With the ubiquity of the internet it seems remarkable that any region of New Zealand would miss having a daily mail delivery. Yet the Government believes that all rural areas still need one. It will let New Zealand Post reduce its deliveries to three days a week from June 2015 - but only in towns and cities.
Why not rural deliveries? The day has long past when any but the most remote farms relied on the post for contact with the world outside, other than perhaps the printed newspaper. Those farms must be so remote that a daily delivery was impractical. For the vast majority of rural dwellers, sealed roads have put them in easy reach of a city or provincial centre, so much so that many of their smaller service towns have been in visible decline for decades.
The Government knows this better than anyone since National holds almost all the rural seats. Why then, is it holding NZ Post to a daily delivery? Communications Minister Amy Adams said the Government was "concerned about the sustainability of rural delivery services and rural contractors in general".
That sounds like the daily delivery is being sustained for the sake of keeping mail contractors employed.
If so, the urban posties' union can reasonably ask why rural contracts are more important than its members' jobs. NZ Post says it is too soon to say how many of its 7000 employees will not be needed if it reduces urban deliveries to three days a week. The union's postal industry organiser does not believe staff cuts are needed though he agrees that declining mail volumes require attention.
"This may involve a reduction in the number of delivery days or redeployment within NZ Post," said the EPMU's organiser. "But we would caution against kneejerk reactions."
The decision announced yesterday is far from a kneejerk reaction. It was mooted three years ago by NZ Post's former chairman, Jim Bolger. The company has been waiting that long for the Government to let it make the necessary adjustment to technological change.
The public probably imagined daily postal deliveries disappeared years ago. Addressed mail has declined so much that nobody is unduly surprised on days that they receive none. Hardly anybody sends a letter by ordinary post any more. Bills are paid online. The mail that does still arrive in a household box is non-urgent and easily ignored: council notices, company reports, personalised direct marketing.
They nearly always contain a postage-paid envelope, which must be a significant source of NZ Post's revenue without adding to its handling costs. Very few are used. So few ballot papers were returned in the recent local body elections that postal voting too might have had its day.
Paper mail is by no means alone these days in its need to adapt to instant digital communications. But mail is handicapped by public ownership. If NZ Post had been in the private sector it would have stopped daily deliveries years ago and looked for services it could provide that more people might use.
The Government has made a little more room for innovation in its revised deed with the company. The agreement does not bind NZ Post to daily, or even thrice weekly, deliveries of non-standard mail. And while it has to maintain the same number of receiving centres, some of them can be self-service kiosks. But it will be hard for NZ Post to invest in new products and services when it must provide deliveries more frequently than most people need. The Government would do better to let the business develop services that suit today's communications.