Rod requested that the CPVV hand over documents showing the rationale, evidence and results for UBER’s Multi-Purpose Taxi Program trial.
Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (10:00): Today I want to talk about the multipurpose taxi program and the deceptive way this has been awarded to Uber. The multipurpose taxi program supports the transport needs of people with severe and permanent disabilities by offering subsidised passenger vehicle fares to eligible members. The total cost of the scheme is in excess of $70 million annually across approximately 5 million trips. The multipurpose taxi program subsidy covers 50 per cent of the cost of trips up to the value of $60 per trip, with a cap of $2180 per eligible participant in each financial year. The decision to allow Uber to service work under the multipurpose taxi program scheme puts the rights, the welfare and the security of our most vulnerable citizens in jeopardy for at least the following reasons.
The decision to allow Uber to carry multipurpose taxi work comes from a trial which was conducted in Geelong during the height of the pandemic lockdown from 22 March 2020 to 31 May 2020, which covered the service of only 170 trips. We are talking about 17 people who did 10 trips over nearly three months. In the same period Geelong taxis serviced thousands. During the period of the trial more than 90 per cent of the registered commercial passenger vehicles were parked and the number of passenger trips were markedly reduced, obviously. Although the trial was hailed as a success by Uber, it is questionable how the data was collected and how under these extreme and atypical circumstances it could in any way reflect the normal operating conditions, particularly with such a small sample size. We must also note that Uber paid for this trial. The trial simply lacks integrity, casting significant doubt over the merit of the conclusions. It has drawn and raises questions about whether proper due diligence and risk assessments were conducted, other than to say that the trial was a success. Commercial Passenger Vehicles Victoria have not shared any supporting details on the reports about outcomes or findings. It is imperative that the trial results are released along with the associated risk and financial impact assessments for industry-wide consideration.
Unlike taxis, which have to date exclusively serviced the transport needs of the aged, the incapacitated and the disabled through the multipurpose taxi program, Uber vehicles do not have fixed tamper-proof cameras or fixed GPS tracking devices to ensure the safety of vulnerable passengers. We hear time and time again that Uber drivers have taken advantage of vulnerable passengers by simply turning off the app on their phone. What recourse would a disabled passenger have in these events without the evidence provided from a tamper-proof camera and GPS tracking to ensure successful prosecution against any wrongdoing? Known lack of enforcement and consequences generates a lack of compliance. The safety of our most vulnerable citizens should be paramount when authorising who is able to provide them with transport services and under what conditions. It should be mandatory for vehicles operating services under the multipurpose taxi program to be fitted with cameras and fixed GPS tracking to reduce the likelihood of predatory behaviour against our most vulnerable transport users and most importantly to provide irrefutable evidence as needed to support any claims of wrongdoing.
There have been numerous cases to date where police have been called in to investigate potential criminal activity of Uber drivers. Rather than the local arm of the Uber business fully cooperating with the police in such matters, Uber choose to obstruct the course of justice by referring all queries and warrants to Uber’s international head office offshore. This increases the workload and the cost of police investigations around many cases not worthy of follow-up. Should we allow a corporate entity who shows complete disregard for our legal process by hindering their progress to hold a business of trust in the transport of our most vulnerable citizens?
Uber’s dynamic pricing will leave many disadvantaged people paying more. The lack of pricing control over Uber’s services means that vulnerable people will be out of pocket and potentially see part of their multipurpose taxi program allocation eaten up by Uber’s predatory surge pricing. Likewise, it exposes the scheme’s taxpayer funding to an unnecessary expense. To protect vulnerable travellers and ensure that the taxpayer-funded program is best utilised, should we not insist on the application of set fares rates for multipurpose taxi program subsidised work, as is applied to the taxi industry?
It is well known and was reported in September 2019 on A Current Affair that Uber uses underhanded tactics to dupe customers into thinking that an Uber ride is cheaper than a taxi. A Current Affair outed Uber for quoting comparative taxi fares at amounts far higher than they would normally be outside of the Uber app. There are clear concerns now over a passenger who may not have the capacity to navigate these decisions well and will react when confronted with the fake and misleading price comparisons. We must protect our vulnerable citizens from such blatant deception.
