Privatisation Comes to a Blue Suburb

Since National came to power after the 2008 election, it has become increasingly clear that John Key's government, unduly influenced, aided, and abetted by the bantamweight ACT party, intends to cleave mindlessly to the ideology that essential government services and functions must be privatized.

Consider the 'partnership' (charter) schools and the many individual problems and messes we've heard about virtually as soon as they started opening in the wake of National's 2011 confidence and supply agreement with ACT. At a macro level, when special education and gifted student programs are desperate for funding, school pools are closing, school camps cancelled, and child poverty with its pernicious effect on educability is worsening, it is fundamentally unfair that charter school students get funded as much as 500% more than their public school cohort. And we don't even know if the charter schools could be doing a 500% better job than public schools, because Education Minister Parata quashed a plan to compare their performance.

At the micro level, in the National stronghold of the coastal suburbs of the Tamaki electorate anyway, the charter school argument doesn't seem to engage residents. After all, these are people with the means to send their children to exclusive private schools if they deem their local decile 10 public school to be somehow lacking.

Likewise was their outrage in the wake of revelations of prisoner abuse at Mt Eden Prison muted. While even the likes of Patrick Gower was expressing disgust at Serco's negligence, behind the gates of their expansive properties, whose value escalates with each passing month, these citizens would have been among those continuing to rate National's stewardship highly. A life of crime, after all, is something that befalls other, different people in other, different suburbs, and those people deserve the consequences of their life choices. Even when the reality of those suburbs is just two kilometers to the south to behold, it is Key who knows best, Key who gets the preferred Prime Minister tick, even when he makes theatre-of-the-absurd arguments that the Mt Eden situation, far from being an unprecedented fiasco, actually underscored the advantages of working with private sector providers. Key even said Serco could re-apply for the contract to run Mt Eden when it comes up for tender again in 2017.

So regardless of the consequences and evading both systemic accountability and deserved criticism from the very constituents whose opinion might matter, National's privatisation agenda marches on. However, it is possible their next target, while seemingly more modest than a school or a prison, is a lot closer to home for their well-heeled Tamaki constituents. How will these entitled residents reconcile their cognitive dissonance as the government and leaders they worship shut down their beloved St Heliers Post Shop, shunting some of its essential services to the Take Note shop a few doors down?

Tamaki MP Simon O'Connor certainly won't be leading the opposition to NZ Post's plans. He has been lobbying merely "to have the services remain" and considers Take Note's acquiescence "a positive result (from what could have happened!)" This comment seems very rich in light of the fact that NZ Post is contractually obliged to provide their essential services in a discrete number of locations.

The St Heliers Post Shop has been a distinctive part of village life for decades, a feature, along with the public library, distinguishing St Heliers from Kohimarama and Mission Bay. What sort of business would occupy the premises in its stead? Yet another overpriced cafe with mediocre fare? Or is the rumour true, that the landlords hope to raze the property and erect a three-story monstrosity?

NZ Post is a state-owned enterprise. Presumably the distinction between that status and any other ordinary business is that the needs of the population it serves should be weighted at least as heavily as profit motive in the formulation of its business model. NZ Post's after tax profit of $110 million for 2013/14 suggests it's not circling the drain just yet. It may need to change to survive the times, but foisting its duties on Take Note and the like is a risky and unproven gambit. How will Take Note be accountable to the public if it does a bad job? What if it goes belly up or becomes otherwise unable to continue providing service?

The post shop is scheduled to close in late June. It will be interesting to see if the people of St Heliers will now come together to insist that the state remain a meaningful part of this enterprise.

Update: my group Save Our St Heliers Post Shop collected 500 signatures from mostly supportive passersby outside the St Heliers library the weekend of January 23-24. Ultimately we collected just over 2200 but were denied our request to turn these over to Post officials in person.


An American expat living in Auckland since 2000, Julia Schiller is a graduate of Washington University in St Louis, a former ESOL teacher, a Labour Party volunteer, and a self-employed entrepreneur.