Rod was successful in passing a motion for the The Economy and Infrastructure Committee to:
Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (11:53): I move:
That this house requires the Economy and Infrastructure Committee to inquire into, consider and report, by no later than Friday, 18 February 2022, on the safety standards for members of the public that travel on the multipurpose taxi program (MPTP), including but not limited to:
(1) a review of the minimum safety requirements for vehicles operating within the MPTP scheme;
(2) the consideration of a mandatory maximum fare rate across all MPTP work;
(3) an examination of how rorting and exploitation of vulnerable users will be prevented;
(4) an assessment of the financial impacts to services within the broader disability sector and how this will be managed;
(5) an examination of pathways for the industry to absorb major change post COVID-19; and
(6) ensuring proper probity and good governance are applied following careful consideration and reporting of all possible ramifications of consultations with both industry and disability stakeholders.
This relates to the announcement by Commercial Passenger Vehicles Victoria (CPVV) on 15 January this year regarding the decision to expand the government-subsidised multipurpose taxi program to include Uber services. The multipurpose taxi program scheme supports the transport needs for people with severe and permanent disability by offering subsidised commercial vehicle fares for eligible members, covering 50 per cent of the cost of the trip up to $60. The scheme is entirely government funded at a cost to the taxpayer of more than $70 million annually. Until recently the subsidy was only payable on trips conducted in a taxi.
While I believe that all consumers should have a choice, and this includes those with a disability, this special cohort needs to be protected. It is my firm belief the decision to allow Uber as they currently operate to service work under the multipurpose taxi program puts the rights, welfare and security of our most vulnerable citizens at risk. The consequences of this decision also threaten the viability of specialised disability transport services across the state, which will impact most disadvantaged people in wheelchairs.
I seek today the support of this house to put an immediate halt to this decision until the matter is further reviewed and openly debated, in the interest of public safety, and the survival of specialised transport services in the broader disability sector is considered.
There are a number of concerns with this decision. The first of many relates to the safety of our most vulnerable citizens. Up until now taxis have serviced the transport needs of the aged, the incapacitated and the disabled through the multipurpose taxi scheme. But unlike taxis, Uber vehicles do not have fixed tamper-proof cameras or fixed in-vehicle GPS tracking devices to ensure passenger safety. We hear time and again that Uber drivers have taken advantage of vulnerable passengers simply by turning off the app on their phones. In the past week we have had two instances of sexual assault by Uber drivers reported in the Melbourne media. Last year an Uber driver was jailed for almost six years for raping a drunk passenger he took on a detour back to his home. Just recently there has been the case of an Uber driver in Brisbane who raped a 17-year-old passenger. These incidents are reprehensible, and I am relieved that these drivers were successfully brought to justice. However, just consider for a moment what recourse a disabled passenger might have without the evidence provided from a tamper-proof camera and GPS tracking to ensure successful prosecution against any wrongdoing. The safety of our most vulnerable citizens should be paramount when authorising who is available to provide them with transport services and under what conditions.
If the multipurpose taxi program is to be expanded to include other services, then it should be mandatory for these vehicles to be fitted with audio and visual cameras and fixed GPS tracking to reduce the likelihood of predatory behaviour and, more importantly, to provide evidence needed to support any claim of wrongdoing. There is a reason we put cameras in taxis all those years ago—because of the need—and I can tell you people have not got any better. We know when we put cameras in the cars that predatory behaviour is reduced. This should be a no-brainer.
Providing choice equity to all consumers is not a cause for celebration alone. We must set the standard for the services allowed to be included in a government-subsidised program, and it should not be determined by a bunch of shiny suits in Silicon Valley. Added to this, I put the question to you: should we allow a corporate entity that shows complete disregard for our legal process by hindering progress to hold positions of trust in the transport of our most vulnerable citizens? There have been numerous cases to date where police have been called in to investigate potential criminal activity by an Uber service. Rather than the local arm of the Uber business fully cooperating with police in such matters, Uber chooses to obstruct the course of justice by referring all queries and warrants to Uber’s offshore offices. This increases the workload and the cost of police investigation and renders many cases not worth the follow-up. Is that the sort of behaviour we will be up against if there is any wrongdoing against a vulnerable passenger?
Then there are the underhanded tactics used by Uber to dupe customers into thinking it is cheaper than a taxi ride. In September 2019 A Current Affair outed Uber for quoting comparative taxi fares at amounts far higher than they would normally be outside of the Uber app. I find it incredible that this level of dishonesty is allowed to occur. Consider how a passenger who may not have the capacity always to navigate these decisions would react when confronted with fake and misleading price comparisons. We must protect our vulnerable citizens from such blatant deception. As well as this, we then have the issue of surge pricing. This will leave many disadvantaged people paying more and will expose the scheme’s taxpayer funding to unnecessary expenses. All multipurpose taxi program work should be capped at a maximum regulated fare rate, which taxis are, but for some reason Uber seems to be able to get away with this. This is not unreasonable, and it is taxpayers money after all.
