Two commuter car parks in the Labor seat of Macarthur in New South Wales received federal funding because they were selected by the office of neighbouring Liberal MP and minister Angus Taylor, the audit office has revealed.
Evidence to Senate estimates confirmed the offices of Taylor and the federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, nominated projects in their own or neighbouring electorates, which Labor MP Mike Freelander says shows the program was “an exercise in politics”.
The Australian National Audit Office found in June that the 47 projects sites in the $660m commuter car park fund were handpicked by the government on the advice of its MPs and candidates – with none selected by the infrastructure department.
Labor, the Greens and crossbench MPs are considering pushing for a parliamentary inquiry into the program and the broader $4.8bn urban congestion fund.
The ANAO report stated that projects had been identified in part through ministers’ offices canvassing the views of 23 Coalition MPs, senators and the Coalition candidates for six electorates then held by Labor or Centre Alliance. This process started with a list identifying 20 marginal electorates and inviting those MPs to select projects.
On Monday, the ANAO executive director, Brian Boyd, confirmed that a further six sites were put forward without the MP’s views being sought, including projects selected by the offices of Taylor and Frydenberg.
“There were a couple of the Sydney ones where the proposal came out of [Angus Taylor’s] electorate of Hume but the actual stations aren’t in Hume, because the rail line runs to Sydney,” he said.
“The stations were being put forward out of the member for Hume’s office … but the stations were in neighbouring electorates on the way to Sydney.”
A spreadsheet, tabled by the department, shows the Campbelltown project will cost $22.1m and Macarthur $15m, with the federal government responsible for the entire cost.
Both are in the planning phase, with the majority of Campbelltown’s funding ($11.4m) to be spent in 2023-24 and expenditure for Macarthur continuing into 2024-25.
Before the 2019 election, Taylor was quoted in local media boasting that he had been “directly involved in lobbying for these extra 1,000 spaces” across the two stations.
“I have been pushing the case with the [then] minister for cities, Alan Tudge, for many months now,” Taylor reportedly said.
The Berejiklian government had previously promised a commuter car park at the 2015 state election but abandoned the promise in 2018.
Freelander, whose electorate of Macarthur in Sydney’s south-west borders Hume, said Taylor had “promoted [the car parks] very heavily on the Camden side of his electorate”.
“There’s no train station in Camden, they all drive to Campbelltown and park there,” he said.
Freelander said the government “should have” consulted Labor MPs, but he had “never lost an opportunity to give my views of public transport needs, particularly the need for a rail link between Macarthur and western Sydney airport”.
“This was not an exercise in consultation or providing vital infrastructure, it’s an exercise in politics,” he said.
“I don’t care who builds it – as long as it gets built, but Taylor has announced it lots of times. I’m not sure it will ever happen.”
Labor and the Greens are considering seeking a Senate inquiry to probe the urban congestion fund after the ANAO revealed the same staffer in the prime minister’s office who was engaged in the notorious sports rorts affair was also involved in deciding which car park projects were funded.
The Greens senator Janet Rice said the fund was “no small-time racket for the Morrison government”.
“This is a multi-billion dollar Coalition scheme to buy votes,” she told Guardian Australia.
“We know multiple Liberal ministers have been involved in multiple rorts schemes, and that a senior staffer in the prime minister’s office coordinated with LNP members, senators and candidates on what marginal-seat project they wanted as part of the election slush fund.
“We need a full Senate inquiry into the urban congestion fund and the clear links to other Coalition rorts programs.”
The urban infrastructure minister, Paul Fletcher, defended the program on Monday telling ABC’s 7.30 program the car park projects “were decided based on need”.
Fletcher said former minister Tudge had the authority of the prime minister and cabinet to make funding commitments which is “what he did with a view to reducing congestion in our big cities, [in] Melbourne our fastest growing city”.
Fletcher noted Labor had also gone to the 2019 election promising commuter car parks at Campbelltown, Woy Woy, Gosford, Mango Hill and Frankston – “commitments made by both Labor and the Coalition”.
Stuart Norman, the chief executive of peak body Parking Australia, said voters “want to see a plan” to deliver the car parks but downplayed the need for an inquiry.
“I don’t think [it] will discover things we didn’t already know,” he said.
Asked about the $890m still unspent in the urban congestion fund, Norman said: “The government doesn’t need to allocate more money to get these car parks done. It’s not the money they lack – it’s the expertise.”