On 16 June 2020, the Senate referred to the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, for report by 11 August 2020, an inquiry into the future of Australia Post's service delivery, with particular reference to:
the Australian Postal Corporation (Performance Standards) Amendment Regulations 2020 and their impact on services, the Australia Post workforce and affected businesses;
the impact of COVID-19 on the financial position of Australia Post and its future;
a sustainable plan for Australia Post to provide:
services that meet community needs and expectations,
job security for its workforce, and
support for regional and metropolitan licensed post offices;
international and domestic trends with parcels, letters and pricing; and
The terms of reference required the committee to consider the impacts of temporary changes to the regulation of Australia Post’s service delivery standards and postal service timeframes in the context of COVID-19.
With parliamentary sittings in early August 2020 cancelled as a result of increased community transmission of COVID-19, the committee chose to extend the reporting date for the inquiry to 25 August 2020.
Conduct of the inquiry
The committee advertised the inquiry on its webpage and wrote to a number of relevant organisations inviting submissions by 3 July 2020. The committee received 64 submissions, which are listed at Appendix 1.
The committee also received 125 form letters from business and suppliers associated with Australia Post, and 18 form letters from charities supporting the regulations. The committee published as Additional Documents a representative sample of each of the two types of form letters, along with a list of organisations which had sent them.
The committee held a public hearing in Canberra, and via video and teleconference, on 8 July 2020. A list of witnesses is at Appendix 2.
Australia Post’s engagement with the inquiry
The committee acknowledges the efforts of staff and senior management at Australia Post throughout the course of the inquiry, including those who travelled to Canberra during a very busy time and in uncertain circumstances to attend the public hearing.
However, the committee is concerned that some responses provided by Australia Post to senators’ questions suggest a lack of understanding of the critical scrutiny role played by the Senate, and of the particular responsibility of Australia Post as a publicly-owned entity to be accountable to the people of Australia through the Parliament and its committee system.
The provision of information to Senate committees
Senate committees, including the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, play a number of key roles in Australia’s democratic system. Among these are to ‘probe and check the administration of the laws, to keep [the Senate] and the public informed, and to insist on ministerial accountability for the government’s administration’. In addition, committees have a role to ‘exercise surveillance over the executive’s regulation-making power’.
Committees are recognised in the Australian Constitution as ‘essential instruments of the Houses of the Parliament’ and most committees have the power to summon witnesses and compel the production of documents. Witnesses who fail to comply with a lawful order to provide relevant evidence, or supply relevant documents, may ultimately be found in contempt of the Senate.
On top of these fundamental obligations, officials representing publicly-owned entities have particular, additional responsibilities to engage in a way that is honest and transparent, upholding various legislated rules and codes of conduct under which they are employed.
While statutory authorities and GBEs like Australia Post are not ‘subject to direction or control by the executive government’ in relation to their operational decisions and day-to-day operations, the Senate has resolved on multiple occasions that such entities ‘are accountable to the Senate for their expenditure of public funds and have no discretion to withhold from the Senate information concerning their activities’. However, the Senate has also recognised that there may be instances where it is not in the public interest for certain information to be disclosed. Senate procedural orders provide a process to be followed by public sector witnesses for making public interest immunity claims.
Australia Post’s responses to questions
It is in this context that the committee comments on the responses provided by Australia Post to a number of questions taken on notice at the public hearing, and additional questions in writing sent following the hearing.
For the majority, Australia Post answered committee members' questions. However, Australia Post declined to provide information requested on several occasions on the basis of commercial‑in-confidence claims. In some circumstances, the claim has been adequately justified. For instance, the response to a request for technical reports relating to a purchase decision for electric delivery vehicles states:
Information in technical reports, and pricing information, relating to third party products or services is commercial-in-confidence. Publication of such information is likely to cause detriment to those third parties as a consequence of their commercially sensitive information being publicly available.
This response identifies a recognised ground upon which to claim that providing the information would not be in the public interest and specifies a commercial detriment to the businesses involved that could result if the information is disclosed.
In other cases, the response provided by Australia Post was inadequate. For instance, in response to questioning about alleged efforts to monitor Australia Post staff for leaks to the media, officials again rely on the ground of commercial-in-confidence to claim immunity from an obligation to provide a detailed response, saying:
Australia Post maintains a risk-based security program… Details of that program are commercial-in-confidence. Publication of such information is likely to cause detriment to Australia Post as a consequence of the details of its security program being publicly available.
It is unclear to the committee why the ground for refusal in this case would be commercial in nature; no specific detriment (commercial or otherwise) has been outlined; and it appears that no consideration has been given to providing the information to the committee on a confidential basis, an option about which Australia Post was informed.
The committee is concerned that, in drafting responses to questions on notice, GBEs may misunderstand or underestimate their fundamental responsibilities to the Parliament, preferring to avoid transparency rather than provide the information requested.
Entities have an obligation to provide maximum transparency
The committee notes that there are resources available to help guide government agencies, statutory bodies and GBEs on how to adequately discharge their responsibilities to the Parliament and its committees. The committee further notes Senate resolution 53, relating to the need for senior government officials to undertake training on parliamentary accountability and parliamentary privilege.
