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The $660 million election slush fund

A scathing new report has found that in the lead-up to the last election the federal government spent more than half a billion dollars on infrastructure projects heavily targeted to seats held by the Coalition, or seats they were trying to win.

A scathing new report has found that in the lead-up to the last election the federal government spent more than half a billion dollars on infrastructure projects heavily targeted to seats held by the Coalition, or seats they were trying to win.

The funding was specifically for car parks, but it raised serious questions about how government funding decisions are made, and the politicisation of the public sector.

Today, chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton on what happens when hundreds of millions of dollars and 47 car parks meet a federal election.

 

Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

A scathing new report has found that in the leadup to the last election the federal government spent more than half a billion dollars on infrastructure projects heavily targeted to seats held by the Coalition, or seats they were trying to win.

The money was specifically for car parks, but it raised serious questions about how government funding decisions are made, and the politicisation of the public sector.

Today, chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton on what happens when hundreds of millions of dollars and 47 car parks meet a federal election.

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:

Karen, the 2019 election win was described by many analysts at the time as this miracle win for Scott Morrison, but there's obviously a lot more to it than that. Recently there’s been a new focus on some infrastructure spending in the lead up to that election, in particular some questions about where the money was allocated. Can you tell me about that? 

KAREN:

Yes. Well, one in particular that we were focussed on at the time and, again now recently, was an announcement by the government to build a whole lot of car parks near suburban railway stations. 

Archival tape -- Josh Frydenberg:

“Tonight, I announce we are increasing the Urban Congestion Fund four-fold from $1 billion to $4 billion.

This fund will focus on immediate, practical measures to cut travel times within our cities. Removing bottlenecks and improving travel corridors.”

KAREN:

In the budget of 2019, which was handed down just a week before the government called the election. There was a new fund announced with half a billion dollars in it to build these car parks. 

Archival tape -- Josh Frydenberg:

“It will include a $500 million Commuter Car Park Fund that will improve access to public transport hubs and take thousands of cars off the roads.”

KAREN:

And at the time, I asked some questions of the Infrastructure Department, which was managing this whole program, and they came back to me and confirmed that there were no merit criteria or eligibility criteria for this program, which made it curious, and that the government was just making election announcements. 

And the only people really that were spoken to about it were Liberal senators, Liberal MPs in a range of vulnerable seats and half a dozen Liberal candidates in seats held by other parties that they wanted to win.

And these details have come to light this week in the latest report from the National Audit Office, which has cast its eye over this Commuter Car Park Fund and discovered that really there was a lot, a lot missing in terms of governance, processes, accountability, and just the usual way that things are done in the bureaucracy.

RUBY:

Mm. So to take a step back here, Karen, would you mind telling me about the program itself to fund the car parks? Where did it come from? What is it?

KAREN:

Yes. So the fund was set up in 2019, but the government started making enquiries about car parks the year before. Now, the infrastructure department is massive and it has actually eight Ministers working within it. One of those who was responsible for this kind of infrastructure at the time was Alan Tudge. And he started making enquiries of the department on the possibility of a ‘park and ride’ type facility to build these car parks. 

These would be car parks that were attached to railway stations so that a commuter can drive up, park the car, catch the train. So they're quite popular. And the government clearly thought that this kind of thing could be an electoral advantage going into the 2019 election. 

RUBY:

Ok, so what did they announce?

KAREN:

So the formal car park approval process started on the 10th of January in 2019. And that's when Alan Tudge first chose some sites.

Archival tape -- Alan Tudge:

“Today we’re announcing the remaining 120 million dollars of the 260 million dollars which we’re investing into Victoria as part of this urban congestion fund. And there’s four roads which we’re announcing today and six railway station park and rides.”

KAREN:

All of the sites that were chosen, according to the audit office, were chosen between the Minister and his colleagues and the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister signed off on all of these choices. And it turned out there was no documented process for selecting those at all.

So in the lead up to the budget, which was held on April the 2nd, that year, the Prime Minister then made two announcements for proposed projects. 

Now, I think at that stage, the number selected was at 13, but then the day before the election was called, another 27 projects were chosen. Now, these were not made public at the time, but they were selected on the 10th of April. The date is significant because it's the day before the government went into caretaker mode. And when a government is in caretaker mode ahead of an election, it's not allowed to make decisions that will bind a future government. So you often see governments rush to get decisions made just before caretaker mode so that those decisions are locked in and that they can be funded and they're much harder to unwind in the future. 

Where we ended up with this program after the election was 47 selected projects, something like 77 percent of them were in coalition held seats and another 10 per cent were in seats that the Coalition was targeting and wanting to win. 

RUBY:

OK, so what you're saying is that the federal government on the day before this cut off where it couldn't make these kind of decisions around these kind of projects anymore, it went ahead and chose a large number of car parks, all in seats that are either already held or wanted to win in the upcoming election. 

KAREN:

That's exactly right. 

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Karen, what has the National Audit Office said about the process here, which saw the federal government spend hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure, disproportionately in Coalition seats or promised to spend just before the 2019 federal election? 

