‘The Australian people had their chance’: finance minister dismisses criticism of Coalition’s car park fund – The Guardian Australia

Simon Birmingham has dismissed criticism of the Coalition’s discredited commuter car park fund, declaring that “the Australian people had their chance and voted the government back in”.

The federal finance minister on Sunday also refused to rule out the government embarking on similar programs in the future, although he said it would see “how processes and procedures can be enhanced”.

The Labor opposition has demanded the prime minister, Scott Morrison, “take responsibility for the train wreck that is his car park rorts scandal”, after a week of mounting criticism over the $660m National Commuter Car Park Fund.

A report by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), published last Monday, found the infrastructure department’s administration of the car park projects was “not effective” and the approach to selecting the sites was “not demonstrably merit-based”.

It said none of the 47 project sites selected for funding commitment had been proposed by the infrastructure department.

About 77% of the commuter car park sites selected were in Coalition-held electorates, while a further 10% were in six non-Coalition electorates where the Coalition candidates or senators were canvassed for their suggestions, the ANAO report said.

Birmingham did not respond directly when asked on ABC’s Insiders program whether the fund could be held up as an example of good government.

The finance minister said on Sunday the government was focused on “delivering the election promises we took to the Australian people” and would “act in terms of recommendations of the auditor general’s report, as we always do, as to how processes and procedures can be enhanced in future”.

When pressed on the findings that the process was not open and transparent, Birmingham said: “In a parliamentary democracy, part of the process is local MPs advocate on behalf of their electorates.

“That’s what electorates expect, that’s what they vote on and governments are expected to listen and work to some of those advocacy points where need is genuine and where it is well argued and that is precisely what governments will continue to do so,” he said.

The ANAO found the distribution of the projects selected for funding commitments “reflected the geographic and political profile of those given the opportunity to identify candidates”.

The report said nearly two-thirds of the projects were located in Melbourne, “representing more than 2.5 times the number of projects located in Sydney notwithstanding that Infrastructure Australia has identified that the majority of the most congested roads in Australia are located in Sydney”.

The ANAO also said the Melbourne projects “were predominantly located towards the south-east, whereas data shows that Melbourne’s most congested roads in 2016, and as forecast in 2031, are predominantly in the north-west”.

When asked whether the government had targeted the funding at seats it was trying to hold and win, rather than where congestion was worse, Birmingham pointed to the 2019 election result.

“Look, the Australian people had their chance and voted the government back in at the last election and we are determined to get on and deliver those election promises that we made in relation to local infrastructure, as we are nation-building infrastructure,” Birmingham said.

The ANAO report found by the end of March construction had been completed at just two of the 47 sites and had commenced at a further three sites.

The ANAO report found two projects were cancelled in December 2019 just months after they were announced. Another project was later found to be ineligible and four were cancelled in May 2021.

The federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, told reporters in Canberra on Sunday the scheme was “an absolute disgrace” and “a corruption of proper process”.

“The government made decision to provide taxpayers’ money on the basis of submissions from political candidates who weren’t elected members of parliament, as well as members of the Coalition. That is a corruption of proper process,” Albanese said.

“It’s extraordinary that Simon Birmingham says there’s nothing to see here. We need to deal with issues like this because they undermine faith in the political process in this country.”

Labor’s spokesperson for cities and urban infrastructure, Andrew Giles, said Australians deserved better.

Giles called on the prime minister to “discipline the ministers responsible – or demonstrate that his ministerial standards aren’t worth the paper they’re written on”.

“Now that Scott Morrison has emerged from his stay at the Lodge, he must take responsibility for the train wreck that is his car park rorts scandal,” Giles said in a statement.

Officials from the infrastructure department are expected to be grilled by a Senate committee about the matter.

On Thursday Guardian Australia revealed details of two projects – in Gosford, New South Wales, and Mitcham in South Australia – that the ANAO found had been selected for federal funding with no authorisation evident beyond a press release from Morrison.