Originally published on ABC 7.30 Report, 29th June 2021.

SCOTT MORRISON, PRIME MINISTER: Last week, David and I together with Alan Tudge, outlined our plan, serious plan, to manage population growth across Australia and a key component of that plan was the urban congestion-busting fund.

ELIAS CLURE, REPORTER: Seven weeks out from the last election, the PM was refining his pitch to commuters in Sydney’s growth corridor.

SCOTT MORRISON: $7.5 million for the commuter car parking to Park and Ride arrangements here in Hurstville.

ELIAS CLURE: A national fund for upgrading these train station car parks was set up in the 2019 budget right before Scott Morrison called the election. It was in addition to the broader $4.8 billion pool of money for infrastructure called the Urban Congestion Fund, the funding for the car parks was over $650 million.

SCOTT MORRISON: Getting people on to public transport, getting people off the roads, well, to do that they have got to be able to get and park at a train station and that is just not true here in Hurstville but we’re also making announcements in Gosford, for Panania as well and in Woy Woy – all critical commuter suburbs where people want to take that option of the train.

ELIAS CLURE: Those may well be critical commuter suburbs but a damning new report from the National Audit Office has found the program wasn’t effective and here’s why.

In Sydney, the number of car parks announced in seats held by the Coalition at the time compared with those held by Labor was even at six each.

There was more than twice as much money spent in Melbourne where Labor seats got five car parks but Coalition seats got 25.

The Auditor-General wrote that the process for selecting car parks for upgrades was “…not designed to be open or transparent..” and that it, “…was not demonstrated that projects were selected on merit.”

The program was managed by the Federal Infrastructure Department which at the time was reporting to minister Paul Fletcher and later Alan Tudge.

GEOFFREY WATSON, CENTRE FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY: This is in terms which were unusually scathing. This is very, very pointed criticism in terms of the language ordinarily used in these reports, which I think is highly significant.

ELIAS CLURE: The Auditor-General also said that the focus of the projects was in Victoria when the greatest need for these car parks was actually in South East Queensland and Sydney.

GEOFFREY WATSON: The relevant bureaucrats here did not engage with the experts, did not look at the issues of need and impact and rather, appeared to have handed over the project so that we, as best we know, as best we are allowed to know, it seems to have been decided between Coalition politicians.

ELIAS CLURE: The Government insists the rollout of the cash has been fair and timely and in a statement to 7.30 the Government said the locations chosen for the car parks were based on an identified need in the community and that they had other infrastructure projects in Melbourne totalling $9 billion located in Labor seats.

ALAN TUDGE (2020): The commuter car park at Hurstbridge is well and truly under way. The commuter car park at Craigieburn in the member for Calwell’s electorate, is well and truly under way…

ELIAS CLURE: But some of the Labor seats that got money for car parks were going to be tight electoral races, including the car park announced in Campbelltown by Coalition minister Angus Taylor.

ANGUS TAYLOR: This solves a real problem whereby the car spots are taken up early in the morning.

ANDREW GILES, SHADOW CITIES MINISTER: We know that these decisions were concentrated in marginal seats, so I think this was a very powerful message before the election.

ELIAS CLURE: This is the latest in a series of infrastructure programs that have been criticised along similar lines.

In January 2020, the Auditor-General found clear guidelines were breached in handling of the $100 million Community Sport Infrastructure Fund overseen by Brigitte McKenzie. The Community Safety Grants Program overseen by Peter Dutton has been referred to the auditor’s office and the Infrastructure Department itself was referred to Federal Police after buying land known as the Leppington triangle at a price which the Auditor-General concluded was $27 million above market value.

ANDREW GILES: I’ve described it as sports rorts on an industrial scale because it has all the features of that egregious sports rorts program, decision-making around programs that had great appeal to the community, made not on the basis of any assessment of merit or need but purely on political convenience.

GEOFFREY WATSON: It’s got to stop. That is just an unacceptable practice. It’s our money, not their money.

We want them elected on their merits not on their ability to fund projects which might win them votes.