The changes to the multipurpose taxi program scheme to include Uber have also opened up the potential for major rorting and for vulnerable people to be taken advantage of. It is a requirement that the multipurpose taxi program card holder is present in the vehicle during a trip in order to legitimately claim the travel subsidy through the program. When using taxis, multipurpose taxi program card holders are required to present their cards to the driver on the commencement of each trip and to process the subsidy payment on conclusion. However, when using the Uber app, cardholders are only required to enter their card details once when setting up the Uber account and the information is saved for all future trips.
Rod was successful raising a motion regarding safety in the Multi-Purpose Taxi Program.
Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (14:04): I will just recap where I was. When using the Uber app, cardholders are only required to enter their card details once when setting up their Uber account and the information is saved there for all future trips. It is not uncommon for people other than the account holder to make bookings through someone else’s Uber account. It must be obvious to everyone how easily public funds might be misused, as well as introducing potential for vulnerable multipurpose taxi program (MPTP) participants to be exploited. I am yet to hear from the industry regulator how this will be addressed.
I also have concerns about how public funds are used. How do we as a nation and as a government reconcile with the decision to allow taxpayer-funded schemes to support offshore operators of a multinational corporate giant that does not pay taxes locally? Are we endorsing the use of taxpayer dollars to subsidise travel costs charged by Uber, which skims 30 per cent off every fare in commissions and then swiftly channels these funds offshore in tax-dodging operations?
I seriously question the integrity of the taxpayer-funded subsidy program, which chooses to support this sort of corporate behaviour rather than ensuring that the taxpayer dollars support the local economy. This is more relevant in today’s world than ever before. The multipurpose taxi program scheme costs the taxpayer upwards of $70 million annually. What this means is that $1 in every $3 is going to end up in the pockets of those billionaire shareholders in Silicon Valley. It is outrageous that this money is not going to stay here, supporting our small businesses and our economy.
Uber has been given the green light to do this work, while cherrypicking in the disability sector, at the expense of those who are heavily invested through the operation of the wheelchair-accessible vehicle scheme. The consequences of this decision by Commercial Passenger Vehicles Victoria (CPVV) will see WAV services decline, which will impact on those severely disabled passengers who use WAVs as their sole mode of transport.
The impact of the expansion of the multipurpose taxi program to include Uber services must be considered across the entire disability sector, including wheelchair and other special need users, so they get the balance right. To date, no consideration has been given to this matter. It costs $90 000 to put a wheelchair capable taxi on the road and many thousands of dollars a year to keep it there. It is a specialist area requiring detailed driver training and ongoing compliance costs. The deal with Uber means that for many operators this investment will no longer be viable, forcing them off the road and leaving wheelchair users on the curb. In some country areas that also means wiping out the regulated taxi service, leaving communities stranded. For many regional taxi services the multipurpose taxi program work is the backbone of the business, accounting for up to 50 per cent of all trips conducted.
With the decision to expand the multipurpose taxi program scheme to include Uber, it will reduce revenue, and the increased competition for the MPTP work will impact the delivery of WAV services. This is not debatable. The sheer commercial investment for specialised wheelchair-accessible vehicles and associated operating costs sees WAV services often run at a loss. The financial viability of offering WAVs is only possible through regular sedan work in other sections of the business, which cross-subsidises this specialised area of transport. The potential reduction of multipurpose taxi program work and associated revenue across the fleet will leave in question for many operators the commercial viability of offering WAV services. Wheelchair users will be impacted should networks choose to discontinue those services. This is a critical point requiring urgent consideration.
Uber’s business model does not include investment in vehicles and relies on a transient and casual workforce to provide their own cars. Uber is simply not interested in providing services to wheelchair users, and the financial investment required to put a WAV on the road makes the proposition unviable for their driver partners. Should we allow Uber access to a government-subsidised program without them first displaying a tangible commitment to providing services across the entire disability sector?
In 2020, when the Victorian government designed the $22 million COVID-19 industry support package for the commercial passenger vehicle industry, it did so with the needs of wheelchair users at the forefront of consideration. The subsidy provided to booking service providers to ensure that they were able to continue operating services for our most vulnerable and needy citizens were exclusive to BSPs who also operated wheelchair-accessible vehicles. We were heading in a direction where we were not going to have wheelchair vehicles available for those who needed them, and I thank the government for getting that money up. This ensured that those passengers who have no other means of transportation were not left stranded during this pandemic.
Now, the decision to expand the multipurpose taxi program scheme to services provided by Uber will bury the same BSPs we have just saved from collapse. This is a paradox. The lifeline that was extended to those businesses by the government has now been sabotaged by the industry regulator. It makes no sense. This will have a devastating consequence that will seriously jeopardise the commercial viability of offering WAV services and will leave stranded our most needy transport users. Parliament must intervene to demand an impact assessment on WAV services delivery and other unintended consequences should this decision proceed.