KAREN:

Well, it was scathing - I mean, it's a pretty incredible report. The audit office is generally fairly conservative in its language. It's very careful. This is a document that’s covered by parliamentary privilege. They have to be sure that they can justify everything that they include in these reports. So you sometimes left trying to join the dots. 

But they have been pretty clear with their concerns in this case. They've criticised the selection processes and they've said the government has basically been focussed on its own electoral fortunes, and they've also blasted the department for the way it has handled it. They've said its assessment and monitoring was inappropriate, it had really sloppy record keeping, and that there was an overall approach that, and I'll quote the report, “was not designed to be open or transparent.” So a pretty hard hitting report here. 

If you compare it to the report into community sports funding that we saw eighteen months ago coming out of the Audit Office. I'd say the language in this and the detail in this is stronger and greater than that report.  

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Watson:

“In terms of audit reports, the language used here is very unusual, it's scathing, it's very strong language.”

KAREN:

And I spoke to Geoffrey Watson, SC, who was the former counsel for the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption and now a director at the Centre for Public Integrity. 

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Watson:

“This audit report is unusual in so far as it’s, It's highlighted a real structural deficiency in the department, which then allowed things to go forward and a second flaw was identified, which was the way it was handled as a political matter.”

KAREN:

And he said he actually hadn't seen a report like this.

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Watson:

“That demonstrates that it was being used for an inappropriate purpose, it was being used for a political purpose, not of the public purpose to which the money was dedicated.” 

KAREN:

He thinks it's the language in this report, conservative, though it usually is, suggests that this is one of the more serious breaches, administratively speaking, that the audit office has seen. 

RUBY:

Mm. And so within this report, were there any specific projects that were raised that highlight just how flawed this process became?

KAREN:

Yes, the audit offices go into a number of different examples to illustrate the sorts of concerns it's raised, for example, on the issue of how far away the car parks are from railway stations - in some cases, it highlighted ten of these car parks were not attached to railway stations. And the one that seemed to be the worst in terms of distance was one of the options that's being looked at for a car park at Woy Woy, which is in New South Wales on the Central Coast and in the marginal Liberal held seat of Robertson.

One of the two options that is being considered and was put forward as recently as I think last month was an option to have the car park 600 metres from the railway station, so that's a fair walk if you're a commuter - that’s commuter and a half. So that was an example that they gave. And there are a number of others to illustrate some of the concerns they had about the way things were chosen, about the kind of land and the geographical area that the car parks are being proposed to be put on, and whether they were actually viable at all. 

And two of these projects were cancelled or not reinstated and four more have had the money reallocated to new projects, but that just shows you that there was very little work done in advance to make sure that these suggested sites for car parks were really even viable at all. 

RUBY:

Mm, I wanted to ask you about that, Karen, because obviously the Coalition did go on to win the federal election, so what has actually happened with these car parks since then, particularly, you know, now that we know about some of the problems in this process?

KAREN:

Well, yeah, that's interesting. Only two car parks have so far been completed and another three are under construction. But the report says - sort of buried deep in its detail - that, in fact, these three were state government projects that existed anyway, two of them in Victoria and one in Western Australia, and of those, one of them is now being fully funded by Victoria. So in total, the report finds that the government has only paid out 76.5 million dollars so far in getting these projects up and running from a fund that has more than 600 million dollars in it.

So we're talking about a massive amount of money with questionable governance. And now. As well as that, it seems, because of the lack of advanced planning, it's been very hard to actually deliver these projects. People have received these promises and presumably they may have influenced some people's votes. And now the projects thus far, two years later have largely not yet been delivered.

RUBY:

So the government promised these car parks, and promised a huge financial spend, through this kind of dubious process, but they haven’t even delivered them. So, is there likely to be any consequences?

KAREN:

Well, that's an excellent question. Geoffrey Watson expressed some frustration to me about that. 

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Watson:

“There are some deeper questions here. Why did the department, when they're dealing with 660 million dollars, not have a proper system in place as to how the money should be allocated? Why was the government allocating that? Is the money to places it wasn't needed where it wouldn't have much effect?” 

KAREN:

So Geoffrey Watson makes the point that it's hard to see what the consequences are in the absence of a National Integrity Commission. The government can just say thanks for the warning and move on.

Archival tape -- Geoffrey Watson:

“What this shows is that there's no one held accountable. There’s no punishment being meted out to those who are engaged in this kind of conduct.”

RUBY:

Karen, thank you so much for your time.

KAREN:

Thanks, Ruby.

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[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today…

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has said that she hopes to announce today whether the state’s lockdown will be extended or not.

NSW recorded 18 new locally transmitted cases of Covid-19 on Tuesday.

And the Commonwealth Bank is investigating why customers were prevented from accessing key services yesterday.

Customers reported an outage on Tuesday and couldn’t access the bank's app or online NetBank platform. It follows a similar outage last month.

I’m Ruby Jones and for the next couple of weeks Beth Atkinson-Quinton will be filling in as the host of *7am*, while I work on a new project. See ya later!

[Theme Music Ends]

 

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