The Auditor-General should investigate the federal government’s $4.8 billion Urban Congestion Fund program, a Senate committee has recommended amid warnings almost $1 billion could be used to pork-barrel marginal seats in the run-up to next year’s federal election.
The committee, which investigated the contentious $660 million commuter car park program, on Thursday called on the Auditor-General to examine the congestion fund and all its associated projects to ensure it is not used for blatant political ends.
An enlarged car park was promised for Kananook station in the marginal Melbourne seat of Dunkley at the last election. It has been abandoned.Credit:Justin McManus
The commuter car park program was the focus of a scathing Auditor-General’s report, which found 77 per cent of projects were promised to Coalition seats. Many were destined for south-eastern Melbourne where senior ministers including Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar faced serious challenges at the 2019 poll.
Deputy Auditor-General Brian Boyd told a parliamentary committee earlier this year that a “marginal electorate list” was maintained by the office of then-infrastructure minister Alan Tudge, which was the starting point for commuter car park fund decisions.
The car park program is now on track to cost at least $711 million with some promised projects already abandoned while others may not be delivered before the middle of this decade.
Committee chairman, Labor senator Tim Ayres, said the government had used the desire of Australians to ease their daily commute to work and exploited it for political ends through the car park fund.
Labor senator Tim Ayres said an unspent $890 million in the Urban Congestion Fund could be used to pork-barrel key electorates like the car park commuter fund.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Projects were selected for political ends with heavily congested parts of Brisbane and Sydney ignored as money was promised to key seats across suburban Melbourne.
Senator Ayres said the greatest risk was the government could use unspent cash in the Urban Congestion Fund for a re-run of its car park program during next year’s election campaign.
“There was no evaluation of a project’s feasibility or costs. The only metric that mattered was votes,” he said.
“There remains $890 million of unallocated funds in the Urban Congestion Fund ripe for rorting ahead of next year’s election.”
Labor has sought twice to have the Auditor-General investigate the Urban Congestion Fund but those requests have been turned down on cost and time grounds.
The committee requested a formal audit in 2022-23 and demanded Prime Minister Scott Morrison provide a “full explanation” of his role in the allocation of funds under the car park program.
Mr Morrison signed off the funding to 27 car parks and 15 Urban Congestion Fund projects the day before the government went into caretaker mode ahead of the 2019 election.
It also recommended the Infrastructure Department carry out its own study into how best to reduce congestion in outer urban areas. That followed evidence to the inquiry that car parks were selected by local MPs or ministers without determining whether they would reduce congestion in local areas.
Cost blow-outs could have been avoided if the department, state governments and councils were more involved in selecting potential car parks, the committee found.
In a dissenting report from the committee’s deputy chair, Liberal senator Claire Chandler said both major parties had recognised before the election the need for commuter car parks at suburban railway stations.
“A reasonable analysis of the situation is that leadership, members of Parliament and candidates from both Labor and the Coalition parties all recognised that there was a significant demand from the community to fund projects specifically targeted at reducing congestion in urban areas,” she said.
Senator Chandler’s report did not address how so many commuter car park promises were targeted at Liberal-held seats.
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