Scott Morrison has defended his government’s controversial car park grants program, saying the minister was authorised to make the decisions.
But the Prime Minister did not deny his office had worked on a list of marginal seats to focus on for funding during the 2019 election campaign.
It comes a day after Alan Tudge, urban infrastructure minister at the time of the program, was accused of “running away” from questions on the $660 million scheme in his first press conference in months.
“The Auditor-General has already made his ruling on this report. And ministers were authorised to make the decisions and the minister made the decisions,” Mr Morrison said on Thursday.
A barrage of questions about the commuter car park fund – the subject of a scathing auditor-general report which found it heavily favoured Liberal seats – came at the end of a 50-minute briefing focused largely on the government’s Closing The Gap announcements.
Mr Morrison has fielded few questions on the controversy since it erupted, but was peppered with a dozen on Thursday.
He was asked repeatedly whether he was aware of the “top 20 marginals list” that the auditor-general said was used inside the Coalition government to highlight which seats should be prioritised for funding.
Mr Morrison defended the spirit of the program, saying it was about reducing travel times for commuters, but did not deny the existence of the marginal seats spreadsheet.
Asked what involvement he had, and whether he spoke to Mr Tudge about the funding, the PM simply replied “the ministers made the decisions on these programs”.
“Ministers discuss many issues, but ministers make the decisions. That’s what the auditor-general found,” he said.
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Questions flew, as Mr Morrison launched into a defence of the program, calling it a fix for “one of the biggest challenges that people living in cities face”.
“I’m very happy, just like the opposition was, to go to the Australian people at the last election and say, ‘I want to deal with the fact that people are spending too long in commuting, too long not being able to get a park’,” he said.
“These are real issues. These are things that people want us to address. And my government is addressing them.”
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 seats. A further 10 per cent were in Labor-held seats targeted by the government at the 2019 election. Many of the projects were signed off on the day before the government went into ‘caretaker mode’ ahead of the election campaign.
Asked on Thursday if he was “OK with the idea of a top 20 marginals list”, Mr Morrison said:
“I’m very OK with the idea of building car parks to ensure people can get a park, get on a train, can get to work sooner, get home sooner, because urban congestion and people commuting is a daily challenge. This is a daily thing that people want done. And we’re getting it done.”
Mr Morrison ended the press conference by saying “Australians are the winners”.
On Wednesday, Mr Tudge said he was “not aware” of the colour-coded spreadsheet of marginal electorates, but didn’t answer a question about whether he spoke with Mr Morrison about the “targeted seats” list.
Labor’s shadow urban infrastructure minister, Andrew Giles, said on Wednesday that if Mr Tudge “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.
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.
Current Urban Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher also defended the car park program in the parliamentary Question Time on Thursday.
He noted the auditor-general’s report laid out that “the Australian government may commit funding to an investment project at any time based on information it deems appropriate”.
“The minister had the authority, the minister was acting within authority,” Mr Fletcher said.