The NSW government apparently won't immediately bow to the taxi industry's demands and restrict "ride-sharing" apps that allow anyone to transport people in their own cars for a fee, arguing how or if it regulates them will depend on what the service is called.
In a radio interview on Thursday evening, NSW Transport Minister and deputy Liberal Party leader Gladys Berejiklian was asked repeatedly about whether she would do anything to stop smartphone app Uber's new "low cost" public transportation service, which allows anyone over 24 years of age with a driver's licence and without a criminal history to ferry people with their own car.
You don't want to limit people's choice because at the end of the day it does come down to choice.NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian
The service is currently only available in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne to a select number of Uber users, but is expected to be rolled out to other users and cities soon.
The taxi industry is feeling threatened by Uber's new ride-sharing service. Photo: Ryan Osland
At first, Ms Berejiklian was reluctant to give a view about whether she would block the app's new feature. But she later said that it depended on what Uber called its service, and appeared to concede that as long as it didn't call itself a taxi service it could co-exist with regulated taxis.
"It depends what they're purporting to call themselves," she told 2GB's Ben Fordham. "They're not allowed to call themselves a taxi service, they're not allowed to call themselves certain categories of things."
When it was put to her that she couldn't do anything about it, she said: "Well, yeah. Although we don't support behaviour which is not in the customers' interest, which is not in the interests of existing regulations that exist. And [NSW Road and Maritime Services] is meeting with [the associated] parties.
NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian says she doesn't want to stop choice. Photo: Britta Campion
"Obviously we're able to, as we should, bring down the full weight of the law in terms of what you can call yourself."
Already some US states have banned or are attempting to ban similar offerings, which have been dubbed "ride-sharing" services. Some states like California, however, have allowed the apps, but only if they have public liability insurance of $US1 million.
Taxi or something else?
Although Uber uses the word "taxi" in the Australian version of its app to describe catching a traditional taxi service with it, it avoids the term when describing its ride-sharing service. Instead its tagline "Everyone's private driver" is used in promotion material and "low cost" in the app.
A spokesman for the Transport for NSW department said on Wednesday that NSW Roads and Maritime Services had requested a meeting with Uber's Sydney executives to discuss the company's low-cost service and was "looking forward" to its response.
Uber Sydney general manager David Rohrsheim said on Thursday that Transport for NSW was aware of Uber's ride-sharing service. "We meet regularly and continue to have positive discussions with Transport NSW and the government about providing consumers with safe, reliable and more affordable transport options," Mr Rohrsheim said.
When the service became public knowledge he said that, with more options, Uber was a win for consumers and drivers.
A Transport for NSW spokesman, when questioned, assumed Uber was a taxi and hire car service.
"Taxis and hire cars operate under the Passenger Transport Act," the spokesman said.
"The act requires that taxi and hire car services are provided in a licensed taxi or hire car, by an appropriately accredited operator. The driver of the service must also be authorised by Roads and Maritime Services. RMS accredits operators and authorises drivers to ensure that taxi and hire car customers are safe. Likewise, RMS undertakes criminal and driving history checks on authorised drivers and applies stringent medical requirements."
'Can't always control' industry
Despite the view of Ms Berejiklian's department, she said the government couldn't always regulate new businesses.
"We can't always control what non-government entities do," she said, adding that she appreciated the concerns expressed by the NSW Taxi Council against Uber's initiative.
"I completely appreciate and understand the concerns expressed by the taxi industry and I'm saying, you know, that at the end of the day it's a vexed question. [But] you don't want to limit people's choice because at the end of the day it does come down to choice," Ms Berejiklian said, adding that her government had "been very vocal" about supporting Sydney taxi apps.
"We've got a really good working relationship with the taxi industry. That will be ongoing. But we also appreciate, you know, technology is driving real change out there in the market place."
Andrew Campbell, Sydney co-founder of rival taxi app GoCatch, which announced on Thursday that in the past year it had taken 500,000 taxi bookings through its app, said on Thursday night that he was surprised by Ms Berejiklian's views.
"That's really interesting," Mr Campbell said.
"It seems to be [a grey area] from the minister's comments today."
Mr Campbell said GoCatch was focused on connecting the public with taxi drivers for now, but said he had considered offering a ride-sharing service in recent weeks but decided against it.
"Our conclusion was that the existing taxi market was a very large market opportunity," he said.
Australian financial journalist and commentator for Fairfax, Michael Pascoe, said in an opinion piece following the release of the Uber service that the next step would be a test of the NSW government’s integrity. "Will the new Premier side with the consumer, competition, innovation and improved productivity – or the vested interests of the industry incumbents and the government’s own existing revenue streams?" he asked.