Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fee For Service… What Service?

It might be a coincidence, but on the same day that Telstra announced that it would introduce a $2.20 fee for customers who choose to pay their bill in person the company’s share price went up. Perhaps the shareholders were rubbing their hands together in glee at the prospect of adding, according to some reports, “several hundreds of millions of dollars” to the bottom line. Presumably, much of that sum is expected to come from saving on the cost of employing staff to work behind the counter as more customers are pushed into paying online to avoid the fee. Some of it no doubt will come from the fee itself as some people stubbornly cling to the basic human right to actually pay cash for the goods and services they purchase.

Quite rightly, Telstra points out that they are simply falling into line with what has become accepted industry practice, and that other companies have been charging such fees for some time. But of course, that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. It doesn’t make it fair and it doesn’t make it right. Quite the opposite. It is just one more nail in the coffin of a free society where citizens are forced to be consumers and then have their money cunningly extracted from their pockets by an ever increasing array of fees, charges, levies, taxes and tolls, just for going about their daily existence.

As I understand it cash is still considered to be legal tender, good for payment of all debts within the borders of this great commonwealth, by decree and guarantee of the government we have elected to protect our interests. If I wish to purchase any goods or services from you, and the price is agreed, then I have the fundamental right to pay you in cash and consider the debt settled. I certainly do not accept the notion that I should be charged an additional fee for the privilege of paying you what I owe. It is the long standing principle in business that the cost of receiving payment for goods and services sold is an overhead of the business.

Even the economic rationalists who harp on about a “user pays” approach have missed the point that in this case it is the business who is the “user” of whatever method is employed to receive payments from customers. If I go to a shoe shop to buy a pair of shoes, I pay whatever the price on the sticker on the box says, minus any discount I can negotiate through the employment of charm and persuasion. I do not pay an additional fee for the cardboard box which contains the shoes. I do not pay an additional fee for making an over the counter purchase. I do not pay an additional fee for the privilege of speaking with the shoe sales person. I do not pay an additional fee for standing inside the shop where the shoes are sold. All of those things are overheads, and are the responsibility of the business which id the “user” of those overheads.

Of course, it’s not just Telstra. I have made the same arguments over bank fees and charges for years. And I also feel the same way about electronic tolling. Putting aside the issue of the need to actually pay tolls in the first place, which in itself is an affront to liberty and a blatant extortion of people who have already paid their taxes and registration, electronic tolling is also another elaborate method to extract more money form the pockets of everyday people who are already struggling to survive. I should have the right to show up at your toll road or bridge or tunnel and say “Right, here I am, I want to use your rod and here’s my cash.” But instead I have to go to all the time and trouble to obtain an electronic device, pay for it, deposit money into an account, and keep that account above a certain balance even though I might have more urgent need for the money elsewhere.

Perhaps I am in the minority on this. Perhaps most people are happy to be penalized for paying cash, which supposed to be legal tender. Perhaps most people think E-tags are a good thing because you don’t have to slow down on the bridge. But if you stop and think about it, surely it is obvious that bit by bit, cent by cent, simple rights and freedoms are being taken away in the name of efficiency and a better way. My question is more efficient for whom? Better for whom? The people paying for it? Or the people collecting the money?

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