Labor unveils plan for Australian sharing economy

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has unveiled his party's six-step plan for a sharing economy in a bid to see the 'next Uber' grow from an Australian idea.

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten wants Australians to make money from sharing their properties and services.

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Shorten announced his party's support for the sharing economy, proposing a plan to "make it happen".

"The sharing economy offers exciting potential at the edge of today so that we can do better in the future," Shorten said.

Dozens of companies have sprung up in the past couple of years to make better use of spare resources, such as bedrooms and tools; others have creatively tackled issues like a lack of parking and traffic congestion.

The National Sharing Economy Principals Fact Sheet [PDF] says Labor wants to see all Australians share the benefits of the sharing economy, as well as implement guidelines to protect workers, consumers, and the community.

The fact sheet outlines the opposition's six principles for the sharing economy that Shorten hopes to turn into rules and regulations to help give rise to the next Uber or Airbnb.

These principles include the regulated sharing of primary property; appropriate wages and working conditions for staff; correct tax payments; proper protection and insurances; access for all, including those with a disability; and zero tolerance for those that defy the law.

Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh said sharing economy providers want to pay their fair share of tax, and Labor's plan will make sure the sector isn't strangled by red tape.

"We don't have any tolerance for tax dodging, but nor do we think that this sector ought to be drowned in additional taxes and additional regulations," he said. "We just want to get the rules right so innovative companies can prosper and help deal with big Australian challenges such as traffic congestion and housing affordability."

Shorten said the laws, which allow for car inspections, driver assessments, and driver medicals to ensure safety, will be a good test to help guide future regulations.

"We're pleased to see Labor recognise the need to facilitate a level playing field environment as sharing economy businesses enter the market," Hamish Petrie, founder and CEO of Australian taxi-booking app and mobile payments platform, Ingogo, said.

Petrie believes there have been few more disruptive trends in business in recent years than the sharing economy, and said that without a balanced approach to regulation, the disruption threatens to be destructive rather than healthy for the market.

"Over recent years, the idea of a sharing economy has evolved to not only include the trade of goods and services between private citizens within the community, but also to include companies that facilitate the trade of these private goods for commercial gain. This has allowed some companies to skirt around existing regulations for their respective industries, leaving those that follow their set industry regulations in an uncompetitive position," Petrie said.

"The taxi industry as a whole recognises the need for healthy and genuine competition, so it's important to create the opportunity to modernise the archaic regulatory environment, but it has to be consistent to level the playing field for everyone."

Controversial ride-sharing service UberX has now seen 10 million rides in Australia, with the California-based startup saying ride sharing has extended public transport, boosted tourism, and reduced drink driving.

According to Uber, 1 million of these trips were taking partygoers home from their respective city's popular nightspots on Friday and Saturday nights; 8 to 18 percent of the total rides were escorting overseas visitors; and 64 percent of the 10 million rides were in public transport black spots.

"Ride sharing hasn't just changed the way people move around their city, with a ride available at the touch of a button; it has also made point-to-point transport more affordable for more Australians," Uber said in a blog post on Thursday.

Last month, Uber found itself in court with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), arguing that UberX drivers do not fall within the same definition as taxi and limousine drivers, and therefore should not be required to pay the GST.

The ATO defined taxi travel as "travel that involves transporting passengers for fares"; Uber, however, disputed that the court should question whether UberX drivers fall under same definition as taxi travel.

In May, the ATO issued a directive that advised those providing a ride-sharing service needed to have an Australian Business Number and be registered for GST. Drivers had until August 1 to register.

Three days after the cut-off date for GST registration, the ride-sharing company filed documents with the Federal Court against the tax office's GST directive.

Despite contesting the ATO ruling, Uber told its drivers to starting paying GST, with Uber's Australia and New Zealand general manager David Rohrsheim saying at the time he was disappointed the ATO made drivers comply with its interpretation of the law.

"A part-time activity [such as Uber] is very different to what we had in the nineties when the GST was introduced," he said. "It deserves to be examined, and deserves to be reviewed, rather than the ATO making a policy on the fly."

In August, Rohrsheim told ABC RN Breakfast that the company's driver partners are "certainly not employees", as they are independent operators who are free to come and go if they do not wish to drive at a certain time.

"Uber drivers are not providing taxi services, full stop," he said. "They are providing a ride sharing opportunity, part time, no cash changing hands, fully electronic."

Rohrsheim believes the ATO has singled out UberX partners for "special treatment", adding that the ATO's process involves a "whole bunch of red tape", which he thinks will get in the way of the sharing economy.

Commissioner of Taxation Chris Jordan insisted it is "absolutely wrong" for Uber to say the ATO is in cahoots with the traditional taxi industry when it comes to new GST guidance for drivers.

"That is false and entirely misleading ... I am puzzled as to why they would want to publicly portray something that we know from our information is simply incorrect," Jordan told a Senate Estimates hearing on Wednesday.

He said the ATO had discussions with Uber six or seven months ago, and that after many meetings, the taxi provider declined to cooperate on trying to register drivers in bulk.

It has been a rough ride for Uber since it entered the Australian market in 2012. The taxi industry, as well as state and federal governments, have been chasing the controversial ride-sharing service for a while.

In New South Wales last month, 40 Uber drivers were issued suspension notices in a bid by the NSW Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) to crack down on illegal ride-sharing services. At the time, the RMS said taxi and hire car services must have authorised and accredited operators, as well as a licensed and insured vehicle.

The RMS previously issued Uber drivers with court attendance notifications.

The NSW government launched a task force in a bid to work with customers, the taxi industry, hire car companies, and other stakeholders to examine the market's sustainability and competition, the impact of emerging technologies, the importance of customer safety, and the burden of current taxi regulations.

In late August, the task force, now known as the Point to Point Transport Taskforce, called for changes to be made to the current regulatory framework to reduce red tape and level the playing field for the taxi industry and other point to point transport services.

Earlier this month, the task force published its submissions, and, after months of campaigning by Uber, the San Francisco-based startup declared the support a win.

In late September, the ACT government became the first Australian jurisdiction to legalise ride sharing as part of new reforms to take effect from October 30, 2015. As part of the new regulations, UberX will be able to operate under similar conditions that taxi and hire cars face.

The Victorian government is gearing up to follow suit by regulating Uber in the state by working on a regime that addresses passenger safety, driver and vehicle standards, and insurance issues; whilst the Queensland government previously said it would be reviewing its taxi strategy later in the year, and has not ruled out the co-existence of taxis and Uber services on the state's roads.

In Western Australia, the state's Department of Transport released its still-open green paper in July which centred on regulating the transport industry and ensuring consumer safety, with Minister for Transport Dean Nalder hoping to "simplify this with a single piece of legislation".

"On-demand transport is a critical part of the wider transport system in Western Australia, and ensuring it has the flexibility to meet the challenges of a growing community is a high priority," the minister said at the time.

Last week, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) announced its intention to disallow a taxi industry joint venture that would see the launch of a new smartphone taxi-booking app, ihail, in direct competition to Uber.

Whilst the watchdog said it accepted that the ihail app would provide a more convenient way for consumers to book taxi services, ACCC chairman Rod Sims said it came at too high a cost to competition.

"The ACCC considers that the ihail app would have a significant impact on competition in the taxi industry, which could impact prices and quality of service," Sims said.

With AAP

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