Disability advocates have turned out in force to let their elected representatives know just how they feel about the increasingly ineffective taxi subsidy.
In late October last year, people with a disability rallied out the front of the New South Wales Parliament to voice their demands for an increase in the NSW taxi transport subsidy. They highlighted the gross inadequacy of the existing subsidy, and later the same day reinforced their concerns at a forum inside Parliament House hosted by The Greens NSW.
The NSW Taxi Transport Subsidy Scheme (TTSS) barely covers a trip ‘around the block’, only paying for half of a taxi fare and is capped at $30. The subsidy has remained unchanged for the past 15 years, while taxi fares have continued to rise. Such a limited subsidy means many people with a disability face enormous transport costs, which affect their ability to participate in work, recreational, medical, and other activities – a point driven home by one of the rally goers whose fare to attend the protest cost over $100*.
“People living in rural and regional areas generally have vast distances to travel to and from, or between towns…”
Greg Killeen, Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer, Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA), spoke at the forum. He said the high cost of taxi transport hindered employment opportunities and increased social isolation. “People living in rural and regional areas generally have vast distances to travel to and from, or between towns, while people living in Sydney are confronted by increasing traffic congestion and toll roads,” he said.
A survey of 1,100 Wheelchair Accessible Taxi (WAT) users commissioned by the NSW Liberal Government found that WAT users had an average taxi fare of around $33. Greg highlighted that while the average taxi fare was around $33, it “is a self-fulfilling prophecy as the data just displays that people can only afford to travel short distances”.
A June 2010 NSW Parliamentary Taxi Industry Inquiry Report recommended that the NSW Government increase the TTSS to 50 per cent of a $100 taxi fare capped at a $50 subsidy. Six months later, the NSW Labor Government said Transport NSW would review and evaluate the TTSS. However, this never eventuated and NSW Labor lost office the following March. The current NSW Liberal Government eventually commissioned the WAT study mentioned above but it is yet to act on its recommendations. Meanwhile, The Greens NSW have continued to back the inquiry’s recommendations – in June 2013 they put forward a motion in the NSW Legislative Council, calling on the Government to take up the recommendations of the taxi inquiry report.
At the rally and the forum in October, Jan Barham The Greens NSW Member of the NSW Legislative Council (MLC) restated her party’s backing for an increase in the TTSS. Christian Democrats MLC Paul Green also attended the forum to lend his support.
Among a number of issues, Jan pointed to the affordability barrier highlighted in the 2013 Shrinking Circle survey. The survey says those on the Disability Support Pension spend 11 to 30 per cent of their incomes on taxi fares, while those in part-time employment spend 50 per cent on fares and those in full-time employment spend 35.7 per cent. She also noted that Victoria had doubled its taxi subsidy cap from $30 to $60 in 2008.
“The subsidy has remained unchanged for the past 15 years, while taxi fares have continued to rise.”
The forum’s master of ceremonies and organiser, Tony Jones, Policy Officer, SCIA (and Research and Policy Advisor to Jan Barham MLC), pointed to other findings in the WAT study, which revealed that a quarter of TTSS users had forgone entertainment and cut down on groceries to pay for transport.
NSW State Government and Shadow Ministers failed to show up at the forum. However, Gladys Berejiklian, NSW Minister for Transport, issued a statement, saying: “The NSW Government has carried out a review of the subsidies and incentives that support wheelchair accessible taxi services, including affordability and availability of the Taxi Transport Subsidy Scheme. As part of this work Transport for NSW surveyed more than 1,100 participants about their experience. A number of recommendations to improve the service for customers are now being considered.” The Minister failed to respond to further questioning about what recommendations the Government was considering. Requests for comment from NSW Shadow Minister for Transport Penny Sharpe went unanswered.
Silence on the part of the NSW Government and the Opposition leaves people with a disability in an increasingly difficult situation. Persisting with the low TTSS subsidy has the potential to negatively affect state and federal government initiatives, such as the NSW Living Life My Way and Community Support Program, and the federal National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which aim to provide people with disability more choice, flexibility and control. “The expected benefits of these policy reforms will be impeded if people don’t have access to affordable taxi transport,” Greg said.
Although Greg wanted to see the TTSS subsidy increased to the recommended 50 per cent of a $100 taxi fare, he would prefer it be increased to 75 per cent of a $120 fare and indexed.
Mark Tonga, board director at ParaQuad and SCIA member, who helped organise and also attended the rally and forum, agreed that the subsidy should be increased and indexed.
He believed such a move would encourage more employers to subsidise transport to and from work for their employees with disabilities. This would increase the likelihood of people with a disability entering the workforce and sustaining their employment.
Boosting and indexing the subsidy would encourage more employers to subsidise transport costs.
After the rally, he said when corporate organisations think about the bottom line, they need to understand it is not just about the balance sheet; it is also about the community and the skills and value that a diverse range of people bring to an organisation – “it needs to be a two-way street”. Government employers must also think more about this, too, he added.
Greg said there were a number of ways to fund an increase in the subsidy: allocate another $25- $30 million per annum to the TTSS; stop the WAT Driver Bonus Incentive Scheme and use the funds to pay for the TTSS increase; add 20 cents to each taxi fare to raise around $20 million per annum to allocate to the TTSS; and allocate the revenue from the 99 sets of Nexus plates provided by the NSW Government to the taxi networks.
Michael Simpson, General Manager, NSW client services, Vision Australia, also spoke at the forum and supported moves to increase and index the TTSS subsidy, as well as including an option for covering a limited number of longer trips.
Rhiannon Cook, Senior Policy Officer, New South Wales Council of Social Services (NCOSS), told the forum that NCOSS would like to see the TTSS subsidy cap raised to $60 per trip. NCOSS’s 2014-2015 pre-budget submission said such a cap would cost $9 million. For more on the TTSS, visit www.scia.org.au * The Greens NSW MLC Jan Barham paid for the taxi fares of people with a disability to attend the rally and the forum. ▪