Sharing is good but everyone needs a fair go - Herald Sun

Sharing is good but everyone needs a fair go, Herald Sun, 14 September

In March this year, I gave a speech about the rise of the sharing economy – new app-based services that are changing the way Australians buy and sell things. In this speech, I calculated that AirBNB, which had only operated here for two years, already listed one in 300 Australian homes for temporary rental.

It's a measure of how rapidly the sector is changing that in just the six months since I gave that speech, the share of Australian homes listed on AirBNB has risen to almost one in 200. 

People right across the Australian community are now buying and selling things through the sharing economy. Whether it’s university students and stay-at-home mums finding jobs on Airtasker, retirees booking holidays with Camplify or families ditching the second car in favour of GoGet, these services are rapidly becoming part of our daily lives.

With so many of us using sharing economy services, it’s easy to forget that some of these still sit in a complicated grey area when it comes to rules and regulations. Our laws haven’t changed anywhere near as fast as these services have been growing. 

That’s why over the past six months I’ve been talking with the community, sharing economy companies and peak bodies on what rules we need to protect Australians while supporting a thriving sharing economy. 

Over 500 people and organisations responded to Labor’s sharing economy discussion paper. This feedback shows Australians have a common set of priorities when it comes to bringing this sector out of the legal shadows.

The top concern was public safety. More than half of those who responded said we need better rules to keep people safe when using sharing economy services. Issues such as insurance for when things go wrong, background checks for suppliers, and consumer rights, were particularly flagged as areas for reform.

Wages and working conditions were another big theme coming out of our consultations. Four out of ten people told us that they want to see people who deliver services in the sharing economy get paid a decent wage and enjoy good working conditions.

As a Labor MP, it won’t surprise you to find that I agree. Ensuring that we fairly deliver the benefits of the sharing economy to consumers and workers has been a theme of several state and territory Labor Party conferences in recent weeks. To progressives like us, it's vital that the new online services don’t take us back to the Downton Abbey days when poorly-paid servants toiled away serving the well-off. I've studied Australian inequality in the 19th century, and the last thing I want to see is a return to the days when one in 30 people worked as a servant.

Then there’s tax. One in three said they’re worried some sharing economy companies and the people delivering services through them are falling through our tax system and aren’t paying the right amount of tax. For some, this concern comes from a desire to see a level playing field with more traditional businesses. For others, it’s about ensuring sharing economy services contribute to the cost of the common goods they use, like roads and other infrastructure. 

Either way, it’s clear that Australians believe that we need to ensure that our tax system is fair. Just because they’re delivering services in a new way, sharing economy companies should not get to avoid paying tax.

Other big issues that came up in our consultations included accessibility for people with disability, fair competition with existing service providers, transparency in how sharing economy companies operate and ongoing innovation - the need to make Australia a place where new companies and ideas can take root.

Having read through the submissions and had dozens of conversations about the sharing economy, the thing which sticks with me is how much Australians want to see these services grow and flourish. But they certainly don’t want that to come at the cost of fairness – whether for workers, competing businesses or the community at large.

That’s Labor’s view too. We’re now working on a response to the consultations and a blueprint for how we balance these important priorities.

There’ll always be some who think government’s best response is to get right out of the way, and others who believe we should regulate new industries to within an inch of their life. We’re looking for a middle way: sensible rules that protect the things we value while making room for the innovation that delivers great new services and opportunities.

The sharing economy is now racing ahead. It’s time governments took their fair share of the responsibility for developing regulatory architecture that can keep up. 

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