Allan Fels chaired a review into Victoria’s taxi industry. Photo: Michael Clayton-JonesThe man who was once charged with saving Victoria’s troubled taxi industry has taken a job with its nemesis – Uber.
Professor Allan Fels, who chaired the Taxi Industry Inquiry, has been appointed to the popular ride-sharing company’s global advisory board.
The board’s stated object is to make an impact on debate across the world on transport issues and influence policy makers.
Professor Fels’ new role is in direct contrast to the one he held as chairman of the taxi industry inquiry which, just four years ago, investigated how to overhaul the $1.8 billion sector.
Professor Fels, who is a professorial fellow at Melbourne University, told Fairfax Media that Uber and other ride-sharing companies such as Lyft were the “future” of public transport.
“Uber is the way of the future for transport of individuals and groups and services, in that it provides a better service than taxis, and it’s usually cheaper. It’s a highly innovative business,” he said.
“In Victoria, Uber has proven to be a huge appeal to customers.”
On the state of the industry he was once asked to save, he said it was an example of what happens when an industry is strangled by anti-competition laws.
“I believe the taxi industry should have far more freedom to compete by removing unnecessary regulation,” he said.
“I have also observed that the taxi industry has lifted its performance considerably since Uber arrived.”
During his time at the helm of the taxi inquiry, Professor Fels – who was chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission from 1995 to 2003 – was a keen advocate for reform.
He recommended lifting restrictions on taxi licences, raising the cost of transport on weekends, placing driver training to an independent body and slashing Cabcharge credit card charges.
Just months before he accepted his new job at Uber, Professor Fels wrote an opinion piece for The Age, saying that “the enthusiastic public uptake of ride-sharing services such as Uber demonstrates that there are different and better ways of delivering taxi services than through the traditional, highly regulated mode”.
He criticised the taxi industry, saying there remained “a huge legacy of bad regulation”.
The head of the Victorian Taxi Association, David Samuel, declined to comment on Professor Fels’ new role, saying he would prefer to concentrate on improving the state’s taxi industry.
“We’re not interested in those distractions, we’re focusing on getting our services right and making sure we control the quality of our services,” he said.
Uber Australia spokeswoman Katie Curran said the primary role of the new board was to provide feedback and guidance to Uber on policy issues.
“Of course if a board member discusses Uber with a politician or regulator, any interaction would need to be registered according to local rules,” she said.
Uber has been on a public relations warpath in the past year as it faces mounting criticism over its labour model, in which drivers are not employees but contractors.
Uber in Melbourne recently cut fair prices by 15 per cent, which angered many drivers.
The company is also fighting to be legalised in Victoria.
UberX driver Nathan Brenner became the first UberX contractor to be found guilty of, in effect, driving a car for commercial purposes illegally. Mr Brenner and Uber are appealing the verdict.
The ACT, Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales have either legalised or announced plans to legalise the ride-sharing app.
However in Victoria, the Andrews Government has not yet decided on how to legalise the service.
The board meets twice a year and also features high-profile leaders and former politicians from the US, India, South America and the Middle East.
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