The Australian National Audit Office has slammed the administration of a $660 million national car park fund, with a new report finding the federal Infrastructure department’s approach to selecting projects for funding ‘was not designed to be open or transparent’.
In its latest audit report, the ANAO has examined the National Commuter Car Park Fund, which is administered by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.
A total of 44 commuter car park projects involving upgrades at 47 identified sites had been announced by the government, as part of the program, as at March 31 this year. Those projects have received $660.4 million in funding commitments.
ANAO has found Infrastructure’s administration of the car park projects ‘was not effective’, and its approach to identifying and selecting projects for funding ‘was not appropriate’.
“It was not designed to be open or transparent. The department did not engage with state governments and councils, which increased the risk that selected projects would not deliver the desired outcomes at the expected cost to the Australian government,” it said.
Further, ‘departmental advice did not contain an assessment against the investment principles or policy objectives and it was not demonstrated that projects were selected on merit’, ANAO found.
“The distribution of projects selected reflected the geographic and political profile of those given the opportunity by the government to identify candidates for funding consideration,” it noted.
“In relation to the merits of projects, the department did not seek to establish assessment criteria, and the assessment work has not adequately demonstrated that approved projects will provide value for money.”
The audit found 77% of the chosen commuter car park sites were in coalition-held electorates, with just 10% in Labor electorates.
“The approach to project identification included canvassing the Member of the House of Representatives for 23 electorates, as well as coalition senators or candidates for six electorates then held by the Australian Labor Party or Centre Alliance,” it noted.
Sixty-four percent of the projects were located in Melbourne, despite Infrastructure Australia finding that ‘the majority of the most congested roads in Australia are located in Sydney’, the report noted.
The 47 commuter car park sites selected for funding were chosen between January and July 2019. ANAO found that none of the selected sites were proposed by the Infrastructure department.
Approval for 38 of the sites was brought about ‘by the written agreement of the prime minister to a written request from ministers’, the audit found. Seven of the sites were approved through the election commitment process.
In regard to the remaining two sites, the department ‘had not evidenced how the funding commitment was effected, beyond email advice from the minister’s office and a media announcement by the prime minister’.
ANAO noted that 70% of the projects were announced during the 2019 federal election caretaker period, with 27 car park sites selected the day before the government entered caretaker mode.
The report recounted how, in November 2018, the office of the then-urban infrastructure minister Alan Tudge had asked the Infrastructure department to incorporate ‘some potential projects the minister’s office had identified’ to the department’s list of proposed projects.
“The minister’s office advised that it would then go through the spreadsheets with the prime minister’s office and the deputy prime minister’s office, ahead of a related meeting between the minister for urban infrastructure and the prime minister,” the report said.
“Following its consultations, the minister’s office provided a revised list of potential projects to the department in December 2018.”
Auditor-general Grant Hehir has made six recommendations to the department, relating to program design, record keeping, assessment of funding proposals, and the establishment of delivery and payment milestones.
While the department has agreed to the recommendations, secretary Simon Atkinson has disagreed with a number of ANAO’s findings — particularly those relating to the initial design and project selection, and eligibility.
I was shocked when I read the #carparkrorts ANAO report yesterday.
This morning, I’m absolutely staggered that Minister Fletcher can say, in effect – nothing to see here.
This is a government that’s dripping with contempt.
For due process, for accountability – for the public.
— Andrew Giles MP (@andrewjgiles) June 28, 2021
In a statement responding to the audit report, urban infrastructure minister Paul Fletcher said his department had begun to take actions that align with the report recommendations, and that the government would continue to deliver critical infrastructure projects.
“The Morrison government is getting on with delivering infrastructure projects that improve congestion and safety for commuters across Australia, making it easier for them to move around our capital cities and ensuring they get home quickly and safely,” he said.
Labor’s Andrew Giles and Kristina Keneally have argued that the government’s response to the ANAO findings ‘tells you everything you need to know about this tired, dysfunctional government’.
“We need to get to the bottom of this scandal, which represents rorting on an industrial scale,” they said in a joint statement.
“The prime minister needs to urgently explain what went on in the meeting he held with the then-minister for urban infrastructure Tudge and release the project selection spreadsheets shared with his office.”