Commonly many Uber drivers find themselves to be underinsured or not covered at all in the event of an accident. Whereas taxis have commercial vehicle insurance coverage, Uber drivers many times rely on standard compulsory third-party protections. In many cases private vehicle policies do not cover accidents where the vehicle is being used for commercial purposes or where the vehicle owner did not declare prior that the vehicle is being used commercially. This leaves wide open the potential for travelling passengers to fall short of proper and comprehensive insurance coverage. Uber has shown that it will go to great lengths spending up big on high-priced lawyers to say that it is not responsible for its drivers. If a special needs passenger is injured or, worse, abused or attacked, the victim will have no recourse. It must be mandated that Uber drivers and vehicles carry appropriate insurance and public liability coverage to protect both the driver and the rider.
Uber driver partners are not insured with WorkCover. The risk of personal injury associated with lifting collapsible wheelchairs into cars and assisting vulnerable passengers with their physical needs to board and disembark the vehicle is very real. In past events of this nature Uber has historically dismissed any responsibility towards its drivers. This raises significant concerns about the exploitation of Uber drivers and the context of delivering services under the multipurpose taxi scheme and introduces increased potential for workplace injuries. It must be mandated that proper WorkCover insurance is carried by all commercial passenger vehicles. Changes to the multipurpose taxi program scheme have opened it up to the potential for major rorting and vulnerable people being taken advantage of.
The requirement for multipurpose taxi card holders is that they present their card in the vehicle during the trip in order to legitimately claim the travel subsidy through the program. When using taxis the multipurpose taxi program card holders are required to present their card to the driver on the commencement of each trip and to assess the subsidy payment on conclusion. However, when using the Uber app cardholders are only required to enter their card details once, and when setting up their Uber account all the information is saved for all their future trips. It is not uncommon for people other than the account holder to make bookings through someone else’s individual Uber account. One can foresee how easily public funds may be misused as well as this introducing the potential for vulnerable multipurpose taxi program participants to be exploited.
It is of significant public importance to consider the debate of the use of a taxpayer-funded scheme which supports offshore operations of a multinational giant that does not pay taxes locally. How can a government seriously endorse the use of taxpayers dollars to subsidise travel costs charged by Uber, which skims 30 per cent of the fare in commissions and then swiftly channels those funds offshore to tax-dodging operations? I question the integrity of a taxpayer-funded subsidy program which chooses to support this sort of corporate behaviour rather than ensuring that the taxpayers dollars support the local economy.
The multipurpose taxi program costs the taxpayer upwards of $70 million annually. It is an outrage that 30 per cent of every subsidy dollar going to Uber will now go directly offshore. Just think about what that really means. What it means is that 30 per cent of all the money that should be going into our local communities, supporting our local businesses is going to go to the billionaire shareholders in Silicon Valley—congratulations.
Uber is cherrypicking the work within the disability sector at the expense of those heavily invested through the operation of wheelchair-accessible vehicles. The consequences of this will see WAV services decline, which will impact on those severely disabled passengers who use WAVs as their sole mode of transport. It is of great public importance that the impact of the expansion of the multipurpose taxi scheme to include Uber is considered across the entire disability sector, including wheelchair and other special needs users, so we 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 thousands every year to keep it there. It is a specialist area requiring detailed driver training and ongoing compliance costs, which means that with Uber for many operators this investment will no longer be viable, forcing them off the road and leaving wheelchair users on the kerb. In many country areas this also means wiping out the regulated taxi service, leaving communities stranded. Uber’s business model does not include investment in vehicles—it 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 the driver partners. Should we allow Uber access to our government-subsidised program without it first displaying a tangible commitment to providing services across the entire disability sector, as does the taxi industry?
For many regional taxi services the multipurpose taxi program is the backbone of the business, accounting for up to 50 per cent of the trips conducted. This decision to expand the multipurpose taxi program to include Uber and the reduction in revenue associated with increased competition for the multipurpose taxi program work will impact the delivery of WAV services. There is no doubt about that. The sheer commercial investment for specialised wheelchair-accessible vehicles and associated operating costs see WAV services often run at a loss. The financial viability of operating WAVs is only possible through regular sedan work in other sections of the business, which cross-subsidises the specialised area of transport.
The potential reduction of multipurpose taxi 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 most impacted should networks choose to discontinue their services. This is a critical point requiring urgent consideration. I find it shocking that through the pandemic, when we were looking to raise support for the taxi industry, it was all around trying to keep their wheelchair vehicles available. We cannot say we did not know.
