Car park fund would be 'corrupt': inquiry

·3-min read

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 is convinced the controversial plan to fund commuter car parks in marginal seats amounted to 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 told the inquiry on Thursday.

The Senate committee is looking at how the government decides which projects to fund following a scathing audit of the $660 million commuter car park scheme before the 2019 election.

"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.

The Australian National Audit Office found nearly 50 car parks were hand picked by the government following nominations from MPs and candidates.

But a revelation in the Senate inquiry has raised concerns the entire $4 billion fund may have been politicised as opposed to just the $660 million which the audit examined.

Audit office executive director Brian Boyd revealed his department had found government members were asked to bring forward projects under the wider urban congestion fund, which were tied in with their car park location proposals.

"We can see it was the same process being employed but what we haven't done is look at the detail of that and how it was applied to the non-car park (portion)," he said.

Chair of the Centre for Public Integrity and former judge Anthony Whealy raised concerns the fund was at risk of being rorted at the upcoming federal election due to the government's blase reception to the audit report.

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.

"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.

"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," he said.

When the audit report was released in June, Mr Fletcher said all investment decisions by the government were made "based on an identified need in the community".

They also took into account the government's "total investments across each city", and money already allocated by a state or local government.

The minister initiated a review in December 2020 when he took on the portfolio which led to the department increasing reporting frequency and quality, and improving data management and project tracking.

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