Government guidelines discuss the grounds upon which it is acceptable for officials to withhold information, including public interest immunity, and commercial-in-confidence claims. The guidelines include examples of the types of detriments and harms that may result from the disclosure of commercial information, and case studies to guide officials.
All GBEs must ensure senior staff and officials have a clear understanding of the importance of parliamentary scrutiny, and have the skills and capability to meet their obligations in relation to committee processes.
In line with the Senate resolution on training – accountability and privilege, the committee recommends that all Australian Government entities including Australia Post, provide regular training and support to senior staff and officials to ensure they can meet their responsibilities to the Senate and its committees through understanding Senate procedures, including the:
principles governing the operation of Parliament, and the accountability of departments, agencies and authorities to the Houses of Parliament and their committees;
proper processes for raising claims of public interest immunity including:
acceptable and unacceptable grounds for making a claim of public interest immunity; and
the requirement to specify the actual harm that may result from the disclosure of information.
The committee thanks all those who made submissions or gave evidence at the public hearing.
Note on references
References to the committee Hansard are to the proof Hansard. Page numbers may vary between the proof and the official Hansard transcript.
Structure of the report
This report has three chapters. This first chapter provides information about the inquiry and introduces the Australian Postal Corporation (Performance Standards) Amendment Regulations 2020.
Chapter 2 discusses evidence around the regulations, including the:
need for regulatory ‘relief’;
development of the regulations, and consultation processes;
impact on postal delivery service levels;
impacts on the Australia Post workforce; and
levels of support for the regulations.
Chapter 3 considers the future of Australia Post’s service delivery, specifically the:
possible long-term impacts of COVID-19;
question of whether the regulatory changes will be temporary;
planning for the future sustainability of Australia Post;
future for licenced post offices; and
servicing rural and regional Australia.
Chapters 2 and 3 finish with the committee’s view and recommendations in relation to the issues discussed in those chapters.
Background to the regulations
According to the Explanatory Statement, the purpose of the Australian Postal Corporation (Performance Standards) Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Regulations 2020 (the COVID-19 regulations) is to amend the Australian Postal (Performance Standards) Regulations 2019 (the existing regulations) to provide urgent and temporary change to performance standards for the delivery of letters to enable Australia Post to manage impacts on its operations related to COVID-19, including by optimising the use of its workforce. The COVID-19 regulations also provide Australia Post with an exemption from its retail outlet requirements in case it needs to temporarily close stores due to COVID-19.
The COVID-19 regulations temporarily relax requirements in relation to three of Australia Post’s four service standards:
Letter delivery frequency. Australia Post is usually required to service 98 per cent of all postal delivery points daily (weekdays only). This is being relaxed for metropolitan areas to every second day.
Letter delivery accuracy and speed. Australia Post is usually required to deliver at least 94 per cent of reserved services letters lodged with Australia Post (with some exclusions, such as bulk mail and letters originating outside Australia) to the indicated or appropriate address according to the delivery timetable for reserved services letters which was set out in subsection 8(6) of the existing regulations. This delivery timetable specifies set times ranging from one business day for delivery of a letter posted from two points within a capital city, to 4 business days for a letter posted from regional towns across state borders. In contrast, the COVID-19 regulations allow for delivery times ranging from five business days to seven. They also temporarily remove the priority mail service. For details, see Figure 1.1 on page 9.
Retail outlets. Australia Post is required to maintain at least 4000 retail outlets around Australia, with strict requirements around the numbers, locations and distances from residential populations. The COVID-19 regulations allow Australia Post to maintain the prescribed requirements for retail outlets ‘to the extent that is reasonably practicable’, while providing ‘flexibility to temporarily close outlets should this be necessary due to workforce impacts of COVID-19’.
Consideration by the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation Committee
The Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation (the Delegated Legislation Committee) considered the COVID-19 regulations, and wrote to the Communications Minister seeking advice in relation to the adequacy of consultation. Specifically, the Delegated Legislation Committee questioned whether, in developing the regulations, the department consulted with ‘other persons and entities likely to be affected by the measures, including employees of Australia Post and their representatives, and persons and entities that regularly utilise postal services’.
The Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, the Hon Paul Fletcher MP, responded to the Delegated Legislation Committee's letter stating that ‘given the urgency and unprecedented circumstances, broader public consultation was not possible’, and that the regulatory changes are time‑limited (set to end 30 June 2021), with a review scheduled to occur before the end of 2020. As part of the review process, the minister said, ‘consultations with all relevant parties’ would be undertaken, and a new disallowance period would ultimately be provided, ‘enabling Parliamentary oversight’.
At the time of writing, the Delegated Legislation Committee was seeking further detail from the minister.
As at the time of writing, the regulations are in force and operational. There is a Senate motion of disallowance relating to the COVID-19 regulations to be resolved by the Parliament by 6 October 2020.
Figure 1.1: Legislated delivery standards, prior to- and post July 2021
Section 8(6), Australian Postal Corporation (Performance Standards) Regulations 2019 (incorporating Australian Postal Corporation (Performance Standards) Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Regulations 2020).