Will the Victorian and Queensland Labor governments humiliate themselves further by caving into recalcitrant Uber?

We live in a country where the political establishment is so obsessed with protecting its sovereign borders that it has established off-shore concentration camps for interlopers and destroyed its citizenry’s civil rights to protect us against terrorism, but when a multi-billion dollar foreign corporate terrorist like Uber sets up shop here in defiance of our laws, it is lauded for its agility, innovation and creativity. It’s farcical, humiliating and shameful.

by Peer Lindholdt

The Country Liberal government of the Northern Territory is the only government in Australia to have banned Uber, however it came with a warning to the taxi industry: lift your game or else.

The NT deregulated its taxi industry 20 years ago. It was such a disaster, safety and service-wise, it reregulated it five years later. It learned a valuable lesson then, which it evidently hasn’t forgotten.

Uber said it would persist with efforts to establish itself legally in the NT and at this stage is not looking at moving into the market without the Government’s consent, as it has done in other jurisdictions.

Does that mean it has greater respect for the NT government than for the governments of NSW, Victoria, Queensland and WA? Hardly, it just means that the Darwin market is too small to have a shit-fight over. The same applies to Tasmania and South Australia. Uber didn’t bother to launch UberX there either until they had legalised ridesharing.

The ACT is a special case. The ACT was very important to Uber, as Canberra is full of federal politicians and bureaucrats and large government departments already sold on the so-called ‘sharing economy’. As they spend millions on taxis and hire cars annually – saving 30% to 60% by using ‘ridesharing’ they could bring the Australian budget back in surplus in no time - and at the same time show the world how progressive we are. Consequently, the Liberal government of the ACT became the first in the country to legalise UberX (October 2015). How the 307 taxis and 38 hire cars that were operating there at the time are faring now eight months later I don’t yet know, but one would expect not too well.

As readers will know, the NSW government legalised ridesharing in December last year, however, its Point-to-Point Transport (Taxis and Hire Vehicles) Bill 2016 wasn’t presented to parliament until this month. It was passed without amendments in both houses. However, it won’t become law until the government has finalised the P2P Transport Regulations that need to accompany it and that is likely to take at least six months. In the meantime P2P transport in NSW will be left in complete chaos and anarchy.

However, in a shock to the system, and no doubt Uber, the Baird government announced it would set up a parliamentary committee to look into workplace arrangements in the point-to-point transport industry. It will begin hearings next month into matters such as pay and conditions for drivers, as well as customer service and passenger and driver safety, it was reported. Quite a surprise from a Liberal government.

On 1 July ridesharing officially becomes legal in Western Australia and South Australia. That leaves only Victoria and Queensland still standing, both Labor states. So will they or won’t they legalise ridesharing? Of course they will, but it is likely to be in a way that will not suit Uber. Unlike NSW and WA whose ruling political class is true-blue neo-liberal and therefore quite impressed by Uber’s antisocial antics, its standing up to authority, its gutter tactics and most of all, its power from wealth. I truly believe the Labor Governments of Victoria and Queensland have had about enough of Uber’s recalcitrant, disrespectful and arrogant behaviour. Then, I once believed in Santa.

Victoria has a unique problem in legalising ‘ridesharing’. Let’s call it the Fels legacy. In case you have forgotten, Professor Allan Fels was the bloke hired in 2011 to reform the state’s P2P transport and he did. He is now a board member on Uber’s Global Advisory Board in San Francisco. No joke.

The Andrews government only last year finished a three-year marathon to implement the 130 Fels reforms to its taxi and hire car industries (P2P transport), things like the mandatory Melbourne Knowledge test, reducing the government’s annual unrestricted taxi licence lease fees by 30% from whatever to a set $22.500 + CPI, which saw perpetual plates drop in value from $450,000 to $300,000 (they have dropped to $150,000 since UberX). He also introduced new perpetual government-issued hire car licences at the set price of $40,000, a reduction in the market rate of $20,000.

As a matter of interest I asked Aaron de Rozario, CEO of the TSC (Victorian Taxi Services Commission), how many new hire car plates had been sold since the $40,000 plates became available. His answer was 186. That’s $7.44 million in government revenue.

