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Is it necessary for Canada Post to cut all home delivery of mail in Canada?
The Harper Conservatives think so.
They accept the argument that Canadians are using the mail service less and less and that home delivery will soon become an unaffordable luxury.
Canada Post is a Crown Corporation, and, as such, makes its own management decisions. It is not controlled, on a day-to-day operational basis, by the government of the day.
Still, Canada Post management is politically canny enough to know that if it were to announce major service cuts and price increases it would be best to do so at a time when Parliament was not sitting, and when Canadians were busy with other matters -- such as holiday preparations.
That’s why the announcement to phase out all home delivery came in mid December. It was a low-ball, stealth strategy.
It did not quite work, however.
This writer, travelling in North Africa at the time, saw Canada Post’s announcement reported prominently on the world news.
The idea of a wealthy G7 nation cutting such a basic service -- something no other G7 country has done -- seemed almost beyond belief to international news services.
Many in Canada were no less shocked.
NDP forces a debate and a recorded vote in the House
On Tuesday, on Parliament’s second day back from its winter break, the NDP tried to get the House of Commons to take a stand.
The Party introduced an Opposition day motion calling on Canada Post to reverse its decision.
The third party Liberals supported the motion; but the Conservative majority enthusiastically voted it down.
Still, it was an opportunity -- probably the only opportunity -- for Parliament to discuss a matter that touches millions of Canadians directly. This issue is about jobs, of course; but it is about a lot more than a few thousand unionized positions.
During Tuesday’s debate, many Members of Parliament talked about the impact of the proposed cuts on their constituents, especially the elderly and disabled.
Toronto NDP member Craig Scott publicly shared what many of his constituents have told him.
Here is some of what they had to say:
"I get my disability cheque and drug card via regular mail every month along with everything else. I can't just use my computer for my correspondence; I'm too poor to afford one." A.V. in the Leslieville neighbourhood.
"Many elderly people do not have the Internet. We are not all wired. A letter is often very welcome, as are cards, if not bills. Perhaps raising corporate taxes would pay for the post!" Carol in East York.
"Postal delivery service is vital to seniors and those individuals who are housebound. For me, I'm glad to see our mail man/woman. It's a joy to receive correspondence even if it's a bill ... As well, you provide good work which is quickly disappearing from Canada." Lucy in the Monarch Park neighbourhood.
"For seniors like me, with osteoporosis, the statement that seniors would welcome the opportunity to get out by going to pick up the mail is insulting beyond belief. Seniors do not need orders from Ottawa to go outside for exercise." John from South Riverdale.
"Canada's postal service is more than a business. It is part of the quality of choices re: how Canadians communicate with each other. Of course, in this digital age, it has to change. Change -- not disappear!" Leonard at Gerrard/Greenwood.
"Being both seniors ourselves and starting to have mobility issues, we heavily rely on door-to-door mail delivery. Instead of cutting postal services, expand its services." Romeo and Lunesa from East York.
A postal bank in Canada?
One of those possible "service expansions" would be for Canada Post to get into the banking business.
Before anyone sniggers at the idea that a publicly owned entity could enter the competitive field of financial services, without losing its shirt -- and millions of taxpayer dollars -- consider the fact that Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Switzerland and New Zealand all have very successful postal banks.
Last October, researcher John Anderson did a study of postal banking for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). He concluded that a Canada Post bank could not only provide services to millions of Canadians who are ill-served currently, it would be highly profitable.
A number of NDP MPs, including Nova Scotia’s Robert Chisholm, invoked postal banking as the sort of option Canada Post should be considering rather than curtailing basic services.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair hastened to tell reporters that such a bank is not currently Party policy.
It seems the Opposition MPs raised the postal banking idea merely to suggest that Canada Post has not done its due diligence. The Crown Corporation, they argue, has not adequately examined what others nations -- especially other G7 countries -- have done to keep their postal services vital and in the black.
Looking for figures...
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister responsible for Canada Post, Ontario Conservative Jeff Watson, jumped on the postal banking idea, however, and tried to use it to corner his NDP counterpart.
Did the Opposition Member have facts and figures to back up the idea of a postal bank, such as the cost of initial capitalization? Watson wanted to know.
The NDP’s Chisholm demurred.
He suggested that a Parliamentary Secretary ought to have facts and figures of his own on the departments and agencies for which he is responsible, and did not get into a numbers game.
Had Chisholm or anyone else on the Opposition benches wanted to quote figures, though, they could have cited the CCPA study.
In that paper, John Anderson shows that, for the six countries mentioned above, the postal banking service accounts for a significant portion of the post office’s sales or profits in each case.
That portion ranges from 25 per cent of sales in the case of Great Britain to a whopping 67, 70 and 71 per cent of post office profits for Italy, Switzerland and New Zealand respectively.
And so postal banking might not be such a wooly idea after all.
Another point many opposition MPs made during the debate is that Canada Post is, in fact, currently quite profitable. It has seen profits in all of the past ten years, except for 2011 when its workers were locked out.
Canada Post is not in desperate financial straits, and does not have to launch the lifeboats just yet.
It has time to consider all sorts of practical and reasonable options; it does not have no other choice than to leap on the service-cut bandwagon.
Expanding into new and potentially profitable activities, such as banking, could be the sort of bold and innovative move that would help Canada Post not only survive, but thrive, without cutting basic services.
The question is: do the Conservatives want to cut back public services such as Canada Post only for practical and managerial reasons, or is there ideology behind the decision?
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