Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Having had an easy ride from Australia’s mostly pliant politicians, Airbnb has warned that they will now use their considerable online clout to campaign against any politician who dares to threaten their business model.
This is a tactic they have threatened before and used to varying success, especially in the USA where campaigns against politicians who supported laws that protected residents – especially renters – have resulted in some success but often an angry backlash.
Closer to home, In NSW, according to a story in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, their target is Labor Shadow Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation (and Fair Trading) Yasmin Catley who recently said she favoured the registration of the so-called “sharing” short-term holiday rental (STHL) accommodation market.
The story, headlined ‘Labor blasted for backing big end of town’ claims Airbnb had revealed plans to email their tens of thousands of guests and hosts urging them not to vote for any MPs who threaten their largely unregulated and, arguably, out-of-control “disruption” model.
Ms Catley – and just about everyone else involved, including other on-line holiday agencies and the Liberal government – recognises that if there are going to be any realistic limits on STHL, including the very generous 180 nights per year cap, authorities need to know where the homes are and who is running the lets.
This doesn’t suit Airbnb who continue to sell the idea that they are all about “ordinary people” renting a spare room in their homes to make a little extra cash.
This is a convenient confection. Sure, these “ordinary people” exist, However, in the areas where STHL services are most popular, two-thirds of Airbnb’s rentals are whole homes.
Even more significant, massive numbers of their lets are commercial operations where one “host”, often a tenant, lets several properties, using management companies to clean, change the sheets and hand over the keys.
It’s an odd idea of “sharing” when the host never meets the guest. And how massive? We can’t say for sure because Airbnb say all the “web-scraping” figures provided through websites like InsideAirbnb.com are unreliable but their own accurate figures are private.
All of this disruption is crucially significant to those of us who live permanently in apartments because it’s our lives that are being disrupted.
It seems the “caring and sharing” Airbnb – that defender of the poor and champion of the downtrodden – isn’t quite so anxious if their commercial operators are ruining your happy and peaceful home.
So far, it’s been all about the massive revenue (minimal tax paid, and then in a foreign haven), but now it’s about politics too.
I can’t think of a single previous occasion when a commercial operation has used or threatened to use its consumer reach to try to influence the outcome of an election. But the fact that Airbnb lives and breathes on the Internet make this their default response to any threat, valid or otherwise.
According to the Telegraph story, Airbnb claims Yasmin Catley is favouring the “big end of town” – meaning the hotel chains.
This is pretty rich, coming from a $50 billion company that’s about to launch on the stock market. They say they are protecting “the little guy”. What crap!
They are protecting their revenue stream, knowing that registration – when illegal short-term rentals would be exposed and their hosts obliged to pay tax – could see their listings cut by half as they were when a register was introduced in Los Angeles or even two-thirds as is projected to happen when they inevitably lose their legal fight against registration in New York.
It’s hard to take the moral high ground when a chunk of your income is derived from people who defy their by-laws, ignore their planning regulations, treat their neighbours with contempt and don’t pay their fare share of taxes.
I think Yasmin Catley is made of sterner stuff than to worry that substantial numbers of people will change their votes because they like the idea of being able to rent an apartment in Paris some day. And I don’t think those “ordinary people” whose illegal acts would be affected by a register would vote Labor to begin with.
However, if the Tele is to be believed, Airbnb clearly think it’s worth putting a scare into politicians, so maybe we should remind our pollies that there are also a few hundred thousand of us out here who want to be left in peace and quiet, living next to people we know and trust.
A Labor spokesman was quoted as saying they made no apology for trying to strike a balance between community concerns and those seeking to make a profit out of holiday lets.
A few months ago, ABC radio host Jon Faine called Airbnb “parasites and predators”. Nothing in these latest allegations of political bullying suggests that is any less true.
But we too can play the Internet game. Unlike Airbnb, we won’t supply pre-written “astroturf” stock emails, but you could write to Yasmin Catley on Swansea@parliament.nsw.gov.au and just put “We stand with you against illegal holiday lets” in the subject header. Then she’ll know she’s on the right track.