Governance experts fear Australia is sliding down the “slippery slope” of corruption, calling on the federal government to overhaul its planned integrity commission in the wake of an auditor-general report into a program funnelling hundreds of millions of dollars into Coalition-held seats.
Professor AJ Brown, leader of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy’s public integrity program and a board member of Transparency International Australia, said Prime Minister Scott Morrison could make a stand for better administration by toughening the proposed integrity commission.
The Croydon railway station in Melbourne is one of the car parks promised to be upgraded as part of the government’s program.Credit:Paul Jeffers
The Auditor-General earlier this year found the Commuter Car Park Fund, used in the run-up to the 2019 election to promise new car parks and upgrades near train stations at 47 sites, overwhelmingly delivered projects to Coalition seats.
In a Senate hearing this week, the Auditor-General’s office revealed a government-compiled list of the 20 most marginal seats ahead of the 2019 election formed the basis for the program, which so far has delivered just two completed car parks.
Professor Brown said the Auditor-General’s report had shown how taxpayers’ money was funnelled into a program aimed at maximising the government’s electoral chances.
He said the car park report, on top of the Auditor-General’s revelations about the so-called “sports rorts” program, showed the desperate need for a formal, federal anti-corruption authority.
“What we’re trying to do is not just stop corruption but to stop ourselves from sliding down the slippery slope towards corruption. But this isn’t just getting on to the slippery slope, we’re sliding down it fast,” he said.
Mr Morrison announced plans for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission in December 2018 but the plan stalled during 2019 and was not revived until December 2020, when the government released the draft bill and asked for views.
The government is yet to respond to the submissions and put the bill to Parliament.
Professor Brown said the government should give its integrity commission stronger powers to deal with cases of “soft” corruption.
“There is nothing to fear from greater transparency. The opportunity to show leadership has been laid at the feet of the Prime Minister and here’s his chance to grab it,” he said.
Former NSW Treasury secretary Percy Allan says there’s been an increase in the number of programs aimed at supporting governments.Credit:Louise Kennerley
Former secretary of the NSW Treasury, Percy Allan, said there was a growing number of programs being used by political parties to maximise their electoral chances.
He said at the federal level, the public service was under pressure not to press back against such programs while federal politicians wanted to be able to announce vote-winning projects.
“I think there’s a power shift going on towards the states, and that’s affecting the federal government which collects all the tax but the states get to spend it,” he said.
“There’s a focus from the federal government on wanting to announce things, to open things.”
While 47 projects were promised, several have had to be abandoned because of their cost or they were pledged in areas where available land is already planned for a local project. Just two car parks have been completed.
The chief executive officer of Parking Australia, Stuart Norman, said the government clearly needed help to complete some of the projects, noting some of them may never go ahead.
“We believe that these are needed but expertise is required to help roll these out and that expertise is lacking within the program partners and the Department of Infrastructure,” he said.
“Some of these may not be able to proceed for reasons out of [the federal government’s] control so is that funding going to be used for other sites of need?”
Current Urban Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher defended the program, telling the ABC the car parks were based on need with the government aiming to reduce congestion.
“The idea of community car parks is to get people to drive to a station and then get on the train to get to where they need to go, thus reducing congestion across the overall road network and use the rail more efficiently,” he said.
The Auditor-General found the projects picked for funding “reflected the geographic and political profile of those given the opportunity to identify candidates”.
It found the projects were nominated either by sitting Coalition MPs, Coalition duty senators for Labor-held seats or by endorsed Liberal candidates in the electorates of Mayo and Macnamara.
Shadow finance spokeswoman Katy Gallagher said the program was an “industrial scale” of rorting done with taxpayers’ money.
“This was a government fund, appropriated through the budget, passed through the Parliament, and then a decision was taken by the Prime Minister that no one other than the people on this top 20 marginal list would be able to access that money,” she said.
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