The former urban infrastructure minister, Alan Tudge, says he was not aware of a list of “top 20 marginal” seats that was used to guide the location for commuter car parks ahead of the last federal election.
In his first public comments on the controversial program since a scathing auditor general’s report in June, Tudge has repeated the government’s claim car park sites were selected based on need.
In evidence to Senate Estimates, the Australian National Audit Office explained the federal government awarded funding under the scheme by preparing a list of 20 top marginal seats, and inviting the sitting MP to nominate projects for funding.
The ANAO report found that 77% of the car parks were in Coalition-held electorates and a further 10% were in the six non-Coalition held electorates where Coalition candidates’ views were canvassed.
On Wednesday, Tudge told reporters in Canberra the $660m commuter car park sites “were chosen on the basis of need”.
Tudge argued most of the sites were located in east and south-east Melbourne because “we have other commuter car parks that were already funded, or indeed, state government funded”.
He cited 10 federally funded car parks in the west or north, “80% of which were in Labor seats” and a further 33 car parks funded by the state government “nearly all of which or the vast majority of which are in the west and north-west, predominantly in the Labor areas”.
“So when you’re balancing those out, you see there are commuter car parks being funded right across Melbourne, which is where the need has been the greatest.”
Tudge dismissed suggestions the allocation of projects was corrupt, claiming all spending was “lawfully based” and that most projects had been “ticked off by the department before coming up for decision”.
“And we took those to the Australian people and Australian people voted for it.”
Asked about the top 20 marginal seat list, Tudge replied: “I’m not aware of such a list.”
On Wednesday Labor’s Katy Gallagher will move in the Senate to compel the government to produce the list of top 20 marginal seats, as well as maps and spreadsheets setting out project expenditure by location.
The shadow infrastructure minister, Catherine King, said although Tudge “may have come out of hiding … we still have no answers on what he or the prime minister knew about this pork and ride scheme”.
“Minister Tudge might like to pretend projects were chosen on need, but the ANAO report tells us the exact opposite,” she said.
“The government needs to come clean and release the ‘top 20 marginals’ spreadsheet that we know they used to determine funding.
“This isn’t Liberal money, it is Australian taxpayers’ money. Australians can have no confidence in any of this government’s promises.”
Labor’s Andrew Giles followed up in question time, querying whether the prime minister’s office was responsible for the spreadsheet.
Urban infrastructure minister, Paul Fletcher, replied that Tudge was responsible for project selection and the ANAO report “does not contest” that he had authority to allocate grants.
The ANAO found that not one of the 47 commuter car park sites promised by the Coalition at the 2019 election was selected by the infrastructure department, with projects selected by the government in a process that “was not demonstrably merit-based”.
In one case, the Coalition paid $115,000 a space for a car park in the Melbourne suburb of Berwick, which the auditor general found was nearly three times the benchmark price.
In July, Brian Boyd from the ANAO told the Senate estimates hearing that treasury had pushed for an open and competitive tender but the infrastructure department rejected this approach.
Instead, Tudge’s office had begun the process with a “top 20 marginals” list, with the sitting MPs, candidates and duty senators asked for input.
The ANAO found that the department had been involved in drawing up an “indicative” list of projects in November 2018, but then Tudge’s office asked it to add potential projects to its spreadsheet and a column for the government to set its relative priority.
“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,” it said.
Labor has proposed a bill to try to prevent the rorting of grants funds by requiring ministers to explain, in real time, when they reject recommendations from their department.
Labor has also sought to open a new inquiry into the $660m commuter car parks within the $4.8bn urban congestion fund, urging the joint committee of public accounts and audit to investigate.
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