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Labor shelves transport privatisation inquiry after 'significant step forward'

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A planned $1 million commission of inquiry to advise the State Government on returning South Australia’s train and tram operations to public ownership has been scrapped after “positive negotiations” with the services’ private operators.

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The million-dollar commitment was funded in this month’s state budget, as a first step in a reversal of the former Liberal government’s passenger rail service “privatisation” – which the now-Opposition has claimed could cost as much as $70 million.

Transport Minister Tom Koutsantonis said the Government had been “able to suspend its plan to hold a Commission of Inquiry” after the rail and tram service operators, Keolis Downer and Torrens Connect respectively, “agreed to work collaboratively with the Government in meeting its election commitment of publicly owned rail services”.

“This is a significant step forward in the Government honouring its election commitment,” Koutsantonis said in a statement.

“This move also saves $1 million of taxpayers’ money that would have been spent on a Commission of Inquiry.

“I would like to thank the two consortiums for their cooperation to ensure a seamless transition to bring our trains and trams back into government hands.”

Koutsantonis said that “all parties” were now “working to the same objective – to return public transport on light and heavy rail back into public ownership”.

The Commission of Inquiry was also due to advise the Government on the feasibility of bringing SA’s bus services – privatised in 2000 – back into public hands. Koutsantonis’s Department for Infrastructure and Transport will now conduct an internal assessment on that issue, with a report due by February next year.

The minister said the agency would also investigate “if any clauses were inserted into the privatisation contract… to inhibit the Government’s ability to return our trains and trams into public hands”.

Earlier this month, he told parliament if such clauses were added to the contract, “those public officers involved in that will obviously have to deal with the consequences of that”, arguing such action “could be close to maladministration or misconduct”.

At the time, Koutsantonis confirmed to parliament that he has received advice about the cost of terminating the Keolis Downer contract but did not give any further details.

He later told InDaily he did not expect to incur costs for putting train and tram management back in public hands.

“Since prior to the last election we made it clear to all potential bidders we would reverse this privatisation and because of that we maintain we don’t expect to incur any costs,” he said at the time.

“Keolis Downer is working with us constructively as we take the next steps.”

The Opposition says it has previously received information from the Department of Infrastructure and Transport showing the cost of cancelling the Keolis Downer contract before June 2023 could reach $70 million.

Shadow transport spokesperson Vincent Tarzia said today there is “no way Keolis Downer walks away without pockets stuffed with millions in cash”.

“Something smells fishy here because before the election Tom Koutsantonis was happy to slam Keolis Downer for poor services, but overnight he’s become their best friend,” he said in a statement.

“What’s more alarming than that is Tom Koursantonis’ refusal to guarantee tearing up the contract won’t cost taxpayers a cent.”

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