Car Park Gate: the most scathing audit report we’ve ever read

By Verona Burgess

Friday July 2, 2021

car park gate
It is, however, the job of the APS to guard the money. (Narin/Adobe)

People have come to expect politicians to rort grants programs shamelessly. It is, however, the job of the Australian Public Service to ensure the moneys are spent properly, writes Verona Burgess.

Normally, reporters have to cherry-pick performance audit reports so as to showcase the highlights – or rather the lowlights.

No need with the bombshell Auditor-General’s report on the Department of Infrastructure’s management of the $660 million National Commuter Car Park Fund. Or should we say, “slush fund”, because that’s how it looks.

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Pick a page, any page – just about every paragraph unfolds like a cautionary tale in perhaps the most scathing audit report we’ve ever read.

People have come to expect politicians to rort grants programs shamelessly. It is, however, the job of the Australian Public Service to ensure the moneys are spent properly. In fact, the APS is legally bound to do so by the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013, on top of public servants’ obligations under the Public Service Act 1999.

The National Commuter Car Park Fund is a component of the now $4.8 billion Urban Congestion Fund [UCF], originally announced in the 2018-19 budget as a 10-year investment pipeline. The car park fund was added to UCF in the 2019-20 budget the tune of $500 million and expanded to $650 million in the 2019-20 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook statement because of an administrative roll-in from the UCF of $149 million to upgrade 13 commuter car parks.

It is important to note that the UCF is not a departmental grants program per se. Instead, it comes under the federal-state National Partnership Agreement on Land Transport Infrastructure Projects [NPA], which means the money flows to the states from the Treasury; Infrastructure administers the program on behalf of Treasury.

This might explain why neither the UCF nor the car parks rate a specific mention in the last two Infrastructure department annual reports. Nor do the usual Commonwealth Grants Rules and Guidelines apply to National Partnership payments. 

It would be appalling to think this might have tempted Infrastructure to pay less rigorous attention to it than its own grant programs, but we’ll never know.

Despite the budgetary structure, Infrastructure was hardly obligation-free, as the auditors made clear: “The department’s administrative responsibilities for the commuter car park projects include: assessing project proposals; making recommendations for funding to the minister; negotiating the milestone deliverables with project proponents; recommending payments against completed milestones to the Treasury; and monitoring and reporting on project delivery.”

The cornerstone of the PGPA Act is that it mandates the “proper” use of public money. “Proper”, the act says, “when used in relation to the use or management of public resources, means efficient, effective, economical and ethical.”Since by March 31 this year only two car parks had been completed and the projected cost per car is astronomical in some cases, the score evidently sits at an uncomfortable zero out of four.

It is on this four-fold petard that the Department of Infrastructure is hoist so humiliatingly.

Apart from the fact that the fund was comprehensively rorted in the run-up to the 2019 election by the federal government, whose ministers nominated and selected most of the projects that were, conveniently, located either in coalition-held or marginal federal seats, what the audit reveals about the department’s processes, or lack thereof, is most shocking. 

Much of the audit is about what the department did not do that it should have done. The word “not” appears 242 times, the phrase “did not” 72 times and “the department did not” 24 times. That’s a lot of “nots” in 104 pages including appendices and the covers. As for “merit”, it appears 24 times. Yes, merit, the thing the department didn’t do, or didn’t do enough of.

Here are some of the “nots” in the audit conclusions:

“The [department’s] administration of the commuter car park projects within the Urban Congestion Fund [UCF] was not effective.

“The design and implementation of the [UCF] relied on existing arrangements generic to infrastructure investment projects. The department did not develop a program-specific implementation plan, performance indicators or evaluation plan. As a $4.8 billion initiative, which included a car park component that was new for the Australian Government, customisation was warranted. The potential for research and data to inform program design and project identification was not fully realised. Record keeping was not compliant with departmental and Australian Government policies.

“The department’s approach to identifying and selecting commuter car park projects … was not appropriate. It was not designed to be open or transparent. [It] 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.

“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. 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.”

There are plenty more sins of omission. For example, on page 48, “In lieu of merit selection criteria and program guidelines, the governance arrangements for the UCF agreed by government in October 2018 included a set of investment principles that were to be publicly released.” They never were released – “an approach inconsistent with transparency and accountability in funding decision-making.”

There was no competitive selection process; no formal guidelines; and no formal call for submissions.

And on page 52: “The departmental briefings did not suggest that the minister (or the Australian Government) record the basis for selection decisions. Nor did the department assist the minister to record an assessment of the merits of candidate projects against the UCF investment principles or policy objectives.  For example, [it] could have provided an assessment and/or selection template to complete so as to facilitate transparency and accountability in decision-making (as [it] has done when administering other funding programs).”

As for the secretary, Simon Atkinson’s lengthy response to the draft report that the projects decided by Scott Morrison on April 10, 2019 – the day before the caretaker period commenced­ – were election commitments, that’s debunked by the audit office. Of 34 projects he argued were election commitments, 27 decided that day were in the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2019 report that includes all government decisions taken before the issue of writs. Only seven projects, or 15% of the lot, were election commitments, even though 70% of the projects were announced during caretaker period.

So, who were the geniuses who presided over this continuing debacle?  Ministerially there were two: Paul Fletcher to August 28, 2018; Alan Tudge to December 22, 2020; and now Fletcher again.  Department secretaries were Steven Kennedy, September 18, 2017 to September 1, 2019 and now at Treasury; Pip Spence (Acting) to November 11, 2019; and then Atkinson. We could name the dep secs and division heads but hey, this is the Westminster system where the buck stops at the top, doesn’t it? Just joking.

In a speech to the Institute of Public Administration, Australia on June 24, Atkinson mentioned with no hint of irony a famous speech by then New York governor Theodore Roosevelt in 1899 known as “The Strenuous Life.”

“Roosevelt calls on people to embrace the values of duty, service, sacrifice and perseverance in the face of strife and adversity,” Atkinson said. “He calls for courage in the service of the nation, regardless of risk or hardship. Far better, he says, to dare mighty things, even if the path to triumph is checkered by failure. Roosevelt urges care and integrity in the delivery of government services, whether at home or abroad. And he presses the fundamental ideal of putting the needs of others, and the nation, ahead of our own.”

Let’s just say Car Park Gate doesn’t quite measure up to Roosevelt’s standards.


READ MORE:

ANAO: Infrastructure department’s approach to choosing projects for $660m car park fund ‘not appropriate’

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