It started with a list of the top 20 marginal seats, cooked up in former infrastructure minister Alan Tudge’s office. It ended with the Coalition funnelling millions meant to fund commuter car parks towards projects in Coalition-held electorates or target seats in the run-up to the 2019 election.
At a spillover estimates hearing of the Senate’s Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee yesterday morning, officials from the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) revealed the startling lack of transparency and effective administration, as well as bad design that plagued the $660 million commuter car park fund, and its parent program the $4 billion Urban Congestion Fund (UCF).
The rort went something like this: in September 2018, weeks after Scott Morrison became prime minister, staffers in Tudge’s office put together a list of the 20 most marginal electorates in the country. This was long before the government decided to focus on car parks. Instead, funding under the entire UCF began with a list of electorates.
Tudge’s staffers, along with advisers at the Prime Minister’s Office, then began canvassing people in those 20 electorates. ANAO executive director Bryan Boyd said canvassing involved contacting the local MP, Liberal candidate or duty Senator for the electorate and asking them what infrastructure projects they wanted built. Right from the outset, the program was designed to deliver funding based on how marginal an electorate was, rather than how congested its roads were.
“It was very much that approach of starting with the electorate, rather than ‘here is where congestion is the greatest’,” Boyd said.
Initially, that canvassing determined how the entire fund would be administered.
“The canvassing was never just the car parks. The canvassing was the broader UCF, of which the car parks was just a component,” he said.
Later, as the Labor opposition started making noise about congestion around commuter car parks, the government decided to fund those, setting aside $660 million, 87% of which would end up going to projects in Coalition-held seats or target seats.
Officials from the Department of Infrastructure said they hadn’t seen documents detailing the top 20 marginal electorates. They’d also never seen a map of Australia, divided up by electorate, which determined how much funding each state would get under the UCF and was critical to early decision-making on funding under the project.
Boyd’s evidence also highlighted the parallels between the UCF and the sports rorts affair, which led to Senator Bridget McKenzie briefly resigning from cabinet and as deputy Nationals leader.
The ANAO confirmed the same adviser in the PMO who had corresponded with McKenzie’s office during the sports rorts affair was involved with canvassing. The extent of the PMO’s involvement in sports rorts is still unclear, and a secret report put together by the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Phil Gaetjens is still kept hidden on grounds of cabinet confidence.
When funding was eventually doled out, in April 2019, it happened just as community sports clubs in favoured electorates were starting to get their money.
“It’s happening at the same time as the same thing’s going on in sports rorts,” Greens Senator Janet Rice said.
This morning’s hearing, set up by Labor and Greens senators against the wishes of Liberal chair Susan McDonald, was an at-times tense affair, as the government tried to undercut the ANAO’s criticism of the program.
Labor Senator Katy Gallagher concluded the morning’s evidence by hitting out at the “attacks” made on the ANAO by government senators.
“There was commentary made that evidence was misleading, that the audit was deficient, that answers were nonsensical,” she said.
This article was curated from our sister publication Crikey.