Nambucca Heads Companion Driver business not able to continue under new Transport for NSW regulatory fee

Gina Bennett said on Sunday she'll have to strip the signs of the car she bought to operate her business
Gina Bennett said on Sunday she'll have to strip the signs of the car she bought to operate her business

Anyone who's caught the first flight out of Coffs knows the struggle of getting to the airport.

The first bus of the day will get you there by 7.30am, by which time your flight is due to land in Sydney.

So do you call up a favour from a relative or friend, hauling them bleary eyed out of bed before the sun rises, or do you cough up for a taxi fare and part with $120?

For the past 18 months there has been another option; Gina Bennett and her Companion Driver business has been taxiing people to and from Coffs Harbour for a flat fee of $60.

She's even acted as personal shopper in between dropping off and picking up elderly passengers from their appointments in Coffs Harbour.

It's an 80 minute round trip, and she'll wait for the appointment to finish before dropping them back home - it's all part of the service, and she's been happy to do it.

But all of that is coming to an end this Sunday.

The State Government's 'Point To Point Transport' regulatory reforms issued in a raft of changes to the taxi, hire car and rideshare industry, including a new annual 'authorisation fee' for booking service providers.

These changes were meant to level the playing field and bring legal certainty to the mercurial rideshare industry as players like Uber mushroom and threaten to squash existing taxi companies.

But for sole operators like Gina, who brings in $3000 a year from her business, the $500 authorisation fee has crippled her.

"It's a tax by another name. This fee brings no tangible benefit to me, it's just what they call 'the price of a regulated industry'," she said.

"I would have thought the eight bureaucratic hoops I've already jumped through - drivers licence, Driver Authority, Police Clearance Check, car registration, CTP, full insurance, ABN, GST registration - should safely satisfy anyone wondering whether I was operating a private taxi service lawfully.

"It is incredibly unfair to lump small operators providing a valuable service in regional Australia with multi-car, multi-driver operators working in the city.

This goes completely against the grain of the newly-elected government's pledge to protect small business operators.

Gina has tried to fight the fee, making an appeal to local member Melinda Pavey for representation, and pleading her case with Transport for NSW.

She's even brought up the precedent of small operator exemptions from the $1-per-fare levy used to compensate the taxi industry.

"If booking service operators taking fewer than 150 bookings a year can be exempt from the taxi levy, why couldn't the same rationale be applied to the exorbitant authorisation fee?" she said.

In spite of her best efforts, she has ultimately been told there are no exemptions; from Monday, if she still plans to operate the service, she will be liable to pay up.

A spokesperson for Transport for NSW has confirmed the authorisation fee was being used to "offset some of the costs of the industry regulator".

"It is common practice for an industry to contribute to the cost of its regulation. For example, local councils and the NSW Food Authority charge fees to restaurants, cafes and food businesses to help fund the food safety inspection regime in NSW," the spokesperson said.

The current authorisation fees are much lower than before the point to point transport reforms were introduced when companies providing booked hire services in regional areas had to pay an annual licence fee of $3000.

"Previously, there were also other administrative requirements that added weeks of paperwork and cost for these businesses."

But the point remains that sole operators are liable to pay the same fee as companies who employ multiple drivers and take up to 20,000 fares annually.

Gina said she's lucky to take 50.

And should she refuse to pay, she could be fined up to $110,000 for acting outside the law.

"So I surrender. I am not going to pay one-sixth of my meagre income to a government agency seeking only to justify its own existence," she said.

"All I've tried to do is run a little business, in a little town, and to earn a living without going on benefits.

Things shouldn't be like this in Australia. I've been in third world countries with a dictatorship in place and they don't interfere with people just trying to make a living like this.

Many of her clients are also upset by the loss of her service and her companionship.

Noelle Carroll has previously booked Gina to take her to appointments in Coffs Harbour and is disappointed it has come to this.

"It's a sad set of affairs. I'm very sorry we're losing her because it was a wonderful service. I found her excellent, and she's very good company," she said.

Gina knows that any further action she takes will make no difference to her business because of "the glacial pace of legislative change". But she's hoping that red flagging this might help others in future.

"I would like to thank all of those Nambucca Valley people who have supported Companion Driver and encouraged me to take this stand," she said.

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