Last week, the federal Auditor-General laid bare the shoddy process involved in handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in Commonwealth funding to build commuter car parks across Australia. The more you looked into the detail, the more devil you found, with the Coalition appearing to ignore any semblance of proper process in the pursuit of electoral gain.
Just one day before Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the last election, federal officials handed out $389 million, more than half the money allocated under the Urban Congestion Fund. In one instance, Mr Morrison authorised an upgrade of a car park, to the tune of $15 million, simply by issuing a press release, along with five other Liberal MPs, saying it would happen. No detail on planning, no documented approval for it to go ahead. Just a press release – which turns out to be legal.
There were broader problems. As the Auditor-General found, the process put in place to decide the projects could never have led to the right decisions. The federal Infrastructure Department, which was overseeing the funding, failed to use data and research when deciding where to distribute the money and failed to consult state governments and councils.
The department also shut down a proposal by the federal Treasury to run a competitive, merit-based program to distribute the funds. Instead, the department – which at the time was reporting to minister Paul Fletcher and then Alan Tudge in the lead-up to the election – decided there would be no formal call for submissions and projects would be identified and selected by the government.
Unfortunately, where the projects turned up was no surprise; most of the cash was directed to Coalition-held federal seats. That was particularly the case in Melbourne, where the bulk of the money was allocated, with more than 80 per cent of the funds promised to Liberal-held seats that the government feared might be under threat from a Bill Shorten landslide that never eventuated.
Frontbencher Michael Sukkar’s seat of Deakin, a key Labor target, was pledged five car parks and four were promised to Kooyong, held by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who was facing a fight with high-profile independents. And yet the seat of Chisholm, which sits between Kooyong and Deakin and had no sitting member, got nothing. The same brazenness was displayed in the bayside area, where Liberal MP Tim Wilson, in the seat of Goldstein, was allocated six car parks and further south, in the seat of Dunkley, where incumbent Liberal Chris Crewther was given three. The Labor-held seat of Isaacs, which sits in between the two Liberal seats and has almost a dozen railway stations, got nothing.
There is a long history of such pork-barrelling by both sides of politics. The most recent high-profile case involved Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie. She approved $100 million in grants for community sporting facilities shortly before the last election. The Auditor-General found that the senator’s office ran a parallel selection process – focused, again unsurprisingly, on marginal electorates – to the merit-based process run by Sport Australia.
With the Auditor-General and the parliamentary committee system in place to catch such blatant abuses of taxpayer money for political advantage, it has to be asked what more can be done to dissuade politicians from misusing taxpayer funds.
As the Prime Minister’s car park “press release” decision revealed, the legislative requirements for allocating money are dismally lacking. As a result, even when pork-barrelling comes to light there is little that can be done under the law and the argument quickly descends into the familiar territory of political argy-bargy.