The rollout of a $4 billion congestion-busting fund would “amount to corruption” if a federal integrity commission existed, a former NSW auditor-general has told a Senate inquiry.
Tony Harris said he was convinced a controversial plan to fund commuter car parks in marginal seats was an improper use of power.
“If we had an independent commission against corruption (federally), it would amount to corruption, I am quite convinced of that,” he said on Thursday.
The inquiry is examining how the government chose projects in key electorates over more meritorious applications.
“It is as if (the government) were saying, ‘If you live in a Labor electorate you don’t deserve any car parks because you vote Labor’,” Mr Harris said.
Chair of the Centre for Public Integrity and former judge Anthony Whealy agreed with Mr Harris’ assessment, saying the distribution of funds would constitute corruption under NSW’s corruption legislation.
A lack of oversight – particularly over the ministerial code which required ministers to act in the public interest and with integrity – meant there had been no consequences for any conduct breaches, Mr Whealy said.
“If you are in government and can get away with it, why wouldn’t you do it? You might win an election because of it,” he said.
Having the prime minister enforce the code was a real gap in the integrity system.
“The ministerial code is really not working as it should … because no one can enforce it in an independent and effective way.”
Mr Whealy said the government’s refusal to hold anyone accountable in light of a commonwealth auditor-general’s report meant the fund was at risk of being politicised in the lead-up to the next federal election.
“When we all reeled back in horror at what we were reading (in the report),” he said.
Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher was not being accountable when he said the grants were all merit-based and needed, Mr Whealy argued.
Experts also savaged the rollout of the fund, claiming their advice had been ignored.
As well, the cost of car parks was blown out because of improper scrutiny and the fund would not help ease congestion at all.
Parking Australia head Stuart Norman told the inquiry local governments charged the Commonwealth $150,000 for projects that should have cost less than $30,000.
The higher amount was then paid without any scrutiny, safeguards or conditions, diminishing the fund’s efficiency.
“This should not be car parks at any costs,” he said.
The building of a car park at Glenferrie station in suburban Melbourne, next to a university and where nine in 10 people walk to, was an example of the funds missing areas where they were needed the most.
The station sits within Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s seat of Kooyong, where he suffered a seven per cent swing against him at the 2019 election.
Mr Norman claimed his organisation had been ignored by government ministers.
The peak body representing rapidly growing outer suburbs said while the funding was welcomed, it was a missed opportunity to direct the funds to where it was “more desperately needed”.