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Coalition targeted marginal seats in urban congestion fund, parliamentary inquiry told

Alan Tudge, the former urban infrastructure minister, now education minister, was primarily responsible for sounding out colleagues about projects in their electorates and marginals. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Alan Tudge, the former urban infrastructure minister, now education minister, was primarily responsible for sounding out colleagues about projects in their electorates and marginals. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The Coalition asked colleagues in the "top 20 marginal" seats to suggest projects that should be funded under their multibillion-dollar congestion-busting scheme, a parliamentary hearing has heard.

Audit office officials have revealed that rather than running a process which saw projects picked based on local transport needs, the Morrison government "canvassed" Liberal parliamentarians and candidates about how the $4.8 billion fund could be channelled into their key electorates.

The office of then Urban Infrastructure Minister Alan Tudge was primarily responsible for sounding out his colleagues, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison's staff were also involved, an official said.

Labor's Andrew Giles said the "naked politics" on show in the fund's administration made it even worse than the community sports grants affair which engulfed the Morrison government at the start of last year.

Audit officials detailed the highly politicised process in evidence to a parliamentary hearing into the government's $660 million commuter car park fund, which was instigated by their scathing report into the scheme.

The carpark program - which was set up to fund "park-and-ride" developments next to city train stations - was a component of the government's $4.8 billion Urban Congestion Fund.

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The commuter car park program was a key part of the Coalition's 2019 re-election pitch, with dozens of projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars announced on the campaign trail.

The audit report, published earlier this month, found the transport and infrastructure department's process for selecting projects was not "demonstrably merit-based".

Labor Senator Katy Gallagher. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Labor Senator Katy Gallagher. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

In what Labor has described as "industrial-scale rorting", more than three-quarters of projects picked were in Coalition electorates. Just two of 44 projects across 47 sites had been completed as of March 31.

Audit office official Brian Boyd revealed at Monday's parliamentary hearing that from September and October in 2018, Mr Tudge's office consulted with Liberal MPs, duty senators and even candidates in the "top 20 marginals [seats]" about what projects could be funded through the congestion-busting fund.

The number of target seats was ultimately expanded to 29 seats, Mr Boyd said.

A document which Mr Boyd described as a "tracking sheet" was used to keep tabs on consultation with parliamentarians and candidates in the target electorates.

Mr Boyd indicated that approach was unusual, given transport projects were typically funded based on needs.

"It was ... an approach of starting from the electorates, rather than here are the [transport] routes and here is where congestion is at its greatest and that is why we need to address this," Mr Boyd said.

It was also revealed on Monday that the same staff member in the Prime Minister's office who was involved in the so-called "sport rorts" affair was liaising with Mr Tudge's team about the urban congestion projects.

While the wider urban congestion fund has not yet been closely examined by the audit office, officials agreed with Labor Senator Kristina Keneally's assertion the scheme lacked a transparent, open process for allocating taxpayer funds.

In evidence to Monday's hearing, department officials again pushed back at the audit offices' criticism of their handling of the program.

The department's deputy secretary, David Hallinan, stressed the commuter carpark fund was not a competitive grant scheme.

Mr Hallinan said decisions about which projects were picked rested with the government. Once those decisions were made, it was the department's role to consult with states, territories and local councils to deliver the projects.

Urban Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher and other senior government ministers have repeatedly maintained that it was appropriate for the government to select projects.

Mr Giles, who originally referred the commuter carpark fund to the audit office for investigation, said the evidence from Monday's hearing suggested the program was even more politicised than he first thought.

"What makes this even worse than sports rorts, is the naked politics of it," he said.

"The reference to marginal seats, the fact that projects were chosen without any prospect of an open application or merit-based process."

Mr Giles said the audit office should now turn its attention to the wider urban congestion fund.

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This story Coalition targeted 'top 20' marginal seats in urban congestion fund first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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