The last month has proven as busy as the previous months. In the last edition of VicTaxi, the success of Brenner’s (a driver prosecuted by the Taxi Services Commission (TSC) for illegally operating a commercial passenger vehicle) appeal in the County Court was discussed at length. As revealed at that time, the defence revolved around an obsolete clause in the Transport Act (the Act), section 159.
I am pleased to say that the Parliament has passed an amending Bill that has removed section 159 thus removing the loophole that provided the defence in the Brenner case and restored the power of the TSC to prosecute unlicensed drivers and vehicles offering commercial passenger vehicle services.
It was vital for this section to be removed to allow the TSC to do their job and ensure the integrity of the regulatory system in its current, albeit unsatisfactory, form. With the exception of the Greens Members of Parliament (MPs), all Upper House MPs supported the amending Bill, including the Opposition. The Greens reluctance to support the Bill was somewhat confusing given the amendment was really nothing more than an expedient way of ensuring the TSC have the power to enforce the law against anyone providing an unlicensed service.
After the Bill passed, the Greens used social media to claim that “the Government had made Uber illegal again”. This is not a sound argument by any means. The Uber service offered by an unlicensed driver in an unlicensed vehicle was illegal before the amending Bill and after it. The finding in the Brenner Case did not make the operation of a commercial passenger vehicle service by an unlicensed driver in an unlicensed vehicle legal. Section 159 simply made it difficult for the TSC to prosecute cases where people were found to be breaching the Act. As Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan was at pains to point out, this amendment was not about Uber, unless of course they continue to use unaccredited drivers in unlicensed vehicles, in which case they can no longer use 159 as a defence!
At the time of writing this, the Upper House Parliamentary Committee, formed recently by the Opposition and the Greens to look into the matter of the regulation of ride hail, has apparently begun its work. They are due to report by 8 December. The Government have made it clear they do not support this Inquiry and do not intend to let it dictate the timing of any announcement they may make wish to make on the matter. The Minister has said publicly that the Government intend to release their plan prior to the December deadline.
The Essential Services Commission (ESC) are also close to releasing their final decision on the current review of taxi fares in the coming week. A public forum was held by the ESC to discuss their draft report. There were a number of different views put forward at the meeting about what should happen to fare levels, or not happen, as may be the case. The discussion proved to highlight the difficult context we are currently operating within and the impact of the prevailing uncertainty. The sooner this uncertainty is resolved, the better for all. Despite the ESC’s reluctance to focus on cost in doing their evaluation, it is very hard for the industry to come to a conclusive view when costs and regulatory structures could shift at any time.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to clarify a matter that seems to have caused some conjecture amongst Wheelchair Accessible Taxi (WAT) drivers and operators. The VTA has made public comments about the difficulties faced by these businesses, and suggested action was required by Government to ensure this service remains commercially viable. Some seem to have taken this to mean the VTA were saying the service should be done away with. I am not sure how this conclusion was reached, but in any case, this is not what was being suggested. Rather, the VTA were asking that systemic failures be addressed to ensure that the service can continue and drivers and operators who do the work are properly rewarded and incentivised.
Like many of you, I hope my next article will be discussing a Government announcement regarding the issue of ride hail and how it is to be addressed in Victoria. Fingers crossed.
Chief Executive Officer