Drivers the last cabs off rank

ANYONE who catches taxis in Sydney soon learns three things: fares are not cheap, cab availability is boom and bust, and taxi drivers will tell you how hard it is to make a living. They are not exaggerating. For most drivers, it is difficult to extract a living wage.

ANYONE who catches taxis in Sydney soon learns three things: fares are not cheap, cab availability is boom and bust, and taxi drivers will tell you how hard it is to make a living. They are not exaggerating. For most drivers, it is difficult to extract a living wage.

ANYONE who catches taxis in Sydney soon learns three things: fares are not cheap, cab availability is boom and bust, and taxi drivers will tell you how hard it is to make a living. They are not exaggerating. For most drivers, it is difficult to extract a living wage.

A modern-day Charles Dickens would find a wealth of material in the Sydney taxi industry. The average take-home pay of a cabbie is $11 an hour, well below the minimum wage of $15.50. Their average annual income is $29,000 for working a year of 50-hour shifts. Only 3 per cent of full-time drivers receive their entitlements to annual leave, superannuation and sick leave. Drivers carry the bulk of the daily financial risk. They also bear the brunt of any misadventures. Many drivers are migrants, doing a job most Australians, for obvious reasons, do not want.

The figures quoted are from a survey by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, set against a request by the NSW Taxi Drivers Association for the state government to impose a 20 per cent loading on fares at weekends, matching the night surcharge that applies from 10pm to 6am.

Yet if wages and conditions are so poor, and the average operator makes a profit of less than $5000 a year, why is the average market price for an unrestricted Sydney taxi licence - as listed by AMB, a taxi and finance broker - $430,000?

Someone in the system is doing very well for themselves. The rewards just aren't trickling down to those who put in the hard grind.

It turns out that with the average taxi bringing in $75,000 a year in fares, many of the 3500 owner-operators are willing to work long hours for a low hourly return. Once again, migrants play an increasingly important role as owner-operators. In effect, taxi travel is being subsidised by the many owners and drivers willing to work for less than the minimum wage.

We see no way around the current system of incentive-based payments to drivers. Every taxi is a small business, so paying drivers a set wage would be a recipe for inefficiency. The NSW government, rather than simply slugging taxi customers with a fare rise, should make the system more equitable. A good starting point would be to ensure the proportion of Sydney's 20,000 taxi drivers who get their legal entitlement to superannuation and annual leave rises well above the existing 3 per cent.

Hiding behind a wall of secrecy

THIRTY-ODD years ago, a senior official complained to Malcolm Fraser that the Prime Minister's Department couldn't get on with the real business of government because Mr Fraser insisted the department reply to each public query. ''After all,'' the administrator whined to the PM, ''they are only members of the public.''

Sir Humphrey Appleby, it seems, is alive and well, not just in the Commonwealth public service but in global, state and local domains indeed practically wherever members of the public want to know something pertinent to their lives. Information is power and the powerful aren't about to relinquish it just because the public wants to assert a proprietorial right.

To this end, bureaucracies have grown within bureaucracies, dwarfing the so-called public affairs units charged with disseminating information in the Fraser era. These units go by several oxymorons - communications, public relations, public affairs, information. Their central purpose is to stop the public from knowing and they have grown like wild lantana in their opaqueness and obstinacy.

A second stream of this same purpose has been the decay of parliamentary question times, loosening the rein on government accountability. It's an offshoot of the arrogance of incumbency and is reflected in the derision shown by government in ignoring its undertaking to answer questions taken on notice at Senate hearings.

Not every answer can be at the fingertips of ministers and officials facing these hearings. It is sensible they be taken on notice so that Senate committees are not misled, but the December 9 deadline came and went. And in this case? Fewer than half the thousands of questions taken on notice in the October round of Senate estimates hearings have been answered.

Immigration and Citizenship, for instance, is yet to answer any of its 423 questions on notice. Infrastructure and Transport, as well as AusAID, have been equally silent, and several other big departments have been only slightly more prompt.

It's not as if the challenge is impossible, either. Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Foreign Affairs and Trade and Regional Australia and Local Government each answered their full lists.

The Prime Minister's spokesman left the matter up to individual departments, suggesting they have a free rein in deciding whether and when to respond. That suggests issues of public accountability are at the whim of individual ministers and their bureaucrats, not determined by a central principle. No wonder transparency has slipped so far.

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