About taxi licences he told me that there were 4,335 taxis operating in the metropolitan zone as at March 2012. As at April 2016, that had grown to 4,710. This represents an increase of 375, however, in that time frame at total of 919 plates were issued but 539 were handed back. That suggests to me that around 539 new aspirational, entrepreneurial single cab driver-operators have gone broke, no doubt in large part due to the government’s failure to stop UberX.

Should the Victorian Government decide to legalise ridesharing, perpetual hire car and taxi plates will become worthless overnight. I feel a substantial class action coming on.

That aside, it also has a major ideological dilemma. In 2007 federal Labor won government largely on an anti-WorkChoices platform. Uber’s business model is WorkChoices on steroids, which I suspect is why the Liberal state governments have embraced it with such enthusiasm. Like a cancer Uber’s rideshare model will fester and grow until it consumes the union movement and renders the Fair Work Commission even more toothless than it already is. UberX is about a lot more than just the industrial rights of P2P transport drivers.

Uber to finally get the green light in Victoria”, screamed a headline in the Age newspaper (22 June) following a deal between Australian Sex Party leader Fiona Patten and Transport Minister Jacinta Allen.

Ms Patten MP, frustrated, she said, by the government’s procrastination, had introduced a private member’s bill in the upper house to legalise ‘ridesharing’. However, although it had had its second reading in parliament and was set down for debate for 15 June, it never went to a vote thanks to Ms Allen’s intervention.

Under the deal, the Age claimed, Ms Patten’s bill will be used as the foundation for regulation, with assurances given to the minor party that a “framework” will be tabled after the winter break. Parliament rose last Thursday (23 June) and does not return until August 16.

Part 3 of the Bill excludes ridesharing vehicles from the definition of commercial passenger vehicles in the Transport (Compliance and Miscellaneous) Act 1983.

Had the Bill not been accredited to Ms Patten one might have thought it had be written by Uber’s lawyers.

A “framework” is not a bill. It will be some time before ridesharing will become legal in Victoria. In the meantime, having closed the regulatory loopholes, which enabled UberX driver Nathan Brenner win an appeal against a $900 fine for operating a hire car without accreditation, the TSC will have plenty of time to enforce its newfound powers. One can only hope it will do so with considerable enthusiasm and diligence.

The Queensland parliament too has had to deal with a private member’s bill on ridesharing, famously known as the Katter Bill, as it was introduced on behalf of Katter’s Australia Party by Rob Katter MP (son of Bob). Had it been passed without amendments it would have killed UberX stone dead in Queensland. It included a provision for the issuing of demerit points to drivers caught operating as a hire car without hire car driver accreditation and or a hire car licence. Unfortunately that part was removed, however there was bipartisan support for increasing fines for UberX drivers from $1,413 to $2,356 and for illegal administrators to be fined up to $23,560. The amended bill passed both houses in May. Since then the government has reportedly issued around $800,000 in fines to UberX drivers. Amazingly, no fines have been issued to the ringleaders (Uber execs).

Next month a government task force review of taxi, limousine and rideshare services in the state, commenced in October last year and chaired by Jim Varghese, a public service veteran now in private business, will be released. However, although the deadline for submissions has only just closed, he has already revealed to the media that his recommendations include four options – 1. ban ridesharing completely. 2. allow it to operate in southeast Queensland but nowhere else. 3. issue special rideshare licences and let them operate everywhere while taxis retain the monopoly on rank and hail. 4. deregulate all fares, place no restrictions on ranks or hail and replace licence categories by a small fee. Mr Varghese told the Brisbane Times that he already knew which option he prefers and would present it to the government next month.

Taxi Council Queensland (TCQ) has questioned the credibility of the review following the above public comments by Mr Varghese.

TCQ CEO Benjamin Wash said, with submissions only closing a week ago, his comments that there are already preferred options make the entire review process look farcical.

I’ll hazard a guess that Mr Varghese’s preference is option 3 as it corresponds with the decisions already made in the ACT, NSW, WA and SA. Giving taxis the monopoly on rank and hail means that taxi licences will still retain some value however small, which makes it harder for owners to sue for compensation. In the two years since UberX launched in Queensland, the value of taxi licences have already dropped by an average of between $200,000 and $300,000 depending on location.

The issue of workplace relations in an uberized world was not part of the review’s terms of reference. It should have been for the same reasons it should in Victoria. Uber’s treatment of its drivers is WorkChoices on steroids. •

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OZ Cabbie February 2017

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