In many ways taxi drivers are the face of Cairns.
They are often the first interaction that visitors have when they arrive in our beautiful airport and are driven to their destination. They are also generally the last person they see as they are driven from our beautiful city back to the airport to go back to their homes.
In Queensland taxi licences are strictly managed by the Department of Transport and Main Roads, which determines the number of plates or licences that can operate in any given area. There are 137 taxi licences in Cairns alone and an additional 20 or so across my electorate. Each of these plates is individually owned. In many cases it may have been bought decades ago by a husband and wife team where one manages the bookings and the other one spends a lot of time behind the wheel. These microbusinesses may well represent their lifelong income and retirement plan, and they certainly perform a vital role in our communities.
But there is a massive threat looming over their livelihoods, and it is called Uber. The Uber mobile app allows consumers with smartphones to submit a trip request, which is then routed to Uber drivers, who can use their own cars. It is a cashless system with fixed price fares. It sounds absolutely wonderful until you dig a little deeper. Local taxi owners, drivers and operators Robyn and Nic Bakker from Total Taxi Management Cairns have alerted me to some of the pitfalls to this service and the threat to their financial viability. I am certainly not against innovation and competition in the market, but entities should compete on a relatively level playing field under similar rules.
In Queensland our Transport Operations (Passenger Transport) Act 1994 makes sure that operators are accredited, taxi drivers are authorised and accountability for responsibility and reliability is of a high standard. It makes sure taxis maintain public confidence and a reputation for safety, whether you are a single female heading home after a night out or a local getting a ride home with your shopping. The same quality framework is not in place for Uber.
Uber drivers only need to be aged 24-plus and have a driver's licence, an ABN, a smartphone and no criminal record. They need a car that is less than 10 years old and covered by comprehensive insurance. That is it—there is nothing else. The website whosdrivingyou.org has compiled a list of incidents involving Uber passengers being assaulted or kidnapped and drivers being found to be felons or driving under the influence. Unlike taxis, Uber do not have those common-sense safety measures such as a duress alarm, GPS tracking and security cameras.
There is also a massive difference in the level of regulations. Robyn and Nic Bakker own two taxis, lease another taxi and manage 14 others. Each year the individual taxi owners pay $7,000 for their registration, licensing and CTP and $4,000 for insurance, and then there is the public liability and driver insurance. The cars are serviced every two weeks, they go over the pits every six months and they cannot be more than seven years old.
It is no wonder that many international governments are already taking action against Uber's tax avoidance measures and safety concerns. Robyn Bakker wrote to me and said:
“I wonder how it is that a federal government could seriously consider condoning an illegal entity who does not pay any tax in Australia, is not registered for GST and therefore pays none? Please insist that Uber operates in the same business environment as the Cairns taxi owners, operators and drivers. The livelihood of not just the taxi owners and drivers is at stake, but every ancillary business associated with taxis, as well as the tax revenue that will fail to be collected if we all go out of business.”
In my view, Uber competes directly with the taxi industry and I cannot see any reason why its tax treatment should be any different. I asked our finance minister for an update on Uber and have been assured that the department supports the Australian Taxation Office's move to collect GST on the first dollar earned. This is currently being tested in the courts, but the government stands behind the approach of the tax commissioner. To Robyn, Nic and many hundreds of other people in the business who rely on and support the local taxi industry: I will continue to actively advocate on your behalf, and I certainly look forward to catching up with you at your annual dinner at the Queensland taxi conference in Cairns later this month.