(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

The government maladministration of the “national commuter car park fund” — the multi-hundred-million-dollar rort aimed at saving Melbourne Liberal seats and securing Labor marginals in the 2019 election — is the perfect demonstration of why adherence to good process in spending taxpayer money isn’t just some arcane bureaucratic box-ticking but has direct consequences for taxpayers.

The 47 car parks funded under the program were all chosen by Scott Morrison and Alan Tudge on the advice of MPs, other ministers or state Liberal counterparts — not a single recommendation by the Department of Infrastructure made it into their final list, most of which was funded before the election was called in 2019. As if in disgust at the result, the Department of Infrastructure simply didn’t bother doing a lot of the basic elements of good administration around the program, the auditor-general’s report shows.

There were no evaluation plan or performance indicators developed for the projects. No records were properly kept, despite the department’s internal auditors complaining about lack of proper record-keeping. (“As at December 2020, there were 1.3 million records maintained across some 179,000 sub-folders within the Infrastructure Investment Division’s G Drive folder.”) When Tudge’s office asked for briefing on the projects, the department said it didn’t have much information to offer.

There was no discussion with the states about where might be good spots to put car parks, except one instance where Tudge’s office spoke to its NSW Liberal counterpart. There was no discussion with local councils, either. And there was no effort made to work out whether the projects would have made any difference to congestion.

So what happened when a prime minister and a minister sat down and simply picked a bunch of projects based on what seats they wanted to win and feared they would lose?

Victoria got the largest share of funding in order to save Liberal seats there, despite the fact that Sydney has eight of the 10 most congested roads in Australia. Melbourne has one. Looking ahead, in the 2030s Sydney will have five of the most congested roads, and Queensland will have three.

But worse, the spending in Victoria didn’t go anywhere near where it needed to go. It went primarily to the leafy eastern suburbs of Melbourne where Liberal MPs were in electoral trouble.

But as the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) noted: “The Victorian train network extends across the western suburbs where no projects were located … Melbourne’s most congested roads in 2016, and as forecast in 2031, were predominately to the north-west of Melbourne … Population growth is a key driver of urban road congestion. Projects tended to be located in local government areas with relatively low average population growth rate projections. Half of the projects were located in local government areas with a less than 1% growth rate.”

Morrison and Tudge picked projects that were unfeasible and will never go ahead; they also picked projects prone to cost blowouts, with $40 million in cost blowouts even for the small number of projects already completed. Further blowouts are expected — the budget for the program had to be increased from $500 million to more than three-quarters of a billion dollars in this year’s budget.

And the car park program was supposed to be co-funded equally with state governments, despite the states being completely ignored in selecting the projects. Unsurprisingly the Victorian government told the Commonwealth to get stuffed. “As at 31 March 2021,” the ANAO reports, “authority had been obtained for the Australian government to fully fund 29 of the commuter car park projects (62%).” And usually the Victorian government hasn’t even bothered to give a reason — it’s simply told the Commonwealth it’s not going to fund them.

That’s left the Morrison government in an invidious position: it promised these projects in the election campaign, so now it’s stuck with the bill.

And, inevitably, the government is wildly overpaying. The cost per carpark space for the project at Berwick in Victoria is three times the standard cost for such a project. The one at Ferny Grove in Brisbane, twice the cost. One at Woy Woy on the Central Coast north of Sydney is over five times the cost; one at Panania in Sydney six times the standard cost.

No one was required to undertake a benefit-cost ratio for any project but when they were undertaken the results were decidedly underwhelming. For four projects, “the BCRs ranged from 1.00 to 1.04 at P90 [the higher confidence interval for costings], and from 1.01 to 1.09 at P50 [the lower confidence internal]. To flesh out its briefs requesting formal approval of funding, the Department resorted to padding them out with assertions of qualitative benefits unaccompanied by evidence. Projects would “provide an increased number of parking spaces… provide travel time savings… encourage use of public transport… reduce congestion and improve safety” without providing any data to back that up.

In short, what happened is exactly what you’d expect if two politicians sat together and picked a bunch of projects for electoral opportunism, rather than any factual basis. And taxpayers will wear the cost for years to come.

Readers with memories stretching back longer than those in the Press Gallery might remember the torrent of words written and broadcast about Labor’s school halls stimulus program a decade ago, which turned out to be an enormously successful program that received positive assessments from both independent reviews and the ANAO. Imagine if the media adopted the same hostile attitude toward this government’s blatant rorting as it did to a successful stimulus program.

Of course, if if happened under a Labor government, you can bet they would.