23/06/2015 - 05:55

Swan Taxis needs to turn a corner

23/06/2015 - 05:55


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New leadership at the helm of Swan Taxis offers a chance to turn away from past mistakes.

ACTION NEEDED: Swan Taxis is dealing with a changed market dynamic. Photo: Tim van Bronswijk

New leadership at the helm of Swan Taxis offers a chance to turn away from past mistakes.

Competition does wonderful things to markets.

The arrival of new technology that enables ride-sharing applications such as Uber has shaken up the near-monopoly held by Swan Taxis, a former cooperative which had for decades overseen the stagnation of this important public transport sector (aided by negligent governance).

It’s pretty hard to find anyone with anything positive to say about the performance of Perth’s taxi system over the past 20 years. The well-travelled Western Australian public knows it could be so much better.

Singapore’s ComfortDelGro – a global giant in the world of taxis and buses – has owned Swan for the past four years.

Whether or not ComfortDelGro’s purchase of Swan Taxis for $39 million in 2010, on the cusp of the new technology revolution, was ill timed is a matter of conjecture. There’s little doubt, though, that having such a major player behind the Perth business means it is more likely to be able to withstand the current onslaught.

Having met new Swan Taxis CEO See Peng Yeo last week, it is clear that the Singapore head office has swung in one of its more talented managerial leaders to ensure its WA asset is protected.

Mr Yeo has spent the past six months learning the WA system, one that varies considerably from Singapore which has, in my view, a superior model set up for encouraging more, and better taxis, on the road. Singapore has also dealt with Uber by regulating ride-sharing technology in a way that appears to protect consumers rather than incumbent industry players.

Perth’s lifestyle is very different from that in Singapore. However, as this city gets bigger, congestion increases and entertainment options flourish, meaning bespoke transport options such as taxis and ride sharing can only become more popular.

Let’s hope that Mr Yeo’s background – including as a senior army commander in Singapore and a corporate career in the land transport sector there and a variety of other foreign markets – can help steer the industry towards a solution that benefits all Western Australians by increasing options, improving standards and lowering costs.

There’s no doubt the biggest of Swan Taxis’ problems is the legacy of the industry’s poor oversight by the state government going back more than two decades. The state’s relinquishment of control of taxi plates has imposed a high cost on drivers and, ultimately, the public, for no benefit whatsoever beyond the private owners.

One of the great opportunities of having ComfortDelGro involved at Swan Taxis is that it doesn’t need to own this issue it inherited. The plate owners are not its customers or employees; they are unnecessary and expensive regulatory burden on Swan Taxis as much as they are on the rest of this public transport community.

As it now works with the state government on developing a green paper to guide policy development for the sector, ComfortDelGro has a chance to lobby for change that allows competition on a more level playing field, rather than leading Perth back to the dark ages of poor monopolistic outcomes.

Perhaps, for instance, some modest regulatory costs imposed on all participants could fund the compulsorily acquisition of the private plates to rid the state of this nuisance.

Some flexibility is needed. Most business people I have dealt with believe Uber has changed things for the better. They won’t accept turning the clock back.

Spin cycle

I HAVE been sceptical about the value of renewable energy for a long time, but even I was bewildered at Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s criticism of windfarm aesthetics recently.

Energy generation and transmission of almost every type is controversial for a host of reasons, but there is no way that decision making about electricity should come down to a beauty contest. Almost all of it is unsightly.

I realise that Mr Abbott is often taken out of context with such remarks and that this subject was part of a broader discussion around his problem with windfarms that go beyond looks.

Certainly, there are concerns that pertain to noise and other localised environmental issues that are too often dismissed by the same people who can’t bear their own unproven claims to be scrutinised. But my view is that hypocrisy is for others.

There is no way that a wind farm is any more aesthetically as pleasing than a coal-fired power station, a dam across an alpine valley or power lines running down a rural highway.

Today, I think we all can agree that industrial complexes are a necessity that we live with because modern human life would not exist as it does without them. That is a contrast to an earlier time, maybe a century ago, when such sights represented progress and, therefore, had a sort of brutish beauty about them.

In some ways, perhaps, windfarms represent a modern extension of that concept to their promoters. To those who believe renewables will take over from fossil fuels, the wind farm is not just infrastructure – it is progress on a path to enlightenment. They therefore represent symbolic beauty.

While I have no doubt that renewables will push out coal and other fossil fuels in a few decades, my views on renewables, including windfarms, is merely that we have wasted a lot of money meddling artificially in a process that would have occurred anyway. I realise that many believe such expenditure, mostly as subsidies, was required to stimulate and accelerate development to reach a truly commercial position more quickly, but I have my doubts on whether that has been effective.

Nevertheless, my view – literally or in reality – doesn’t make the sight of windfarms any more or less important; similarly, I don’t think electric cars represent an abomination in automotive development or genetically modified crops as an agricultural Frankenstein.

These are ‘natural’ evolutions in scientific and industrial endeavour and we all need to learn to live with them.

Similarly, airports are noisy but we can’t ban them. And moving them elsewhere just makes it someone else’s problem.

Instead, by compromising between aesthetics and practicalities we see progress towards quieter and more efficient aircraft. That is a result that will please everyone.


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