• However useful the Uber product is to individuals, it’s not much use to that deficit we keep hearing about if it fails to pay substantial tax. (AAP)Source: AAP
Some politicians may praise the sharing economy and start-ups like Uber as 'innovative' but the convenience comes at a big cost to our national economy.
By
Helen Razer

6 Jul 2016 - 11:28 AM  UPDATED 6 Jul 2016 - 11:30 AM

It is, so the folk wisdom goes, important to have a hobby. So, I borrowed two from my grandmother. First, and least soothing, is gardening—a practice that involves a lot of yelling and very few actual living plants. The second involves only yelling. Specifically, at the television every time a Coalition politician pops on it.  Even, in fact, a dead one.

I was very small when Nan sat me on her knee and handed down this tradition. That afternoon, former prime minister Robert Menzies was in a coffin and as we watched his cortège inch in silence across the Princes Bridge, dear, ladylike Grace yelled, “I hope you fall into the Yarra and die again, you bastard”.

Corpses were good, but living defenders of the rich were an even better target. Grace always said it was important to start yelling at right-wing politicians early in their careers. (And, yes. I know that whatever their age, they can’t hear you through the telly. But, don’t contradict my dead grandma.)

When Wyatt Roy, an LNP politician, emerged at 20 to become the youngest blight ever on Parliament, I thought of my dear Nan. “She would be so happy to swear at this corrupt toddler!” I thought. So for six years, I swore at him in her memory.

At the time of writing, Roy’s seat of Longman hangs in the balance. As you might imagine, I am feeling very wistful about the wholesome hatred my Nan and I had would have shared in this moment. But, I am also a little panicked about the present. Whether Roy goes or stays, his smirk will remain on other faces. Roy’s is a new kind of sunny, stubborn and “innovative” grin.

A US company that was last valued at over $60B has been quite reticent to disclose its Australian earnings or, you know, pay its Australian company taxes.

The things my Nan loathed so many years ago about the cold exploitation of workers have not improved; in fact, by several measures, they’ve worsened. What has improved, however, is the sales pitch that the bosses and their partner politicians are able to offer. Once Bob Menzies might have said to someone like my grandma “You are poor and you will always be poor, so stop whining”. Now someone like the young Wyatt Roy says “You just need to be more innovative!” or “Uber will drive you to the future!”

Late on election night when it had begun to dawn on Roy that his Queensland constituents might not be as keen on his slick sharing economy slang as he thought, he started yammering to the television camera about Uber.

Uber, said Roy, was something he’s always supported. Uber, he said, was exactly the kind of “innovation” that would get this country out of this mess. Uber was what those other no-fun, old boring guys on the other side of politics wanted to stop.

Uber, sheesh. Is THAT what you talk about when you’re about to lose your job? And, yes, I know from hard experience that to criticise Uber in the present is a bit like throwing shade on the Saviour during the Inquisición. But, before you get all “why don’t you just go and live in a yurt with your abacus, Granny?”, I’ll have you know that I am very fond of technological advances, especially those that reduce my need to physically move.

But, there’s a difference between a private innovation, such as that which simplifies transport, and the way it plays out in our economy and public space. The fact that something is innovative is not itself a rationale for its owners to play by special rules.

However useful the Uber product is to individuals, it’s not much use to that deficit we keep hearing about if it fails to pay substantial tax.

Uber, which has become much more than the name of a company and now suggests the redeeming Jesus genius of the Silicon Valley mindset, is a good idea. What it isn’t though, is a good source of revenue for this nation. A US company that was last valued at over $60B has been quite reticent to disclose its Australian earnings or, you know, pay its Australian company taxes. And, given that you and I jolly well paid for some of the roads that Uber used to build their colossal valuation, it does seem a little unfair that they’re not coughing up much more tax than an individual cardiologist. Who, I’d say, is probably a fairly “innovative” person.

However useful the Uber product is to individuals, it’s not much use to that deficit we keep hearing about if it fails to pay substantial tax. However useful Uber may be in providing income to some Australians, to others, namely taxi drivers, it will produce a downturn—and these workers will only be compensated if they’re already doing well enough to own their own cab.  Anyhow, you and I both know that we’re likely to see driverless Ubers in our lifetimes. 

Even if you don’t give two particular hoots about what happens to either government revenues or low-income drivers, this sort of “policy hack” thinking of Roy’s will, in time, touch you personally. Sure, we will have “innovative” products available to us. We will also have a national economy that’s in the crapper. High unemployment, low government revenue and profits retained offshore tend to do that.

And, if you think you’ll be exempt from recession because you’re an innovative go-getter, I’ll remind you that my grandma had a portfolio career during the Great Depression—seamstress, mail-sorter and baker’s assistant—and she still didn’t have enough to eat.

My Nan taught me to yell at politicians, but she also taught me to look behind their shiny promises. Next time you hear the word “innovation”, perhaps you could think about whether that means making your life more convenient, or eventually making it worse. 

Getting from A to B
Driverless cars should sacrifice their passengers for the greater good – just not when I’m the passenger
With driverless cars already being tested on many roads, ethicists are trying to figure out how the vehicles should behave in a crash.
You’re more likely to cough up for Uber's surge pricing when your battery is low
Uber knows when you're low on power.