Going the extra mile for the disabled

The┬ásame message had been coming up on my despatcher for over an hour, with variations indicating increasing desperation: “URGENT wheelchair booking holding Ransome-Wellington Point. 2 x advantage jobs on offer. Pax waiting. Please assist.”

Good luck with that, I thought. That sounds harsh, I know, but there was nothing I could do; I was in the Albany Creek area at the time, a good hour away from the southern bayside suburbs. And most other wheelchair-accessible taxis, I knew, would be in two places: at the airport or cruising the city, where they had the best chance of finding work. The only way any of them would be making the 45-minute drive to the Redlands would be if another fare took them there first.

And even then they might not want to hang around, 2 x advantage jobs (where drivers are, sometimes, allocated a pre-booked compensatory fare) or not.

The sad, brutal reality if you’re a person with a disability – especially if you live in the outer suburbs – is that unless you want to go somewhere pretty exceptional, it’s often pretty hard to find a cab willing to come to your aid. And mostly, wheelchair-bound passengers aren’t going anywhere exceptional: they’re relying on taxis to take them from home to their local shopping centre, or they’re on a visit to their kids from their nursing facility or respite centre. Basic stuff, which anyone should be entitled to without fuss.

In some ways, working with people with disabilities is one of the most rewarding aspects of driving a maxi taxi. You are providing a badly required community service. One of the best jobs I ever had involved picking up a clearly gravely ill woman from the Holy Spirit Hospital with her extended family – children and grandchildren – a week before Christmas a few years ago. All they wanted to do was drive around the suburbs for an hour looking at the Christmas lights.

But – as anyone who works in community services will attest – it’s poorly paid. And time is money in a cab. There is no baseline retainer. Most drivers make a little better than 50 percent of a 12-hour shift’s take, if they’re good at the job. They bear the cost of fuel, and many other expenses besides. They are not considered employees, so there are no holidays or superannuation or sickness benefits. And rises in taxi fares are invariably gobbled up by the owners, who simply increase the cost of leasing their vehicles to drivers.

It is, as Ross Gittins said earlier this week, a terrible deal, and it’s hardly a surprise that the industry is plagued by high turnover and desperate drivers willing to cut corners wherever they can to make a living. The turnover is particularly high in the maxi fleet. It’s a rare cabbie who will go the extra mile(s) – literally – to pick up a wheelchair passenger in Ransome. Of course we are dealing with people less fortunate than ourselves, but the simple fact is we have to eat, too.

So Campbell Newman’s decision to axe a proposed taxi subsidy scheme (negotiated by the Taxi Council with the previous Labor government) is a disappointment. The scheme aimed to compensate drivers $6.50 for each wheelchair fare. And $6.50 per fare, adding up to about $1.5 million, is minimalist compared to similar schemes in other states.

Of course, Newman and transport minister Scott Emerson have trotted out the familiar refrain that the state is broke. But being broke hasn’t stopped the government from taking a politically motivated appeal against the mining tax to the high court. How will that boost the state’s coffers, either in the short or long term? An unlikely victory would certainly see a bit of extra cash flow into the pockets of a few mining magnates with close ties to the LNP. I don’t think I need to mention any names.

Speaking more broadly, and as Barrie Cassidy has already pointed out, that’s the rod Newman and other premiers have made for their own backs with their decision to turn their backs on a trial (a trial!) national disability insurance scheme, and on this proposal. Every cent they spend will – and should – be measured against their lack of commitment to servicing some of the most disadvantaged members of the community. The money they are being asked to put in is a pittance in state government terms, especially in a state as rich in resources as ours.

They should be ashamed.

Comments are closed.