Regulation on the cards for ride-sharing in Perth

The WA Department of Transport has released a transport green paper aimed at regulating the operation and safety of the state's taxis and ride-sharing services such as Uber.

The West Australian Department of Transport released a green paper on Monday, centred on regulating the transport industry and ensuring consumer safety.

The On-demand Transport Green Paper (PDF) proposes using consistent regulations to govern the licensing of on-demand vehicles, such as taxi hailing service Uber, in an attempt to create a consistent environment for all providers.

"Changing consumer expectations and the emergence of new players within the on-demand transport industry have made it abundantly clear that the current rules and regulations need a significant overhaul," the West Australian transport minister Dean Nalder said.

"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 has focused on four key areas of reform in the discussion paper, with the first to explore the current regulatory agreement and replace it with a single piece of legislation to govern the licensing of on-demand vehicles.

According to the minister, country and city taxis, charter vehicles of all shapes and sizes, as well as public transport vehicles are currently government by differing laws and rules.

"We want to simplify this with a single piece of legislation.

"We're seeking to deliver an equal playing field that provides a safe and reliable service for passengers and drivers, with increased competition and responsibility for the delivery of a quality service at a fair price," Nalder said.

The paper also proposes implementing an annual licensing framework, which according to the minister, would bring a cost reduction to the industry and allow services to be provided to consumers at lower cost.

Other items of reform put forward are achieving and maintaining accountability, which would hold the dispatcher of the vehicle, the licence holder, the owner of the vehicle, and the driver of the vehicle all accountable for their services.

The paper suggests that the drivers of on-demand transport vehicles could be licensed using a framework such as the Taxi Drivers Licensing Act 2014. This would allow a consistent state-wide approach for setting entry standards for drivers such as criminal record checks, or on-road and written testing, and provide a "mechanism for permanently removing undesirable drivers from the industry".

Failure to maintain accountability, or services providers found to be breaching regulation is proposed to incur penalties of up to AU$10,000.

"This is the official start of our reform process. This heralds a new era for the provision of taxis and similar services in Western Australia," Nalder said.

"It's long overdue and there has been a lot of debate in recent months. I look forward to a level playing field where we have quality services to meet our growing population and provide greater choice."

The paper highlights technology as the instigator for the way transport services have changed, with the department saying that the use of emerging technologies and innovation is limited only by capability, resources, regulatory frameworks and commitment.

The state's premier, Colin Barnett said last week that he would have no hesitation in using ride-sharing service Uber, saying that it is here to stay. Barnett said taking a hard-line position against Uber wouldn't work, and he was not about restricting choice for consumers.

The WA state government has softened its stance on the controversial business amid the prosecution of 20 Uber drivers for illegally operating a taxi in Perth last year.

Uber launched in Perth in May 2014, catching Nalder off-guard, with Nalder at the time calling on his department to check that the taxi app was in compliance with the law.

"I am a little bit surprised -- we weren't aware that they were [launching] so I've asked the department to investigate that they are complying with the law," Nalder told Fairfax radio at the time.

After targeting Uber drivers, the West Australian government sought legal action in April against the ride-sharing app developer directly for not having the correct licence to operate in the state.

At the time, the minister said the government had filed the first prosecution "to do with UberX and ride sharing without having a licence".

The ride-sharing app has caught the attention of politicians on the eastern seaboard of Australia as well, with the New South Wales (NSW) opposition leader Luke Foley calling on the state government to embrace the digital age, when he announced his plans to introduce a private member's Bill to regulate ride-sharing services, such as those offered by Uber, back in June.

Foley said at the time that ride sharing has already been regulated in more than 24 jurisdictions around the world, and that it was time for NSW to join the list.

"People are voting with their feet -- hundreds of thousands used Uber last year. And the public should be free to choose the services they want without fear of retribution from government.

"The parliament should regulate to protect consumers and drivers by putting in place some basic standards. We need to find ways to encourage and facilitate the sharing economy.

Following the announcement from Foley, the NSW government launched an independent task force to work with customers and the taxi industry to examine the impact of emerging technologies, and opportunities to update existing regulations.

Minister for Transport and Infrastructure Andrew Constance said the task force will look into how the taxi industry has changed, particularly since the introduction of unregulated ride-sharing apps.

"If we want to see a strong future for the taxi industry and make services more attractive to customers, the next step is to look closely at current regulations to ensure there's a more even playing field," he said earlier this month.

The driving app has previously run into troubles with regulatory authorities in Australia, with the company facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, cease-and-desist notices, and threats of litigation since launching in Australia. In May, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) classified the service as taxi travel, and has mandated that all drivers are to file for an Australian Business Number and register for GST by August 1.

According to reports, Uber has been issued a total of AU$1.7 million in fines in Queensland alone in the past year as a result of 1,536 infringements issued by government officials.

Despite a cease-and-desist order having been placed upon the company's Queensland operations on May 21, 2015, the ride-booking service said it has been accessed by more than 1 million Australians.

The West Australian green paper is open to the public for comment until midnight October 16, 2015.