This article was originally published by Forget the Box and can be read here.
There’s really no other way to put it; Canada Post is being sabotaged. It’s politically expedient for the Tories to do so as recently announced cutbacks to door-to-door mail delivery can be spun as a government effort to modernize an ineffective old crown corporation. Lisa Raitt, the minister responsible for Canada Post, has even gone as far as telling opposition MPs critical of the announced cuts that they need to ‘get with reality’ and then sarcastically welcomed honourable members ‘to the 21st century’.
The Tories are pitching this as a sensible method to cut costs and return Canada Post to profitability. They further argue that the elimination of mail carriers won’t have any dire effects on Canada Post’s customer service and that community mailboxes are already the norm in most of the country anyways. Further still, the head of Canada Post, a Tory appointee who scrapped previous revenue-generating schemes developed by his Liberal-appointed predecessor, has referred to market research of dubious quality to back up the decision.
The social-media surveys used to justify the government’s position excluded precisely the people who would interact with mail couriers the most. The data’s flawed – Canada Post’s express parcel delivery service is doing just fine. Moreover, the argument that community mailboxes are already the norm is heavily biased towards those living in small communities and rural areas. Of course door-to-door delivery isn’t practical when neighbours live more than a kilometre away from one another. Cities are a different story altogether. Mail couriers play an important social role in large urban areas. It’s not just outreach to seniors and shut-ins; home mail delivery puts a mass of proud government employees on our city streets throughout the day. Eyes and ears walking past your home while you’re off at work. Call it a kind of social security.
We should question the need of our government agencies and corporations from time to time, and the Conservative argument is an enticing one, no doubt, because it has the appearance of modernity, of cost-effective progress. I would argue it’s the Tory approach to nation-building, but rather than giving us something to work towards, the Harper administration is instead telling us what we no longer need or what appears to be impractical. The promise is paradoxical – economic growth by a thousand social cuts.
But here’s the problem. Cuts don’t lead to growth. Reducing government services serves no one better than before. And waste is almost exclusively gathered at the top, rather than the bottom, of these organizations. It’s not the thousands of unionized jobs that need to be eliminated, it’s corporate-level severance packages and executive compensation schemes for the all-too-often unimaginative and incompetent people chosen by equally unimaginative and incompetent government officials to run our government revenue generators and essential services.
The post office is an essential service, even if less mail is being delivered. If less mail is being delivered then perhaps we don’t need quite as many mail couriers, or perhaps they could work less, but eliminating all home mail delivery (and thousands of jobs) without any plan in place to replace them is so unbelievably careless and unnecessary it leads to believe, sincerely, that we are witnessing an act of sabotage.
Canada Post isn’t failing, it’s being set up to fail.
The purported reason for the cuts, that the post office it needs to be ‘returned’ to profitability is a bit of a stretch. It recorded 16 years of profitability before recording one of loss in 2011. The service could afford to cut overhead costs, but could further stand to develop new revenue generation streams. Again, it’s ironic that Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra once stated that his plan was to develop e-commerce solutions for small business as a new Canada Post business venture, yet scrapped a plan to re-develop postal banking in Canada. Many nations (including the UK, France, Germany, Japan, China, Brazil, Korea etc.) have postal banking services which can serve to generate revenue for the postal system, in addition to providing a kind of ‘no-frills’ banking service for people who, for whatever reason, don’t or can’t use private banking services. Crucially, postal banking has been used to promote savings among the poor. Instituting a postal banking scheme in this country would be immensely beneficial not only because it would enshrine access to ‘cheap’ banking as an essential service, but would likely further serve to put predatory pay-day loan operations out of business. Who knows, maybe it would serve to get the banks to lower their fees too. A little bit of competition is good for the economy, especially our banking sector.
There are other ways to make the post office more useful to the public and avert the potentially destabilizing effects of eliminating home delivery in urban areas. Why not partner with Service Canada to include passport services at post offices? Why not develop a scheme to share the costs of home delivery with the cities that need the service the most? If one province wants home delivery in its cities and another doesn’t, shouldn’t they each get a chance to negotiate with Canada Post one-on-one?
