Scott Morrison has declared Australians are the “winners” from a controversial funding program excoriated by the auditor general that has only delivered two of 47 commuter car parks the Coalition promised in the run-up to the 2019 election.
The prime minister was bombarded on Thursday with questions about his knowledge of decisions made under the commuter car parks program. He did not directly answer a question about whether his office saw a marginal seats list, and Morrison ended the press conference when the questions persisted.
The Australian National Audit Office recently told a Senate estimates committee the Morrison government awarded funding under the commuter car parks scheme by preparing a list of 20 top marginal seats, and inviting the sitting MP to nominate projects for funding.
In his first comments since the critical ANAO report was tabled, the former urban affairs minister Alan Tudge said on Wednesday he was not aware of the list of “top 20 marginal” seats that was used to guide the location for commuter car parks ahead of the last federal election.
Morrison said on Thursday decisions were made by Tudge, who was “authorised” to make determinations. Asked whether he had any say in the decisions, the prime minister repeated that answer.
The ANAO report found that 77% of the car parks funded by the government were in Coalition-held electorates and a further 10% were in six non-Coalition held electorates where Coalition candidates’ views were canvassed.
The auditor noted most of the chosen car parks were in the south-east of Melbourne when “data shows that Melbourne’s most congested roads in 2016, and as forecast in 2031, are predominantly in the north-west”.
Only two of the 47 chosen sites had construction completed and two projects were cancelled a few months after they were announced.
Despite the stinging criticism of the program, and the slow progress of the various commitments, Morrison declared on Thursday: “I’m very OK with the idea of building car parks to ensure people can get a park, get on a train, can get to work sooner, get home sooner, because urban congestion and people commuting is a daily challenge.”
“This is a daily thing that people want done, and we’re getting it done,” the prime minister said. “What Australians are getting are more car parks.
“Australians are the winners.”
The ANAO found that not one of the 47 commuter car park sites 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.
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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 pursued Tudge about his decision-making in question time on Thursday, but he referred the chamber to his “comprehensive answers” on Wednesday.
The current urban infrastructure minister, Paul Fletcher, also faced questions, but attempted to deflect by referencing a previous critical ANAO report about Labor’s grant making.