‘Completely false’: Victoria says Coalition can’t blame state for commuter car park failure

The Victorian government says it is “completely false” for the federal assistant treasurer, Michael Sukkar, to blame the state for the commonwealth failing to build one of its controversial commuter car parks.

The proposed Mitcham station car park in Sukkar’s electorate of Deakin was junked in May. It was one of two projects the Australian National Audit Office found had been selected for federal funding with no authorisation evident beyond a Coalition press release.

On Monday, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) released a scathing report which found not one of the 47 projects worth $660m overall were selected by the infrastructure department but rather they were handpicked by the Morrison government on the advice of its MPs and candidates.

Federal Labor is now considering how to investigate the issue with options including a sports rorts-style parliamentary inquiry or by asking the ANAO to examine the entire $4.8bn urban congestion fund of which commuter car parks was just one part.

The ANAO report found 38 car park sites were selected through written agreements from the prime minister in response to ministers and a further seven were election commitments in the 2019 campaign.

The ANAO said for the remaining two projects – the $15m Mitcham and $30m Gosford car parks – “the departmental records of the authority for their selection were incomplete”.

On 11 January 2019, Scott Morrison approved a list of projects proposed by the then-deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, and the then-urban infrastructure minister, Alan Tudge, which did not include Gosford.

In March 2019, Tudge’s office told the department Gosford was part of the program. The project was announced on 27 March 2019 in a Coalition press release.

The ANAO said “it was not evident at which point in time the project was authorised”.

In relation to Mitcham, the ANAO asked for evidence of the authority to select the car park site. The department replied with a copy of a 7 February, 2019 press release issued by Morrison and Tudge.

“There is precedent established by the department for the prime minister and cabinet that a media announcement by the prime minister constitutes relevant authority to progress a project,” the department told the ANAO.

On 17 May, Sukkar announced on Facebook that although four commuter car park projects in his electorate would proceed – at Croydon, Ringwood, Heathmont and Heatherdale – the Mitcham project had been canned.

“Unfortunately, the Victorian state government has determined that they are unable to construct the $15m multi-level train station car park planned for Mitcham station,” Sukkar said.

“This is a really disappointing result. Nonetheless, the Morrison government stands ready to deliver $15m to improve parking at Mitcham train station should the state government be in a position to deliver the project.”

A Victorian government spokesperson told Guardian Australia: “This claim is completely false – the only thing stopping Michael Sukkar delivering car parks in Mitcham is further funding from the Morrison government.”

In February 2019, Sukkar told the House of Representatives the commuter car parks in his electorate were “fully funded”.

While the Mitcham project was only considered viable if the federal government increased the funding allocation, others including Ringwood and Heathmont have already received a top-up in the 2021-22 budget.

Projects that have not been topped up are now set to receive smaller car parks, such as at Surrey Hills, or the commonwealth is still mulling Victorian government proposals to downsize, such as at Boronia.

Federal Labor’s shadow urban infrastructure minister, Andrew Giles, said press releases were “fine for talking to the media but they are no way to run a government”.

“This is why the Morrison government continues to break their infrastructure promises, they simply don’t do the hard work when it comes to project scoping and planning,” he told Guardian Australia. “The government might want to shift these failures onto the states but Australians know that the buck stops with Scott Morrison and his ministers.”

Giles said Labor would use “whatever means necessary to get to the bottom of this” but the audit report “can’t be the end of it”.

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.

A spokesperson for the federal minister for urban infrastructure, Paul Fletcher, said the commonwealth had “withdrawn funding from a small number of projects, including Mitcham, where the Victorian government or relevant local council has advised that the project cannot be delivered with the funding committed or where there were no feasible site or design options”.

“Should the state government or local council come back with an amended proposal, the minister stands ready to discuss it,” they said.

The spokesperson said the urban infrastructure minister “obtains authority from the prime minister, cabinet or expenditure review committee as appropriate” and had the legal power to make funding commitments within the provisions of the National Land Transport Act.

Fletcher met with Maroondah council on Tuesday to be briefed on the Croydon, Ringwood, Heathmont and Heatherdale car parks.

Comments are closed.