Federal minister Alan Tudge has been accused of “running” from questions on a $660 million government grants scandal, after he was chased through Parliament House by a reporter demanding answers on the controversial car park program.
“It’s just a complete joke and a farce,” said Labor’s Andrew Giles, the shadow minister for urban infrastructure.
He was responding to comments earlier from Mr Tudge, who maintained that the Morrison government’s commuter car park program – which a scathing auditor-general report found heavily favoured Coalition seats – was within the rules.
It was the first press conference Mr Tudge – who was urban infrastructure minister overseeing the car parks program – had given as Education Minister in many weeks.
He was speaking about Indigenous education initiatives, but was grilled about the $660 million fund that directed three-quarters of its projects to at-risk Coalition seats that didn’t need car parks, ahead of the 2019 federal election.
Mr Tudge said he was “not aware” of a colour-coded spreadsheet of marginal electorates, which the auditor-general’s department said had been created inside the government to highlight which seats should be prioritised for funding.
“The Auditor-General also said they were all lawfully based, 33 of them were ticked off by the department for coming up for decision,” Mr Tudge told the press conference.
“We took those to the Australian people and the Australian people voted for them.”
However, Nine News journalist Jonathan Kearsley had more questions. Mr Tudge walked away as Mr Kearsley kept peppering questions, before the minister reached stairs at the far end of Parliament House.
Alan Tudge, the Minister who was responsible for the Commuter Car Park scheme slammed by the Auditor-General – says he's "not aware" of a list of "top 20 marginals" held by his office, and used to ask MPs about possible projects in their electorates.@9NewsAUS pic.twitter.com/ZHfSVi8YGq
— Jonathan Kearsley (@jekearsley) August 4, 2021
“Minister why can’t you answer the question?” Mr Kearsley said.
As photographers followed, Mr Tudge maintained the car park program was “based on need”. He claimed “the Labor Party also had a commuter car park fund and all of those were in Labor seats or targeted seats”.
Mr Tudge did not answer a question about whether he spoke with Prime Minister Scott Morrison about the “targeted seats” list.
The auditor-general report excoriated the car park program, specifically saying it was not based on need. It found 64 per cent of projects were in Melbourne, despite “the majority of the most congested roads in Australia [being] located in Sydney”, and that most of the Melbourne projects were in the city’s south-east, not the more congested north-west.
It was also found 77 per cent of the projects were in Coalition-held seat. A further 10 per cent were in seats held by Labor at the time, but won by the Coalition at the 2019 election.
But the ANAO report ruled none of the projects had actually been proposed by the department, criticised the selection as “limited in coverage and … not demonstrably merit based”, and said they appeared to have been mostly chosen after either “a written request from ministers” or as election promises in the 2019 campaign.
Beyond merely “canvassing” the ideas of local Coalition MPs or candidates for certain seats, there was only “limited engagement” with “some states” and “some councils”, the report found.
There have been calls for a Senate inquiry into the car park program.
In Parliament’s Question Time on Wednesday, current urban infrastructure minister Paul Fletcher defended the program, saying there was “no question that the minister of the day had authority to make decisions in relation to community car parks”.
Mr Giles, speaking at a Canberra press conference alongside Labor’s shadow infrastructure minister Catherine King, was critical of Mr Tudge’s responses.
“This morning we saw Alan Tudge run away from questions. Well Minister Tudge can run, but he can’t hide from accountability,” he said.
Mr Giles claimed the car park program had “delivered almost nothing and treated this taxpayer money as an LNP slush fund”.
Picking up on the Minister’s claims that he wasn’t aware of the marginal seats spreadsheet, Mr Giles said “if he didn’t know about this list, there’s only one person who could have known – Mr Morrison, the Prime Minister”.
“It’s time for Mr Morrison to come clean and explain exactly what he knew about this rort,” he said.
Ms King claimed the government had “undermined democracy” with a heavy reliance on grants programs set up with lax application and approval processes. She noted the car park program part of the wider $4 billion Urban Congestion Fund, which Labor has also criticised for not having stronger guidelines.
“A $4 billion fund, which was deliberately set up with no processes, no transparency about how you apply for these funds,” Ms King said.
“There is a major problem in with the way this government uses any discretionary grants scheme.”