Bruce Wills: Rural posties deliver much more than just the mail

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No one delights in job losses and my heart goes out to posties and their families with the cloud that hangs over their futures. Yet New Zealand Post's decision to modernise its network is not a shock either. The 835 million mail items handled today is a long way short of 2002's "peak mail" of 1.1 billion items.

Having heard interviews on the decision, there is a need to explain what rural post actually entails and some of the barriers our rural communities face.

The rural postie is not an employee but a contractor who delivers much more than the mail.

Their vans are a Post Shop on wheels who not only pick up mail but deliver everything from newspapers and courier items, right through to groceries and even milk. That last item may surprise some but skim milk does not come out of a cow.

No rural postie I know relies solely on their mail contract to make ends meet but it does help the viability of their business.

Perhaps the best definition of what rural post is came from our colleagues at Rural Women NZ; "It is a wraparound distribution service that is part of the fabric that holds rural communities together.

"Our rural delivery contractors provide a lifeline, delivering supplies, repairs and spare parts, animal health remedies, medicines and courier parcels."

So it came as a surprise that a New Zealand Herald editorial would demand alignment of rural deliveries with urban. As the rural blogger Ele Ludemann of Homepaddock correctly observed, "Newspapers will be grateful that five-day deliveries are to be maintained because in most rural areas papers are delivered with the mail.

"If deliveries reduced to three a week most people wouldn't bother subscribing."

While the likes of the Herald, Dominion Post and the Press are heavily urban, this changes with provincial newspapers, such as Fairfax's Southland Times or APN's Northern Advocate.

New Zealand's rural communities may be spread far and wide, but they consist of close to 600,000 people. And they are communities that subscribe to newspapers. The relief over rural post being left intact will be palpable in many provincial newsrooms because the number one question to Federated Farmers' policy team has been, "what does this mean for my Saturday paper?"

Every year, New Zealand's farms consume around $13 billion of goods and services from animal remedies to No8 wire.

Even then this does not reflect what farming families spend as households. Being newspaper subscribers, rural consumers attract advertising support and this advertising helps to pay for journalists to write content.

Speaking plainly, the options available to many in town are not available to those out of town. According to Statistics NZ, 78 per cent of rural households had access to the internet in 2012. Dial-up is alive and kicking in the hinterland and when the Rural Broadband Initiative is completed, in 2017, 86 per cent of rural households will have access to it.

This still leaves a fair chunk off the RBI grid since "rural" in the context of broadband equates to a full quarter of New Zealanders. Being highly conservative, let's say 80,000 New Zealanders are left without coverage; that's still equivalent to the population of Palmerston North.

Farmers are under no illusion that this decision will settle things because the deed will be reviewed again in 2020 following the completion of urban New Zealand's ultrafast broadband initiative.

Yes, Federated Farmers and others in the rural community fought hard to maintain services because they rightly recognise that rural New Zealand is different.

Without doubt technology will change the way we communicate and the print side of the fourth estate is no exception.


Bruce Wills is the president of Federated Farmers.

- NZ Herald

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