“Imagine if you were told you were not allowed out after 10pm on certain nights of the week.”
That is the situation facing Helen Reimers’ “engaging and wonderful” daughter, Alex, for whom she acts as unpaid carer, and whose freedom she says will be restricted by Bendigo Taxis decision to no longer offer its wheelchair accessible services after 10pm between Sunday and Thursday.
But Ms Reimers does not believe the blame lies with the taxi operator, whose drivers she says provide “an amazing service”, without which she and Alex, who relies on an electric wheelchair for mobility, would be “completely lost”.
“There are so many Bendigo residents who rely on the Bendigo Taxi Association and their maxi-taxi service to enable them to have access to our community, the deregulation of the hire car industry is making it impossible for them to offer the necessary services for them to do so and it is only going to get worse,” she says.
“Imagine what it is like to be told you can’t have this choice [to go out after 10pm] because you are disabled, and make no mistake this is what it says. This is our government forcing our disabled citizens to be out of sight, out of mind. This is discrimination.”
Taxis Associated of Bendigo Co-Operative Limited manager Colin Wells agrees, saying deregulation has left the organisation with no choice but to reduce the hours the maxi-taxis operate in order to preserve the life of the aging fleet. He says the organisation can no longer afford to replace three of its eight wheelchair-accessible taxis, now approaching the end of their life.
“One of our vans has blown a motor so that’s 12,000 odd dollars to repair it,” he says.
“You wouldn’t bother putting a new motor in a vehicle that’s got 750,000 kilometres on it when the gear box and everything else in it is exhausted. You’re better off putting that money into a new van but we don’t have the wherewithal to find the $80,000 that we’d need to get another van on the road.”
Mr Wells says deregulation has meant revenue from sedan taxis is no longer sufficient to subsidise the wheelchair fleet, putting in jeopardy the decades-old trade off industry players made between the profit-based sedan taxi services and the “essential service” of providing affordable transport for people with disabilities, which he says runs at a loss.
“We want to provide the service, we just don’t have the capital funds to do so,” he says.
“The whole crux of is it is we are being repeatedly and consistently told by the government that ours is not an essential service, we are merely commercial operators, that’s all we are, so they are saying if a service is not viable then stop providing it.
“I believe they are 100 per cent wrong, they could not be more wrong, particularly with the wheelchair fleet.”
Mr Wells says the government’s changes have also meant the value of the association’s taxi fleet as an asset has been reduced, leaving it unable to borrow against it to pay for repairs to the wheelchair-accessible vans.
“If you can imagine we had $900,000 worth of licences to run our wheelchair fleet, we’re going to get a $200,000 payment for that, so therefore, when we go to the bank, the bank will see we made a $700,000 loss last year with the right down of the asset value so of course no one, in that situation, in their right mind is going to lend for that,” he said.
“They’ve taken away our ability to borrow, they’ve taken away our ability to cross-subsidise, so there’s nothing left but to shut services down and go off the road.”
Ms Reimers believes the service provided by Bendigo Taxis is an essential one as “the only safe, accessible transport service” for wheelchair users in Bendigo which, for Alex, means the difference between playing an active role in her community and social isolation.
“Living with significant disability presents her with economic and social barriers that already make social inclusion and achieving a reasonable quality of life more challenging than it is for the average [person],” she says.
“If her only means of transport in and around Bendigo is taken away, then socially she will be completely exiled from her own community, from our community.”
Mr Wells says the “unambiguous message” coming from the government is that taxi operators are not providers of “essential services” and should be moving towards an entirely commercial model – but he believes that will inevitably lead to higher prices.
“The government has been warned since August, 2015 if they got the deregulation incorrect it would have a massive impact on the wheelchair fleet,” he said.
“They keep telling me that commercial forces will dictate that someone will come in and replace us. Well they won’t – or the only only way they will is if they double the price.”
For her part, Alex Reimers says the freedom afforded to her by the taxi service means “the world” and its loss would cost her her cherished independence and adversely impact her mental health.
“I find it really empowering to be able to have choice in what I do and when. To be able to go out and about without my mother always having to be by my side has built my confidence. I couldn’t do this without the maxi-taxi service,” she says.
“The maxi-taxis provide me with access to the community, events, education, appointments, shopping and socialising. I’d be lost without them.”
Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan said the government was offering the biggest industry assistance package in Australia and helping wheelchair taxi operators by increasing the lifting fee and providing up to $40,000 for each new piece of equipment purchased.
"Ultimately, these reforms will improve services to people with disabilities, by reducing the cost of operating a wheelchair taxi and encouraging new operators to offer accessible services,” she said.
But Mr Wells says while five of the association’s eight maxi-taxis still have years of life left in them, if nothing changes it will only be a matter of time before the wheelchair accessible service disappears entirely.
“We need help and we need help now and all I’m doing is recommending that all of our passengers who are impacted by this contact their local member and say ‘Hey listen, if they’re not an essential service, what essential services is the government providing to ensure that I can be transported around?’,” he says.
“I don’t think that’s an unreasonable question because in my mind we are an essential service.”