In 2020 when the Victorian government designed the $22.7 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 considerations. The subsidy provided to booking service providers to ensure they were able to continue operating services for our most vulnerable and needy citizens was exclusive to BSPs who operated wheelchair-accessible vehicles. This ensured that those passengers who had no other means of transport were not left standing during the pandemic. The decision to expand the multipurpose taxi program to services provided by Uber will have devastating consequences that will seriously jeopardise the commercial viability of offering WAV services. This will leave stranded our most needy transport users. The Parliament must intervene and demand an impact assessment on WAV service delivery and other flow-on effects should this decision proceed.
Uber is an organisation that has defied regulatory responsibility at every turn, from operating illegally, denying its drivers rights under workplace laws, refusing to provide answers to the Australian Tax Office, hindering local police investigations by redirecting inquiries to their offices offshore and even dodging questions at the parliamentary inquiry and when we did the research into the support package for the taxi industry here. This company has continually failed the character test, and yet again this is being supported by the industry regulator, the cheerleader, who itself is shrouded in a veil of accusations.
Both organisations are before the courts facing serious allegations which, if proven, seriously raise the issues of appropriateness of the decision to expand the multipurpose taxi program to include Uber services. Under Commercial Passenger Vehicles Victoria’s own rules and regulations Uber may not comply with the requirement to be a fit and proper entity to be registered as a booking service provider, let alone a fit and proper entity to provide transport services to our most vulnerable citizens. With access to a taxpayer-funded scheme, the decision by the CPVV to include Uber in the multipurpose taxi program scheme must be reviewed at the uppermost level of public scrutiny.
Uber is currently before the Supreme Court in two separate cases where it is alleged that, prior to legislation passed in 2017 which introduced a low-cost CPV licence, they conspired with others—that is, their driver partners—against the incumbent taxi and hire car operators to cause harm. This allowed Uber to penetrate the market unlawfully and gain a significant unfair advantage over others in the industry. This case was brought by the taxi and hire car operators and ex-licence owners in Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales through a class action represented by Maurice Blackburn. The other thing being brought by the taxi industry is by GoCatch, through Corrs Chambers Westgarth, who are claiming harm from the impact on the commercial viability of their operation at the time of Uber’s services outside the existing legislative and regulatory requirements.
It is a questionable decision to allow Uber access to publicly funded subsidy programs when they have a history of a complete disregard of the law. The CPVV is itself being scrutinised to determine whether there may be evidence to bring a case against it for misfeasance in public office. The Victorian taxi families represented by Corrs Chambers Westgarth have fought for 3½ years in the Supreme Court to obtain discovery documents that may support this claim. Victorian taxi families were successful in the initial case against the CPVV demanding relevant documents and were further successful in broadening their claims following an appeal by the CPVV, which was lost. The appeal ruling, as recently handed down, instructed the CPVV to hand over the required documents as requested, and 80 per cent of the cost was awarded to the Victorian taxi families for their legal costs. Should there be found significant evidence, a case may be brought against the regulator for misfeasance in public office, which may claim that the regulator was recklessly indifferent to the harm that they may have caused to the incumbent industry by failing to uphold a statutory obligation to enforce legislation and regulations against Uber at the time of its unlawful operations. This may amount to an abuse of public trust and would bring into question the decision to allow Uber to provide services under the multipurpose taxi scheme without a proper risk and financial impact assessment of the associated and broader consequences for the industry and disability services.
I just want to say a little bit about the trial itself. The trial was done down in Geelong. They probably picked the worst area in Victoria because Geelong has one of the best taxi services in Victoria. With Geelong taxis, before anybody can actually do a multipurpose taxi job, they have to have done at least 50 shifts. Not only do they have to have done 50 shifts, they have to have done a one-day course on how to deal with people with the very many consequences of disabilities, mental health issues. This is the standard that is set down there.
Where has the regulator actually measured the performance of 170 bookings against an organisation that has been kicking goals for years? There has been no comparison. This is a reward for Uber. They are not interested in doing wheelchair work. What they are interested in is getting propped up, and the regulator have done their best to do them that favour. This is a disgraceful decision. This questions the safety of the services. To the argument that some sections have put up, that the taxi industry has not been able to service the demand, I say prove it. I say prove it. We have had thousands of cars sitting around looking for jobs. To those people who want to make those claims: let us see the data that backs that up, because it ain’t there.
I just want to say this one more time: 30 per cent of the money which is supposed to be going back into our local communities to support small business is going to end up in Silicon Valley.
That is something we should think very hard about. This contradicts the government’s stated position about protecting workers in the gig economy. They are rewarding the worst behaved gig economy company on the planet. Uber is a Trojan Horse to bring the gig economy in, and I say no. I think I will leave it at that.