Parks and declarations
The prime minister’s office finds itself uncomfortably close to inappropriately apportioned funding
Groundhog day has continued for much of the nation, as NSW recorded 98 new cases (breaking the five-day prediction streak of a well-connected TikTok comedian), Victoria 16 (and an extension of its lockdown), and South Australia one (sending an entire emergency department into a localised lockdown). Both the NSW and Victorian leaders have been discussing the idea of vaccinating children and reconsidering state vaccination targets, given that the Delta variant is affecting younger people in a way that previous strains did not, while reports from 2GB’s Ray Hadley that Premier Gladys Berejiklian would be backflipping on her construction ban, announced on Saturday, did not come to pass. In Canberra it was another kind of groundhog day, with Senate estimates once again probing a Coalition-government spending scandal. In a session triggered by requests from Labor and Greens senators, the infrastructure department was grilled about a scathing Australian National Audit Office report into a car park fund that doled out $660 million to projects hand-picked by the government on the advice of its MPs and candidates. As with the entire car park scandal so far, today’s questioning was largely overlooked due to the continuing COVID-19 crisis. But several disturbing new details have emerged, including the involvement of the prime minister’s office. The same PMO staffer involved in the “sports rorts” saga was confirmed as the contact for the car parks fund, for which a list of the top 20 marginal seats was created to canvass for projects – not just for commuter car parks, but for the entire $4.8 billion Urban Congestion Fund.
The morning session of estimates saw senators ask the ANAO further questions about its report, with auditors commenting on the process (or lack of process) that they had uncovered. When asked whether this was the worst instance of administrative failure the ANAO had seen, deputy auditor-general Rona Mellor said that the audit office doesn’t keep a ranking. But it’s clear the Coalition does, with ANAO executive director Brian Boyd revealing that the government had a list of the top 20 marginal electorates (later pushed out to 29), which it used to canvas for projects, while MPs and candidates were invited to submit proposals. While the majority of canvassing was done out of the office of the then urban infrastructure minister, Alan Tudge, some was carried out by the PMO.
The same PMO staff member who acted as point of contact for the infamous colour-coded spreadsheet for the sports grants was also responsible for managing the car park funding. However, unlike the sports rorts scandal, which involved a public call for applications, the car park projects were selected entirely based on which electorates the government wanted to fund, Boyd noted, with no consideration as to how congested the roads were, and no engagement with state and local governments. The canvassing, meanwhile, was about more than just the car parks: the parks were “just a component” of the government’s $4.8 billion Urban Congestion Fund. Boyd also hit back at the defence put forward by government ministers over the past few weeks that these were merely “election commitments”, justified because the Coalition had won the election, and he noted that it was the PM “making decisions”. “It’s not the prime minister making election commitments,” he said. “He’s making decisions as the head of government.” Boyd confirmed that Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Energy Minister Angus Taylor were able to decide exactly where car parks in their electorates would go, and how much funding they would get, with the treasurer putting forward four sites in Kooyong without any analysis or costings.
But when officials from the Department of Infrastructure were called to speak, secretary Simon Atkinson and deputy secretary David Hallinan claimed they hadn’t seen or heard of the “top 20 marginals” document, or a supposed map of Australia divided up by electorate, which laid out how much funding each state should get under the Urban Congestion Fund (the auditor-general’s office, which claims to have seen these documents, cannot release them as evidence). The pair also said that the commuter car park program was not a grants program but a “national partnership” between the different levels of government, which would not usually involve an open application process. They refused to provide access to any spreadsheets the department did have, noting such materials were “deliberative matter” and would be blocked using a public-interest immunity defence. Infrastructure officials did, however, table a document providing an update on where the projects were up to, confirming that just nine out of 155 projects were recommended by experts in the department. Hallinan also revealed that the Infrastructure department had recommended a process whereby proposals would be assessed by the department, but Cabinet had ultimately decided that the government would assess and choose the projects.
Coalition senators resorted to attacking Labor and the ANAO over the report and subsequent questioning. Financial Services Minister Jane Hume noted that Labor had pledged $300 million of its own in commuter car parks ahead of the 2019 election (to which Labor senator Katy Gallagher responded that it had promised to consult with state and local governments to select the sites, not pick them themselves), while senators Gerard Rennick and Sarah Henderson labelled the ANAO report “misleading” and the evidence from auditors at estimates “nonsensical”. The government is keen to muddy the waters on this latest scandal, especially amid revelations that the PMO’s office is involved, again. But it’s not clear yet whether any heads will roll over the commuter car parks, what with half the country distracted by being in yet another lockdown, and all the rorting scandals beginning to blur into one. Australia is still waiting on the full story regarding sports rorts, with the government continuing to block the release of a secret report from – who else? – secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens. Meanwhile Senator Bridget McKenzie, the only person to step down over the scandal, is already back in Cabinet.
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