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Richardson: Uber's strange, temper-tantrum diplomacy

Opinion

Uber’s response to the Government’s ride-sharing reforms is akin to a toddler throwing its toys out of the cot, argues Tom Richardson.

One would hope Uber’s drivers don’t conduct business the same way as the company under whose banner they operate.

If so, I’d imagine the standard trip would involve a stern rebuke over the angle at which you recline your seat, a lecture over how much better passengers are in New South Wales and a dispute over the nominated fare.

That wouldn’t happen, of course, because UberX’s app famously co-ordinates all the transactional details in advance, and allows the driver’s service to be rated thereafter – an incentive, they argue, to provide a decent service.

And that’s one of the two things upon which Uber’s success has been built – offering a business model that consumers want to use.

The other thing has been a ruthlessness bordering on disdain for the jurisdictions they enter.

I’m all for opening up the taxi industry to competition, in large part because it has already seen that sector set about reforming itself in a way it had previously resisted.

And it’s an easy shot to criticise the Government – any government really, but this Labor one in particular – for being anti-business and overbearing.

But the reality is Uber is conducting its business here much like a two-year old conducts a debate about whether or not it can have Jatz for dinner.

Which is fine, if you’re a two-year-old.

But it’s hardly an edifying way to do business.

Uber has been haranguing this Government for well over a year about legalising ride-sharing in SA, insisting they had an army of drivers “ready to go” if only fledgling minister Stephen Mullighan could get his act together.

And yet, Mullighan has done just that, and Uber has thrown its toys out of the cot.

To flog the analogy, it’s like he’s let them have the Jatz, and they’ve thrown it back in a screaming rage because it doesn’t have cheese on top.

Uber say they won’t operate in SA under the regulatory regime imposed by Labor.

Well, actually, do they say that? They wouldn’t when pressed at a media conference yesterday.

What they do say is that the regulations are too expensive and make it unviable for their drivers to operate.

They have not, by my reckoning, categorically, unequivocally said they will not operate in SA.

They may say as much eventually, but that would be – to put it mildly – wildly out of kilter with their public actions to date.

Geez, it mustn’t be a very lucrative gig if an extra $600 upfront fee is considered a deal-breaker.

This is a company – a global, multi-billion dollar company – which has set up an office, complete with highly-paid executives, in SA without even knowing what the regulatory environment will be. Which has scouted drivers in Adelaide before UberX was even a legal prospect.

Whose national honcho has made numerous public statements demanding the Weatherill Government play ball with Uber’s insurgence – to the significant detriment of the existing regulated taxi industry.

Who has even baited Mullighan on social media – a particularly unorthodox approach to diplomacy, but one evidently in keeping with Uber’s general approach.

Uber has long bemoaned that the Government was dragging its feet, but in reality Labor responded to the insurgence of an illegal operation by instigating a wide-ranging and necessary review, considering its recommendations and then responding to them with legislation. Seems pretty reasonable to me.

And yet before that independent inquiry into the taxi and ride-sharing industry was even complete, David Rohrsheim was incensed at the prospect the legislation might not be changed in time for the Mad March festival season, given the prospective extra pressure on the available transport infrastructure.

Mad March came and went, and yet when the Government finally came to the party, Uber – with unseemly haste – publicly pronounced that the regulations were too onerous.

The figures are disputed, but on Uber’s contentious reckoning it would cost prospective SA drivers $600 more to get started here than it would in NSW or the ACT – a figure they say is not worth their while.

Geez, it mustn’t be a very lucrative gig if an extra $600 upfront fee is considered a deal-breaker.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s eminently frustrating that SA’s red tape continues to frustrate new business. Even on the Government’s own reading, the ACT is still a more appealing prospect for someone wanting to start a ride-sharing business, which is frankly embarrassing.

And the proposed waiting time for a police check, including clearance to work with children, is vaguely ludicrous, in part a symptom of the extreme but understandable zeal with which authorities have reacted to a spate of child protection scandals.

But it is still a tad bizarre that public opinion is all with Uber on this one.

I’ve been advocating as loudly as anyone for more flexibility and competition in the market.

But we wouldn’t cop someone wanting to volunteer at a school, for example, sneering that ‘I’ve had my own security checks done and I can’t be bothered waiting on your pesky Government one, so you should just waive the due process for me’.

And, really. If Uber has been willing – albeit impatiently – to wait for more than a year to even find out the Government’s attitude to ride-sharing, complaining about waiting three more months for the standard level of accreditation seems pretty small fry.

The Government has dismissed Uber’s tactics as “posturing”, arguing if the ride-sharing business doesn’t open here, some other competitor will.

GoCar boss Ned Moorfield seems stuck between Uber’s sabre-rattling and more constructive discourse. He was quoted in the Tiser yesterday as suggesting it would be “very unlikely” his service would operate in SA under current strictures, yet by the afternoon he was far more equivocal: “I can’t say absolutely we won’t be in the market, but there’s a bit more work to be done on this one.”

I don’t know whether Uber will operate here or not.

But I’d argue their strategy – of loudly proclaiming in the media that they won’t, a strategy they admit was laid out before they even met with the Government earlier this week – makes their threat look more like an ambit claim than a declaration of intent.

The upshot of all this, then, is that Uber is a company that once seemed happy to operate here illegally – yet is now unwilling to do so under law.

And that makes them cowboys.

And admittedly, generally, really successful ones.

I guess their ‘petulant child’ model of doing business has stood them in good stead around the world.

But it seems pretty weird to me.

Tom Richardson is a senior journalist with InDaily. His political column is published on Fridays.

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