Government committed millions to commuter car parks that could never be built, Labor says

Labor MPs have criticised the Coalition’s $660m commuter car park fund, which allowed Liberal MPs and candidates to select and announce projects in their electorates, some of which were never and could never be built.

On Monday the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) released a scathing report finding the infrastructure department selected none of the 47 car park sites, which were instead selected by the government using a “non-competitive, non-application based process” that “was not demonstrably merit-based”.

Labor MP Josh Burns said the Coalition announced a $15m commitment for a car park at Balaclava station, in his Melbourne electorate of Macnamara despite the fact the land was already set aside for public housing.

“A call to Port Phillip council or the Victorian government would’ve told them … there was no chance the land was ever going to be used for car parks,” Burns told Guardian Australia.

Burns said the Coalition committed $15m after doing “literally no homework”, and as a result the project was one of four cancelled in May.

“They were already the federal government … but nobody called either level of government to verify if it was possible to go ahead – that’s shoddy government.”

Labor’s Linda Burney has accused the government of “clear pork-barrelling” over the fund, which enabled neighbouring Liberal MP, David Coleman, to announce a $7.5m project on the border of her electorate.

Burney cited the fact Coleman’s fairly marginal seat of Banks was promised three car parks and her seat was promised just one.

On 27 March, 2019 Coleman announced a $7.5m commitment for a car park in Hurstville alongside the prime minister, Scott Morrison.

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The ANAO found that projects had been identified in part through ministers’ offices canvassing the views of 23 Coalition MPs, senators and the Coalition candidates for six electorates then held by Labor or Centre Alliance.

As a result, 77% of the car parks promised were in Coalition-held electorates and a further 10% were in the six non-Coalition held electorates where candidates’ views were canvassed.

Of the 47 commuter car park sites, construction has been completed on just two sites and started in three more, the ANAO found. Two projects were cancelled in December 2019 just months after they were announced. Some 11 projects worth $175m have had no assessment work.

The ANAO report also reveals the infrastructure department dismissed concerns about the eligibility of commuter car parks to receive millions of dollars, suggesting the government could just use city deals to fund them if not allowed by other legislation.

The report found that assessments for 70% of the projects did not address eligibility, but the department assured the minister that each project was entitled to funding.

The departments claims that the National Land Transport Act authorised spending on 33 projects because they were categorised as “inter-modal transfer facilities”, but the ANAO found three were only eligible under another section and one was ineligible.

That project was $6m committed to increase the capacity of the Doncaster park and ride facility at a major interchange for seven bus routes, which did not qualify for funding.

The department told the ANAO it would amend regulations to bring the project within scope. It also said in April that “eligibility under the Act is not a conclusive factor in whether the government can make a commitment to a transport infrastructure project.”

“The government does commit to infrastructure projects which are not eligible under the Act, and funds them through other means … such as through City Deals.”

Melbourne University law professor, Cheryl Saunders, told Guardian Australia while it is “true that if a project is not validly covered by one scheme it may be validly covered by another” a City Deal would have required a memorandum of understanding with the states.

Saunders said the car parks at railway stations “are not a federal responsibility” and so the constitutional power for the grants “is highly doubtful”.

“If an infrastructure project can genuinely be said to be part of the interstate transport network, then [it may be within power],” she told Guardian Australia.

“But car parks at suburban railway stations [are] most unlikely [to be].”

On Tuesday Labor’s shadow urban infrastructure minister, Andrew Giles, described the program as “sports rorts on an industrial scale”.

“What we see here is evidence of a government desperate to buy votes before an election, heedless of the consequences of that,” he said.

On Tuesday the urban infrastructure minister, Paul Fletcher, defended the program, arguing the government is entitled to select projects as election commitments to be funded by the department, without a competitive application process.

“The process we went through was that ministers, elected officials, made decisions about the delivery of infrastructure projects,” Fletcher told ABC Radio.

“The great majority of these projects we took to the 2019 election, and so we came to government with the authority of an election.”

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