Following is an account of the Post Office issue presented by John Brisbin. It contains views and language that are his own. The intent is to provide the community with an overview of the matter, and to provide public access to the communications that JAMARR advanced on behalf of the community.
The Mount Molloy Post Office is a historical building located on the main street in the heart of the village. The building is a typical Queenslander design which has accommodated various uses and businesses over the years, but the primary function has always been the Post Office.
The facility has been owned and managed by some of the region’s most dedicated individuals. A reliable postal service has been at the heart of many small rural communities in Australia, with legendary figures going beyond the call of duty to make sure the community stays connected and supported. Distances between cities are still measured in relation to the GPO. Postal service is seen by many as a basic function of civil society.
When Lorne Cubit took over the postal license decades ago, it was a serious commitment. There was a reciprocity between the postmaster and the community. The Postmaster was a respected member of the community.
Lorne rebuilt the Mount Molloy Post Office with a great deal of passion, energy, and imagination. He saw it as a jewel in the heart of the community, a place where people would naturally gather, exchange the news, make arrangements, and conduct their business.
He created a beautiful garden and set up a public rest shelter so folks would be able to take a break from their work and reflect on matters with their neighbors. The Post Office was a great contribution to the community.
And of course, times have changed.
With the advent of the internet, email and online banking eroded a major portion of the traditional need for a post office.
With the advent of neo-liberal politics, the rage to corporatise government and sell off assets to private investors swept AusPost out of the public’s hands and into the brave new world of user-pays.
In the Hawke era AusPost was corporatised. It was no longer a public-good institution…it was a business. Over the ensuing years AusPost has been spurred relentlessly to transform itself into a lean, mean, profit-making machine.
And that’s the AusPost that rolled into Mount Molloy in 2019.
At noon on Friday 22 February AusPost officers showed up, asked people to leave, and closed the facility. Doors were locked. Notices were distributed informing people that mail services were no longer available at this location and that alternative arrangements had been made to continue services at the National Hotel.
For most of us, this was the first we knew of the trouble. But the trouble had been brewing for quite a while.
In 2011, with retirement approaching, Lorne had decided to step back from the business. He sold the building to his daughter and sold the postal business to a friend. This arrangement was made with full legal review, with the knowledge of AusPost, and with the best of intentions. Things went well enough at first, but over the years the new Post Mistress wore down. She was struggling.
AusPost became aware of issues and tried to work with her to bring the business back on an even keel. This was not successful, and eventually AusPost decided to act. They wanted to cancel the existing postal license, but they wanted to continue providing postal service to the community.
In January of 2019 they started a process to find alternative arrangements. Due to the sensitive nature of the issues, they decided to not advertise the situation. They simply made a pragmatic decision and expected the community to come along.
When people realised that their Post Office had been closed they were alarmed and confused.
When they heard that AusPost did not intend to re-open services at the Post Office, many were furious.
Shifting the Post Office in a little village is a big deal. And who’s idea was it to go into the TopShop instead of trying to find a way to keep the historic Post Office in service? The anger was particularly personal since the new TopShop arrangements involved dismissing the incumbent shopkeeper on short notice.
Rumours ran wild. Hurtful comments were made. People objected to going through the pub to get their mail. The hours were inconvenient. Mail was handled improperly. The community found itself in a confused uproar and AusPost did very little to improve matters.
Gordon Rasmussen organised a petition that quickly gathered over 200 signatures urging AusPost to re-open services in the Post Office (Gordon reports that people continue to sign the petition and that signatures are currently up to over 800!).
Letters were written by Hon Bob Katter and by candidate for Kennedy, Brett McGuire, who also came to talk with concerned locals.
(Locals gathered at the historic Post Office to figure out a plan)
Through the leadership of Councillor Nipper Brown, Mareeba Shire Council passed a letter of support for the community’s demand to return the Post Office to service. Articles appeared in the paper and the commentary ran hot on Facebook.
What exactly had happened and what was the plan now?
As the picture became clear, people realised that AusPost only had one main justification for pushing the postal service into the TopShop. It was a commercial reality. In today’s world a postal agency needs to be “conjoined” (connected) with another business in order to be a going concern. According to the AusPost experts, standalone postal agencies are just not viable.
