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As more details emerge about the government’s car park fund, a former departmental officer describes it as ‘a rort’. By Karen Middleton.

The car park fund was ‘a rort’

A departmental officer who worked in the area that managed the government’s controversial Commuter Car Park Fund says the way money was allocated is part of a larger trend in directives given to the public service.

“It was just a rort,” the officer, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Saturday Paper this week. “No accountability, no governance. The government made a decision and told the public servants to do it. And they did. I’ve been seeing that happen more and more, for some time.”

The officer said departmental spreadsheets routinely indicate the electorates in which projects will be located. In the case of the car parks, they said the requirement that state and local governments deliver the projects meant the federal government could shift blame for delays or cancellations.

“There’s no risk to the Commonwealth if it doesn’t happen,” the officer said. “They can make it look like the council’s fault or the state government’s fault.”

The statements come as bureaucrats from the Infrastructure Department faced questions about the program in a senate committee hearing this week.

Jane Hume, the Superannuation minister representing the portfolio at the hearing, defended the fund’s allocation of $660 million to railway station car parks in key marginal seats ahead of the 2019 election. Her defence was that the previous Labor government had done much the same thing.

Hume read from a 2010 Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report that found the then Infrastructure minister, Anthony Albanese, and other ministers had approved grant applications that were later found ineligible, had failed to keep sufficient records and had skewed funding to seats Labor held or hoped to win.

“I can say to you,” Hume assured the committee, “that those learnings from previous ANAO reports and ANAO audits have informed the construction and design of the current program.”

The evidence before the special senate estimates hearing had already confirmed what the Coalition learnt from Labor: rather than severely bending and breaking the rules, as Labor had done, the current government gave its car park fund no rules whatsoever. An audit office report, published last month, showed the car park fund had no eligibility criteria or formal selection process and allocated money without checking viability or value.

At the time the fund was established, the government declared its allocations were not grants and therefore not subject to usual grant rules.

Senator Janet Rice of the Greens could not hide her frustration. “With regard to ‘Labor did it too’ – two wrongs do not make a right,” she told the officials appearing before the committee on Monday. “The Australian community are absolutely fed up with rorting. They really are. They want to see transparent processes.”

Labor’s shadow Finance minister, Katy Gallagher, called the fund “professional rorting”.

The ANAO told the senate committee that car park selections had been based on state-by-state spreadsheets identifying the “top 20 marginals”.

Deputy auditor Brian Boyd could not confirm the spreadsheets’ origin.

“It could’ve been a minister’s office,” Boyd said. “What we do know is they were going back and forth, using departmental systems.”

Departmental officials refused to table either spreadsheets or the legal advice on which it relied to justify the federal government funding railway station car parks.

“The spreadsheets are deliberative advice from the department into government decision-making processes,” David Hallinan, the deputy secretary of the department, said.

Boyd said the then Infrastructure minister, Alan Tudge, and his office had “canvassed” Liberal MPs and candidates in the target seats, looking for projects to fund.

“I think there was one electorate they canvassed that we don’t think even had a railway station in it,” he said.

The officials said they were not aware of any spreadsheet headed “top 20 marginals”.

“We don’t have it,” said departmental secretary Simon Atkinson, formerly chief of staff to then Finance minister, Mathias Cormann. “To the best of our knowledge, no one in the department at that time or now has had that document.”

Boyd said the Prime Minister’s Office had been involved in the canvassing and “the same person” there had handled both the car park fund and the community sports grants program, which the audit office also criticised for political bias early last year.

Despite being allocated a day before the election was called, the department insists 27 car parks were “election commitments” – a distinction that limits obligations for due diligence.

Atkinson said the department began calling them election commitments when the government said that’s what they were.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 24, 2021 as "‘It was just a rort’".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.