Unfortunately this isn’t part of the Tory strategy because it’s not congruent with their overall political beliefs. The Conservative Part of Canada and its forebears have followed a strict program designed to eliminate or transfer responsibility of the nation’s essential services, whether via a series of fatal cuts or through privatization. In their opinion government is completely incapable of running a for-profit company and that such crown corporations only serve to undermine the government’s efforts to eliminate debt and deficit. Thus, since the first efforts in this respect by the Mulroney administration, we’ve lost our national airline, our state oil company, our national aircraft manufacturers, our national railway, our uranium mines and have hacked away mercilessly at just about every other service provided by the federal government – including our military, despite all the rhetoric. In almost all cases taxpayer-funded state assets were sold off at a loss with no real return on investment. Worse still, we lost all the intellectual capital that went with it.
Today many of these former crowns continue to exist as private entities, but their current success would never have come about if it weren’t for the incredible investment made by so many Liberal governments of the last century. Though these firms continue to contribute to the Canadian economy, profits aren’t returned to the state. We’ve sold off the former assets of our state oil firm to foreign state oil firms, Canadian National Railways is now officially known as CN for marketing purposes in the United States and Air Canada has a near total monopoly on air travel in Canada. Privatization is always spun as being beneficial to the taxpayer, but winds up hitting the consumer especially hard. It astounds me how often Tories don’t realize taxpayers and consumers are all the same people.
Gutting the state’s ability to sustain essential services and operate an economic foundation of crown corporations has been Tory policy for a very long time, and it contrasts strongly with the economic theories and models put forth by both the NDP and federal Liberals for most of our post-Second World War history. The effects of this policy have only ever been negative. Vital jobs are lost, and the wealth generated by unionized pension plans disappears entirely as it’s not in the private sector’s interest (or ability) to provide anything as competitive in the long-term. Our oil industry isn’t as well regulated, accidents happen and profits go anywhere but here.
In many ways the greatest damage has already been done.
Perhaps this might explain the lack of public outrage at the proposed cuts. We’ve already lost so much of what we invested in, who cares about the post office? We’ve been conditioned into believing the government is incapable of successfully running a business, and yet our economy was considerably stronger, our dollar more valuable and we were far more politically sovereign when our government not only ran multiple, massive crown corporations, but planned and regulated the national economy.
On a closing note, I mentioned earlier that Canada Post provides an unintended social service in that letter carriers provide a kind of a ‘lifeline’ to people living in urban areas who may, for one reason or another, have limited access to the outside world. Letter carriers are responsible government employees with access to trucks and cell phones and they spend most of their time walking around quiet residential areas while residents are off at work. Their presence alone is enough to deter a thief from committing a ‘B&E’. If someone’s calling for help they’ll likely hear it. If they see smoke, they can put in an emergency call and prevent a whole house (or block) from going up in flames. And though the data isn’t available, I wonder how many lost dogs and cats (and even children) have been found by postal workers simply because they happen to be walking the streets of our neighbourhoods. It’s the kind of responsibility, of going the extra mile, that we associate with government employees. The private sector doesn’t have the same social responsibility. Consider the Lac Mégantic disaster (or any other recent derailment or pipeline explosion). There’s a reason this didn’t happen nearly as often (or as severely) back when pipelines and the railway was a strategic federal government interest. The Fed paid for inspections, the Fed organized and operated a better delivery system. Its employees were paid to make absolutely sure there would be no fuck-ups and we got precisely what we paid for. When privatized, the first cuts are always to safety standards and inspections. And when an accident happens, it is the taxpayers who must attend to the bill.
It’s not fair, it’s not right, and the Tories would like you to believe it helps the economy. The announced cuts to Canada Post are unnecessary and overkill considering the nature of the problem and are quite simply a transparent effort to eliminate public sector unions in a misguided sense of ‘getting even’ with people who generally don’t vote Tory. It’s sad, petty and juvenile, and for those reasons an excellent example of the character of our nation’s befuddled government.
You get what you pay for…