When considering what to do with Mount Molloy, AusPost decided that the agency had to be combined with a suitable business. They looked up and down the street and decided that the TopShop was the only suitable business in town. They proceeded to make a private arrangement with the Publican, Shane McElligott and onward to his sister, Narelle, to take over the postal agency as part of their plan to lease the TopShop. This was facilitated by the TopShop owner, Bruce Ferguson, who saw an opportunity to improve the business value of his property.
By their own calculations, neither Bruce nor Narelle needed the postal agency in order to make the TopShop viable. Individually, Bruce, Narelle and Shane each had the power to walk away from the “deal”. Any of them could have put events onto a different track. But with a “golden opportunity” being served up on a platter by AusPost, it would be a rare person who would turn away and choose community interest over personal gain.
The business logic was clear, and the TopShop+Postal Agency combo suited AusPosts’ pre-conceived requirements, so the scheme went forward on a commercial basis with no public discussion whatsoever.
Let’s be clear: Bruce was entitled to redevelop his property. Shane was entitled to expand his family’s business network. Narelle was entitled to improve her new shop. And AusPost was entitled to feel proud that they maintained postal services in Mount Molloy.
With all this entitlement going around, the one thing that got left behind was common decency.
The essence of community is mutual respect. Pausing in one’s own affairs to have some regard for the neighbors. Behaving like we all share some common interest, and acting accordingly. In a small community, collaboration is the right approach virtually all of the time.
But this was put to one side while the logic of profit made the decisions. Since all of the discussions took place under the wraps of “commercial privilege”, everyone else was simply locked out. Private interests trumped the common good.
What account was taken of the emotional and physical disruption suffered by the community? What consideration was given to the significantly lowered safety of parking and access? What is the monetary value of goodwill and honesty? The list of questions goes on and on…
Aside from being a very poor corporate citizen, AusPost, was also not very clever on a purely business level.
Although the TopShop+Postal Agency concept looks viable on paper, AusPost didn’t ask for any alternatives…and there could have been some real winners.
The excellent location, access, and reputation of the Post Office on Main St makes it a superb spot for a business. There would have been a range of alternative proposals that were much smarter and more appealing to the community. Since AusPost did not invite alternative proposals they did not get the benefit of the entrepreneurs and developers in this region who were looking for such an opportunity.
And since the postal agency decision was made without any form of tender or competitive process, the whole affair ended up looking very much like an “inside job”. It had the appearance of an abuse of power by the regional AusPost managers and a couple of self-interested locals who helped enable the process.
Clearly there is no evidence of criminal behaviour on anyone’s part. But the feckless, tone-deaf manner in which AusPost handled this affair is a shocking disappointment to virtually everyone.
This had all the makings of a great corporate relations success story for AusPost, if only they had discovered the agility and imagination to take a tough situation and turn it into a great opportunity for the whole community. Sadly, despite their rhetoric and impressive “community obligation” commitment, they fell well short of the mark in Mount Molloy.
Looking at the situation now, in June 2019, we can see that the scars are still raw, but healing is happening.
The much-beloved Phil is taking a rest and looking for new pleasures. The new-look TopShop is open for business. Narelle and her husband are working long hours to make their business a success. That will be a good thing for the village.
The TopShop postal agency provides people with an option so they don’t have to go to Mareeba or Mossman for mail. That’s a good thing.
— Within the next few months a terrific new tenant takes over the historic Post Office and sets up a viable business that keeps people coming to the facility and appreciating the lovely environment and community spirit of that location;
— Over the next couple of years Narelle’s TopShop business becomes so successful that by mid 2021 she no longer needs the postal agency to boost her profits;
— In Dec 2021, after a very competitive process, AusPost announces that the permanent postal agency has been awarded and services will re-open in the historic Post Office, supported by the conjoined business already operating there;
— By June 2022 the village once again has a whole street full of profitable, contented business people who are committed to the spirit of community that benefits us all.
That’s one vision.
Perhaps we can be more active participants in what happens next, now that we can see what’s at stake.
Following are a number of communications that were exchanged by JAMARR on behalf of the community. They are provided here as a matter of record and reference.