John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: What's wrong with 'junk' mail?

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Everyone, I suppose, has received an impertinent little "lifestyle survey" from New Zealand Post - everyone, that is, whose mail box is open to unsolicited invitations.

It is sad that so many are not.

NZ Post wants to know about my house, car, finances, shopping habits, leisure interests, travel plans and much else. Its form looks a little like the Census we were due to have this year until the Christchurch earthquake intervened.

This one stresses it is voluntary and says it wants to help me "receive more relevant mail". I don't need the Privacy Commissioner to warn me the information will be sold to direct-marketing firms.

Still, I'm tempted to do it, not by the prizes it offers but by the plight of post.

Now and again I walk the streets for the tennis club or a residents' association with a flyer about something possibly interesting or enjoyable, or, at any rate, harmless.

It is a chore I don't mind. You see details of the neighbourhood you never see from a car and everyone's mail box says a little bit about them.

Early on in the journey, you have to decide what to do about those mail boxes that say, "no junk mail", "no advertising material", "no circulars" or "no unaddressed mail".

My favourite is one that says, "no advertising material except Mitre 10".

The injunctions are inscribed on a tile that the home-owner has taken the trouble to screw on to the box. I suppose I should respect them but it's hard. You have walked all that way; you have a bundle to get rid of.

"No junk mail" makes the decision easy. It's insulting to suggest I'd be out here delivering junk. Plainly, I don't consider it is. They get one.

No advertising material? Well, it is not really. Circulars? That could mean something more frequent than what I'm distributing.

No unaddressed mail? OK, there is no part of "unaddressed mail" I don't understand. But I find it sad.

Do these people block all messages from the world outside? Do they live a hermetic existence in there? Or is it just paper they hate?

We get a wastepaper collection every fortnight. How hard can it be to receive mail?

It's not like internet ads that pop up in front of something you're reading or interminable television commercials that waste your time. Paper waits for you.

It is a miracle we still receive daily mail. I don't know how NZ Post manages it. Nobody writes letters any more. Most of us do banking and pay bills online.

Internet shopping must generate a certain amount of mail-delivery business but anything really precious is sent by courier. If the regular post relied on addressed mail these days, it might cost us a fortune in subsidies.

Or, more sensibly, it would reduce deliveries to once or twice a week, which may be all we need now.

I doubt the state would ever allow home deliveries to cease entirely; it will always feel the need to have some way to reach everyone for things like voter registration.

Knowing this, NZ Post does remarkably well to behave like a business that needs to remain profitable.

It has been an unsung success of state-owned enterprise from the moment a commercial culture was introduced to public services in the 1980s.

One of my most cringing memories from reporting politics at that time is of stories I wrote when the newly corporatised NZ Post decided it would no longer fly the national flag on post offices.

I was appalled. The Post Office was the central feature of main streets in every small town in the land. They had to fly the flag.

I remember the minister in charge, Jonathan Hunt, gently trying to convince me the post was "a proud corporate organisation now" and needed to fly its own flag. A little later, I realised what he meant.

I had cause to interview a NZ Post executive in Auckland for a reason I forget, but I remember being struck by the culture change he had made.

He told me about it, proudly, and you could see it. There was still something of the public-service cardigan and comfortable slippers about him, but he talked of efficiency and profitability goals and bringing down the cost of postage with visible excitement.

The flag was forgotten when they started closing post offices and opening agencies. Ten years later, email arrived and the somehow the post has survived.

Its days may yet be numbered - along with newspapers, books and all words on paper - but I know one thing: if this survey had reached me by email it would have been deleted in an instant. It is still sitting here; I'm thinking about it. I might do it.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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