The CPVV has allowed Uber to do the multipurpose taxi work as a result of a trial that was conducted with Uber in the Geelong area to service passengers in the disability sector. This trial was conducted at the height of the pandemic lockdown, between 22 March and 31 May of last year, and covered only 170 trips. All of this was when 90 per cent of the vehicles in the commercial passenger vehicle industry were parked and the number of passenger trips was markedly reduced. The trial has been hailed a success by those with a vested interest, but it is questionable how that data collected under these extreme and atypical circumstances could in any way really reflect the normal operating conditions, particularly with such a small sample size. The trial was a sham and simply lacked integrity. It casts significant doubt over the merit of conclusions drawn and raises questions whether proper due diligence and risk assessments were conducted. Other than saying the trial was a success, the CPVV has not shared any supporting details or reports of the outcomes of those findings. It is imperative that the trial results are released, along with the associated risk and financial impact assessments for industry-wide consideration.
We are in the middle of a 100-year pandemic, and the taxi industry has thousands of vehicles sitting in driveways around Victoria with insufficient work. Many family operators have been surviving on JobKeeper and JobSeeker, which are now coming to an end. Many of them are non-employing sole traders who did not qualify for any additional business support from the Andrews government through this pandemic. The industry is still operating at a little over half pace. There are 10 500 fully compliant taxi vehicles capable of doing multipurpose taxi work, with fixed cameras, with GPS tracking and with appropriate signage. What is being proposed is to bring in the entire, mostly part-time, Uber fleet of more than 70 000 vehicles to compete for the few jobs that are out there.
Given the current commercial environment, the decision by the CPVV will only serve to destabilise the industry when it is at its most vulnerable. Taxi operators are at breaking point. There could be no legitimate justification that would suffice to offset the damage that will be caused by introducing further competition into an already oversaturated market with severely depressed patronage throughout the pandemic. This decision is socially and economically irresponsible and simply imprudent and ill timed. For all those reasons I have given, I believe it is a matter of sufficient public importance that the decision by the CPVV to expand the multipurpose taxi scheme to include the Uber service should be reviewed by the Parliament.
I have brought this to your attention at the earliest opportunity. I seek your support to put an immediate freeze on the decision to expand the multipurpose taxi program scheme to include Uber services until (a) a review is conducted on the minimum safety requirements for vehicles operating within the multipurpose taxi program scheme, (b) consideration is given to the mandatory maximum fare rates across all multipurpose taxi program work as applied to the taxi industry now, (c) it can be explained how rorting and exploitation of vulnerable users will be prevented, (d) the financial impact to services within the broader disability sector is properly assessed and managed, (e) the industry is back on its feet post COVID and can better absorb such a major shock and (f) proper probity and good governance are applied following careful consideration and reporting of all possible ramifications of consultations with both the industry and the disability stakeholders.
In Summary –
Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (15:16): I just want to first of all thank everybody. We take this very, very seriously, the safety of vulnerable people. It is something we have done for the last 30 years, and Mr Meddick absolute touched on the core thing. Just recently down in Geelong we met someone who is using the services and who has had the same driver for 20 years. She is nervous when someone else comes. She does not want a car to come where they cannot identify the car. It scares her, and that is reflected across the industry. I just want to touch on a few things, but I particularly want to thank Ms Garrett, the rest of the team and the opposition. Thank you.
But there is something I cannot ever let go: do not ever tell me that we have had the best support package when you have cancelled our licences. Every time the government speaks the number is getting bigger, and I suspect in two years time I will have received a billion dollars. We received around $300 million. The government included $100 million of loss income. This was not the most generous package this country has seen. This is the only state that revoked taxi and hire car licences; no other state did it. It is not apples for apples. I had to get that off my chest.
One of the things that has been going and one of the things that has been said is about the complaints and how the industry is calling for it, all that sort of stuff. Well, it has been a secret. Yes, the regulator has been calling for it, no question. They may have been talking to the disability sector, but they have not been talking to the industry. Since the deregulation we have not had a strong dialogue with the industry in terms of problems within the industry. On the day they made this announcement I asked where is the data to support it and where is the driving demand apart from a theory.
On training, Uber does a tick and click; we bring drivers in. And because they wanted to do the trial in Geelong—big mistake. For Geelong taxi services the drivers have to have done at least 50 shifts before they can drive a multipurpose taxi vehicle. They have to come in then and do a one-day course—come in, not do a tick and click. So once again, it is not apples and apples.
Even if you can remember me from back when—Mr Finn would remember—you would never find anywhere I have said that Uber could not enter the market. We have consistently said before deregulation and before I came to this place, it has got to be a level playing field. We have got the same thing again: we are going to allow them to come into a market where they do not have to have the same safety. What I find absolutely staggering is they are allowed to determine their price. When do you go into a contract with a government where you get to choose your price when, if and how you like? That does not make any sense. Taxis do not get to choose what they can charge. Only Uber can get to do that.
I would like the Minister for Public Transport to reflect on what has been said here today. Pause this program. We are not saying stop it. We are saying pause the program, let us do this properly, let us do the inquiry and we may be able to knock it out much quicker, but we have got to do what is fair for the disability sector and the people who work in it.