Why the car park rorts affair matters

By and

July 15, 2021

The car parks affair has shown the incalculable value of the ANAO as an instrument for honesty and accountability in public administration.
The car parks affair has shown the incalculable value of the ANAO as an instrument for honesty and accountability in public administration. (Image: Adobe/FiledIMAGE)

The ‘Big Dig’ project in Boston is a classic example of pork barrelling. In the Reagan era, US House of Representatives Speaker Tip O’Neill successfully lobbied for federal funding to put 5.6 kilometres of his local highway system underground.

(One of the best examples of bipartisanship in politics around the world was the relationship between O’Neill, a Democrat, and Reagan, a Republican. If you are looking for some bedtime reading, we highly recommend the Chris Matthews’ ‘The Tip and the Gipper: When politics worked’.)

The project was supposed to be finished in 1998 and to cost $2.8 billion (in 1982 dollars). It was actually completed in 2007. The Boston Globe estimated the total cost would be $22 billion and would not be paid off until 2038.

On 28 June 2021, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) handed down its damning appraisal of the commonwealth government’s $660 million car park grants scheme (‘Administration of Commuter Car Park Projects within the Urban Congestion Fund’). The ANAO’s publication is one in a long series of rort reports, and readers can be forgiven for rolling their eyes and moving on to the next item in the doomscroll of news.

(On ABC Mornings, Bronwyn Pyke posed to John Pesutto: ‘Don’t you think…it’s part of one of these political problems, that is: do the public care? …Bridget McKenzie is back in the federal ministry. There [were] the whole sports rorts and now we’ve got this next example. The car parks. It is fair to say this is not the only government that has used public money for political advantage. …I think there is a little bit of, “Oh well, that’s what we expect from pollies, they are all crooks”.’ ‘Bronwyn is not wrong,’ Pesutto said.)

For several reasons, however, the car park rort has wider implications. With this particular affair, there is more at stake than usual.

‘We would just have to move the railway station’

The ANAO made six recommendations along with one especially scornful finding: ‘The department’s approach to identifying and selecting commuter car park projects for funding commitment was not appropriate. It was not designed to be open or transparent.’

Walkley award winning journalist Verona Burgess said it was ‘the most scathing audit report we’ve ever read.’

The car park cash was largely directed to LNP-held federal seats. Of the 23 seats that were selected for the projects, 15 were held by the Coalition and eight by Labor. In Victoria, the most successful electorates were Goldstein (six projects), Deakin (five projects) and Banks (four projects) – all Coalition held. The ANAO found the funding was not directed towards the areas most in need.

The affair was highlighted on a recent Roy and HG podcast, Showering on the toilet of hope. Roy briefed HG on a car park approved at Watsford Oval in Lithgow, saying that the ‘coal-man got involved and personally ticked that box’ and ‘shot-gun McKenzie who is no stranger this sort of work endorsed the project as well’.

Roy went on explain to HG that there was a ‘nice parcel of land’ on which you could get a car park for ‘ten or eleven thousand cars’. ‘The other idea…is that the carpark could surround Watsford Oval…for people to watch rugby league or cricket from the car…we would just have to move the railway station,’ Roy said.

Compared to sports rorts, the car park rorts have a decidedly different flavour, and a different impact. With sports rorts, the impact was mostly about equity and fairness. Some of the most deserving clubs missed out in favour of less deserving ones, such as wealthy yacht clubs.

Apart from the fairness impact and the political smell, you could argue that in that case there was no direct impact on the voter on the other side of town. But when it comes to urban planning and transport congestion, the impacts are systemic. They fall on all people who live and work in cities, and they affect the whole economy.

Australia’s economy has performed relatively well, but the current economic picture is fragile, and it is built on worrying foundations. The latest intergenerational report (IGR) included a revised rate of 1.5% annual productivity improvement for the next 40 years. The rate reflected the commonwealth treasury’s increasing wariness about the medium-term productivity outlook.

In 2019, Infrastructure Australia reported that the estimated cost of road congestion was $19 billion in 2016 and was forecast to more than double to $39 billion unless substantial action was taken to unlock our cities. In the five years to June 2018, average speeds declined more in Melbourne than in any other city, dropping 8.2% to 59.9 kilometres per hour.

Well placed car parks at train stations encourage mode shifting to public transport. They make our trips more bearable, and have a demonstrable benefit for the economy. They also help reduce road congestion, provided they are built in the right places, with an eye to the system as a whole.

Imagine if level crossing removals were focused on just one part of the city (for political advantage) and not where they would be best for our highly integrated transport system. The impact on the whole system would be tangible – and the same is true of car parks. Next time you are stuck in a traffic jam, remember pork barrelling is slowing you down.

Another set of wider implications are about integrity and truth in politics and government. Sound decision making and clear accountability depend on truth telling – in project appraisals, in investment decisions, and in how executive governments report and justify those decisions.

The Australian people need strong integrity and governance for public spending if we are going to thrive in the challenging years ahead. The car parks affair has shown the incalculable value of the ANAO as an instrument for honesty and accountability in public administration.

But the whole affair – and the fact that it is just the latest in a sorry series – has again underlined the need a Federal anti-corruption and integrity body, to curb the influence of the hollow men with colour coded spreadsheets.


READ MORE:

The blatant nature of the car parks pork-barrelling is plainly embarrassing

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