NSW Taxi industry needs regulating

Today in Parliament Abigail spoke in support of the Point to Point Transport (Taxis and Hire Vehicles) Amendment Bill 2022, highlighting the need to provide a fairer and compassionate package for taxidrivers. 

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Ms ABIGAIL BOYD (22:26): On behalf of The Greens, I support the Point to Point Transport (Taxis and Hire Vehicles) Amendment Bill 2022. However, like the Hon. Mark Banasiak, I do so reluctantly. The bill aims to deregulate the New South Wales point to point industry by ending the caps on taxi licences and maximum fares for rank and hail services while finally providing more fulsome compensation—or compensation of any real value—to taxi plate holders. In 2015 the Government deregulated the point to point industry by legalising rideshare and deregulating booked services. That followed a significant period of time during which Uber was operating unlawfully.

As a result of the deregulation, the value of taxi plates, which had previously been purchased either directly from the Government or transferred from another plate owner at a price set on the understanding that there was a limit on the number of plates available, plummeted. Many taxidrivers found themselves with a plate worth much less than the value of the loan that they had used to originally buy the licence and without the asset that they thought they would sell to fund their retirements. Many lost tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars.

As with any disrupted industry, there is a period of transition that can be challenging for stakeholders. It is fair to say that the Government did not manage that transition particularly well. The Point to Point Transport (Taxis and Hire Vehicles) Act 2016 provided some limited compensation for the taxi industry, and a scheme was set up to provide payments to those who had suffered financial hardship. Those payments were to be funded by the passenger service levy, the PSL, which is the amount that each passenger pays in a taxi or rideshare on top of the fare for each journey.

In 2020 the Government commissioned a review into the Act, headed by Sue Baker‑Finch. Around the same time, Portfolio Committee No. 6, which I chair, established its own inquiry into the Operation of the Point to Point Transport (Taxis and Hire Vehicles) Act 2016. I put on the record my thanks to the Deputy Chair, the Hon. Mark Banasiak, Martin Roberts and Craig Richards for taking the time to explain the issues to me. Similarly to the Hon. Rod Roberts, as a fairly new MP at the time I had to quickly get up to speed with the issues. Like other speakers, I was horrified by the treatment that people in the taxi industry had received.

So we set up our own inquiry, at around the same time as the Baker‑Finch inquiry. Needless to say, the reports from the two inquiries were very different. As alluded to by the Hon. John Graham, Portfolio Committee No. 6, or PC 6, found that while the $250 million industry assistance package was a welcome announcement, it was insufficient and failed to alleviate the financial distress and consequent mental and emotional anguish experienced across the taxi industry. The Transitional Assistance Payment Scheme was significantly limited in scope, particularly in comparison to the Additional Assistance Hire Vehicles Payment Scheme, which essentially provided a buyback scheme for hire car licences. I think this was one of the most noxious parts of the scheme; I am yet to hear any compelling reason why there was a buyback scheme for hire care licences while taxi licence holders were left out in the cold.

Notably, during the PC 6 inquiry it was revealed that much of the Passenger Service Levy [PSL] money had not been spent due to the hardship application criteria being too strict or being out of reach for those without significant knowhow, resources and all the rest of it. Around half of the $250 million promised to the taxi industry and funded by passengers had not been passed on to drivers. As the Hon. John Graham said, it was extraordinary to see that happen. Of particular concern to the committee was the Additional Assistance Payment Scheme. Representing $142 million of the overarching $250 million industry assistance package, this scheme was devised to provide assistance to industry participants facing hardship following the reforms. However, only $42 million, one‑third of that hardship fund, was disbursed, suggesting—as we went into in great detail in the inquiry—that the criteria for hardship was simply far too strict.

Additionally, evidence to the inquiry highlighted that the application process was too difficult for many that could have applied, with some being overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork necessary to demonstrate their dire financial situation. I have said it before, and I have said it in the context of the report, but I will say it again: We are very grateful to the people who gave evidence about that in the PC 6 point to point inquiry. It gave the committee insight into the very real damage that the Government's mismanagement of this transition caused to drivers and their families across the State.

During budget estimates, I followed up—first with Andrew Constance when he was the transport Minister, and then with the dizzying array of successive transport Ministers—as to whether or not that hardship scheme would be reopened with less severe criteria. I also quizzed them as to what the Government was doing with all of that unspent money that had been collected from passengers through the PSL and not delivered to the taxidrivers that it was intended for. I was told in budget estimates that, as at October 2022, there was $130 million sitting in unspent PSL, while hundreds of taxidrivers suffering hardship in anyone's books but the Government's are left suffering. Yet, despite the questioning and the clear recommendation from the PC 6 inquiry, the Government never reopened and adjusted the eligibility criteria for the hardship fund. This was despite the Government knowing how limiting it was and despite having heard the evidence of the real hardship that was going unaddressed in the industry.

I recognise the emotion with which some speakers have spoken about this issue. I do not think it would be possible to have had conversations with impacted taxidrivers, and to have heard from the industry as a whole and seen how hard they have fought over the past six or seven years, without feeling emotional. In this place we can distance ourselves from the real-world effects of legislation. But speaking with people who have been impacted by things which have been done badly is emotional. Again, I acknowledge the fight of the taxi industry, the drivers and those across the political spectrum—including some of the Government's own members—who have joined forces to try to correct this cruel mismanagement of the transition.

In recognition of the significant drop in taxi plate values and the hardship subsequently experienced by licence owners, the committee recommended that the Government develop and implement a full buyback scheme of ordinary taxi licences. A buyback scheme would allow those licence owners who wish to retire to do so, while also, as the inquiry found, helping the viability of the industry and releasing capital that can be used to innovate and effectively compete against rideshare in the point to point transport industry. The current bill is the culmination of over six years of lobbying to try to get fairer compensation from the Government.

In an ideal world, The Greens would be pushing for a range of additional amendments to the point to point Act. We would be pushing for much more fulsome compensation and to fully reflect the recommendations in the excellent Portfolio Committee No. 6 report to ensure that every community across our State has access to a taxi service, no matter how remote. I share other members' concerns about the impact of complete deregulation on regional areas, particularly when the removal of a cap on maximum fares is coupled with the loss of incentive to run a taxi in the regions. It will make life even harder for those people living in parts of regional New South Wales with limited public transport options, particularly older people and people with disability. The past four years of being in this place have shown me that it is older people and people with disability who are always at the bottom of the Government's priority list.

We must keep an eye on this situation and watch very carefully to ensure that those communities who have taxidrivers currently servicing them, not just during surge times but also during the quieter and less profitable times, continue to have those services provided to them. I would welcome seeing further amendments in the next term of Parliament—whether they are moved by the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party or by whichever party happens to form government—to correct the awful mismanagement of this industry transition and provide a fairer and compassionate package for taxidrivers who have been serving the people of New South Wales for so many decades.

See Hansard for full transcript here.

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