Minister for Transport silent on meetings before Gong Shuttle decision

TALKING TRANSPORT: Minister for Transport Andrew Constance's meeting diary shows he met with the NSW Taxi Council, which has expressed concern over the free Gong Shuttle bus, five times between July 1 and September 30.

TALKING TRANSPORT: Minister for Transport Andrew Constance's meeting diary shows he met with the NSW Taxi Council, which has expressed concern over the free Gong Shuttle bus, five times between July 1 and September 30.

Transport Minister Andrew Constance met with NSW Taxi Council representatives at least five times in the lead-up to the government’s decision to introduce fares on the free Gong Shuttle – but has refused to disclose what was discussed. 

The meetings, revealed in Mr Constance’s publicly-available ministerial diary disclosure, have raised questions about whether a taxi industry-led push was responsible for ending free rides on the popular city-loop bus. 

NSW Taxi Council and Illawarra Taxi Network drivers have long been concerned about the free shuttle, claiming it took away business.

In February last year, then taxi council chief executive Roy Wakelin-King said the shuttle’s hours and frequency needed to be cut because it was operating “a bit beyond what the genuine need is”.

The front page of Friday's Mercury.

The front page of Friday's Mercury.

Following the Transport for NSW announcement that standard Opal fares would be implemented on the Gong Shuttle from January 29, the taxi council’s deputy CEO, Nick Abrahim, refuted rumours it pushed for the fares.

Mr Abrahim said the first he was aware of the government’s plan to charge fares was when he read it in the Mercury.

He said the council had spoken with the government about transport in the region, pushing to create a “level playing field” – particularly around marketplace inequities such as CTP.

Mr Constance’s ministerial diary shows he met with the NSW Taxi Council on five occasions between July 1 and September 30 this year.

The purpose of each meeting was to discuss point to point transport changes, the disclosure said.

A new regulatory framework for the sector, which includes taxis and rideshare services, came into effect on November 1.

The Mercury contacted the minister’s office to ask a number of questions, including if the Gong Shuttle was discussed during any of the meetings with the taxi council and, if so, what was said. 

This newspaper also asked if the discussions had influenced the decision to implement fares on the shuttle. 

No answers were received from the minister’s office, with Transport for NSW directed to respond on his behalf. 

In its reply, a Transport for NSW spokesman reiterated earlier commentary that the shuttle was “becoming increasingly overcrowded as people chose the free service over other local buses” and introducing the fares was “the best and fairest way of reducing congestion on the shuttle and spread the load”.

Wollongong Labor MP Paul Scully said he would be concerned if the taxi council had been consulted “at the exclusion of any local input into this decision”. 

“I’d hate to hear ... that there’s been some picking and choosing of the voices a minister listens to before making a decision with such wide-ranging and long-term ramifications,” Mr Scully said.  

‘We didn’t have the chance to have a say’ 

Wollongong’s free city shuttle will soon become a paid service – but were other options considered? And where was the consultation?

They are the questions a large cross-section of the Illawarra community – including Wollongong MP Paul Scully – want answers to.

“It’s clear that there weren’t any other options explored for Wollongong, which is probably the most disturbing aspect of it,” Mr Scully said of the decision to introduce standard Opal fares on the Gong Shuttle from January 29.  

The University of Wollongong (UOW) and Wollongong City Council have hit out at the NSW government’s lack of consultation prior to the shuttle change. 

Following the Transport for NSW fare announcement on November 1, UOW’s Vice-Chancellor Paul Wellings said “the bureaucrats kept the university in the dark about this decision”.

Wollongong lord mayor Gordon Bradbery has also expressed disappointment that the council wasn’t involved in discussions.

NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance’s meeting diary showed he met with Newcastle City Council on August 25 to discuss transport in the Hunter city. 

The Mercury asked Mr Constance’s office why there had been no consultation with Wollongong stakeholders. 

The question was forwarded to Transport for NSW, but went unanswered. 

Mr Scully said ministers “have a responsibility to be transparent about their decision making”, particularly in light of revelations Mr Constance had multiple meetings with the NSW Taxi Council.

“It seems that there could potentially be more to this than meets the eye,” Mr Scully said.

“I’m very concerned that it doesn’t seem that one Illawarra voice has had the opportunity to have their say.”