The South Australian opposition has vowed to reverse the latest round of public transport outsourcing if it wins the next election in 2022, as the government faces protests from its transport workers over a plan to put train and tram operations out to tenders.
Opposition leader Peter Malinauskas said Premier Steven Marshall had broken a pre-election promise by moving to contract out rail transport, given the Liberal leader told voters he did not have a privatisation agenda before the last poll. Next time, in 2022, Malinauskas said Labor would make the decision an election issue.
First there would be an independent commission of inquiry into the contracts, then they would be terminated in the most cost-effective way, Malinauskas told a party convention on the weekend. A re-elected Labor government would also ask the inquiry to look at bringing the operation of the bus network back into the public service, about 20 years after most bus services were privatised.
Prior to the Labor Party convention, the opposition leader told The Advertiser, “Public transport commuters and motorists overwhelmingly oppose privatisation and we know the evidence elsewhere shows privatisation of public transport simply doesn’t work.”
Transport Minister Stephan Knoll refuted that claim, noting most public transport operations in Australia are outsourced. He says people don’t care whether trams, trains and buses are operated for profit or by the government, as long as the services are clean, safe, cheap and regular.
According to Knoll, terminating government contracts like a soon-to-be-awarded light rail outsourcing deal only shortly after they are signed would be fiscally irresponsible. But Malinauskas pre-emptively blamed any high costs on the government, saying that would demonstrate there were “booby traps” in the deals.
The opposition leader said he was also partly making the announcement now to warn companies tendering for the transport contracts that they would be cut short if there was a change of government in 2022.
Knoll accused the opposition of “rank hypocrisy” and said it had “flogged off everything that moved” when last in government. He claimed Labor government and sold $5 billion worth of assets and renewed deals for outsourced public transport services worth $3bn, and noted it had contracted out functions of the Motor Accident Commission, Forestry SA and the land titles office.
In June, the minister said the move was a response to declining patronage and promised “better and more customer-focused public transport services” would result from privatisation as the operators would have to meet high service standards, including around frequency. The government plans to continue setting ticket prices and retain ownership of infrastructure like tracks, stations, trains and trams.
A key plank of the opposition’s argument is that public transport is an essential service and a monopoly, and shadow treasurer Tom Koutsantonis denied previous Labor governments had ever made the decision to privatise anything in that category.
The opposition argues private operators will put profits before the public interest while some train and tram drivers reportedly fear for their job security and safety standards. A large group of public transport workers gathered outside state parliament on Sunday to protest the outsourcing; one told an AAP reporter he and many of his colleagues had aspired to work for the government as they hoped it would be a job for life.
The government has been unable to give a guarantee that drivers will all keep their jobs. “We will be working with those tenderers to make sure, to the greatest extent possible, the existing workforce gets the greatest opportunities to transition,” Knoll said in July.
“But there are strong provisions in place around retraining and redeployment that exist in the enterprise bargaining agreement and we’ll be making sure for those workers that don’t transition that we also continue to find ways to help them and help them on an ongoing basis.”