Mr Singh lost $1 mn when Victoria deregularised taxi licence plates in 2016 and says there are hundreds like him.
It’s not easy to restart your life at 55, especially when you have a family of four to look after. But often, life doesn’t leave you with any choices, as it happened with Gurdawar Singh of Melbourne. Two years ago, this 57-year-old taxi driver from Punjab’s Phillaur district got poorer by $1 million overnight and had to not only work harder than before but also sell his house to pay off the bank loan. His anger and frustration have led him to jump into the political fray to make his voice heard if he wins. Or even if he doesn’t.
A Liberal party candidate, Mr Singh is contesting the November 24 Victoria elections from Thomastown, in Melbourne’s north, where he lived for 13 years before moving to nearby Epping two years back. He is pitted against Labor heavyweight Ms Bronwyn Halfpenny who has retained her seat since 2010. Not fazed by Ms Halfpenny’s political strength, Mr Singh says: “the Labor government’s decision to deregularise taxi licence plates is enough to earn them the wrath of not only those involved in the taxi business but also those who sympathise with the financially hurt.” Mr Singh adds that he knows at least 10 people in the business who ended their lives when they fell on bad times after the government brought about the taxi reform. “The government will never declare those suicides but they are responsible for them,” said a concerned but confident Mr Singh.
In 2016, the Daniel Andrews government brought about a reform in the state’s taxi industry whereby low-fare and ride share taxi services like Uber (which required no special licence to operate) were recognised and let into the market. This led to the deregularisation of the existing taxi licence plates which initially came at a whopping cost of upto $500,000 each. It was also announced that a buyback scheme of the taxi licences will be implemented whereby the government will compensate each “eligible” metropolitan licence holder with $100,000 for each and $50,000 for every subsequent licence for upto two licences. The promised compensation for licence holders in country and regional areas were said to be lesser.
Mr Singh says he approached Ms Halfpenny to seek help several times after this news broke. “She didn’t help at all. But I kept taking other taxi drivers with me to her with our concerns. Then we decided to meet the Liberal Party as we came to understand that the Labor Party won’t help us. After five or six meetings with Mr Matthew Guy, I decided to contest elections against Bronwyn. If she doesn’t help us, we’ll help ourselves,” said a defiant Mr Singh. He was promised a buyback offer of $250,000 per licence by the Victoria’s Liberal Party leader and Leader of Opposition Mr Matthew Guy, who is now the party’s candidate for the office of premier.
“My wife and I poured in our savings accumulated over 30 years of living outside India into two taxi licences as we thought we’ll be able retire easily and settle our two sons properly. We reasoned to ourselves that it will be a safe business because it is government-backed and small. But all hell broke loose when we realised that overnight we’ve lost $ 1 million because Mr Andrews decided to deregularise taxi licences. We had to sell our house to pay the bank loan and now again we are hand-to-mouth,” said Mr Singh who worked in a kiwi fruit business in New Zealand before moving to Australia nearly 10 years back. However, he seems to have pulled up his socks to take on the challenges that life has thrown at him, as he talks of targeting Melbourne’s declining law and order and burgeoning traffic, during his election campaign. “I’m well-prepared against a strong and incumbent MP of Thomastown. I have huge support from not only taxi drivers and their friends and families but also from the Middle Eastern community. People from Iraq and Iran respect Sikhs. They’ll vote for me,” he says with a smile distributing his election pamphlets with cold drinks on a hot summer day to people in his electorate.
To listen to this interview in Punjabi, click on the player at the top of the page.