offices, where people have bought the post offices, paid some big money for some of them, and they should get a fair return for the hard work they do. We know Australia Post is doing it tough. In fact, from 1 January to 30 June this year—the second half of the 2013-14 financial year—Australia Post made a loss. One billion letters fewer were handled last year than five years ago. One billion letters at 70c is $700 million.

These post offices are, I think, being treated unfairly. They are not paid enough for the storage and handling of parcels. Even in the case of unwanted stamps, they cannot return them and get a credit back from Australia Post. They have to throw them in the bin and suffer the loss. There are many issues and, of course, if the licensed post offices do fall over financially, under the community service obligation Australia Post has to re-establish them. We have that community service obligation right around Australia. They are selling products of Australia Post but I believe, and the report says this, the profit margins are too low. There should be a good commercial value margin in what they sell. Even with the handling of the letter boxes—where you get the key and roll up to the post office—they should get proper compensation for the time and effort they put into sorting the mail and putting it in those post boxes.

I want to make some comments in relation to POAAL. POAAL is the organisation that supposedly represents the licensed post offices. Now another group has broken out—the LPOGroup, the licensed post offices group. I will quote from the committee's report:

While the committee considers that POAAL appears to have a somewhat difficult negotiating position, there are other matters which raise questions in the committee's mind as to its competence. The committee notes that, in some instances, the evidence provided by POAAL was less than satisfactory. Mr Kerr, CEO of POAAL, appeared to lack an in depth knowledge of POAAL's membership, the structure of its subsidiary company, POAAL Services Ltd, and was less than helpful to the committee in relation to some matters it wished to pursue.

We are talking about Mr Kerr, the CEO. He is probably paid a lot of money. It continues:

In its dealings with licensees, POAAL also showed a lack of sound administrative practices. For example, the committee received evidence that letters addressed to POAAL at its post office box were returned to the sender as they had remained uncollected. Indeed, one of the committee's letters sent to POAAL suffered this fate.

So here we have POAAL and Mr Kerr, running this office and being paid money by the licensed post offices to represent them, and they do not even accept the mail but return it to the sender. The report continues:

The committee also sought information in relation to POAAL's financial statements. The committee considered that this information was important to its inquiry as POAAL represents LPOs not only in direct negotiations with Australia Post but also during meetings with the responsible Minister.

In relation to the information sought by the committee, POAAL had four opportunities to provide the information the committee requested following the March 2014 hearing. While the committee eventually received a response in relation to POAAL's 2012-13 financial statements, no other information was forthcoming. The committee considered the use of its powers to call for documents and persons. Ultimately, the committee agreed not to use these powers as it considered that it already had sufficient evidence that called into question the effectiveness of POAAL as an organisation advocating on behalf of licensees.

Those are pretty damning words. I think Mr Kerr was probably one of the worst witnesses I have ever seen in a Senate hearing in the six years that I have been here. I thought his arrogance was terrible. I thought he had no understanding of the people he represented, and consequently those licensed post offices have been going downhill financially for many years—probably as a direct result of Mr Kerr and his failure to represent them properly and fight their case to get a fair deal for the licensed post offices.

I am not going to speak for much longer. I would just like to say: the best thing Mr Kerr could do for POAAL would be to resign his position; put someone in there who is competent, who will represent the licensed post offices properly. This is a big and important issue. It is also a very difficult issue when we know that Australia Post, which is owned by every Australian, has to pay these licensed post offices more money. That may lead to a worse bottom line for Australia Post. But we have to have our post offices remain financially afloat. They are the heart of our country towns, especially where some 1,600 licensed post offices are based in rural and remote areas. Mr Kerr, you did yourself no favours. You certainly did not gain any credibility with the committee, in my opinion, when I chaired your presence. As I said: the best thing you could do would be to find yourself another job.

I thank Christine McDonald and her staff. As always with these reports, each and every senator in this place knows how hard the secretaries work. They spend an enormous amount of time reading the submissions, preparing everything, putting everything in place for the public hearings. They do a magnificent job. I thank Christine McDonald and her very capable staff for a job well done.