The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has defended spending taxpayer funds for projects in marginal seats – including those criticised by the auditor general – saying MPs have more idea about community needs than “public servants sitting in Canberra”.
In an interview with ABC’s 7.30 on Monday, Morrison was asked to reflect on what he could have done differently including “when it came to the way your government used community sports grants as a slush fund to channel money to marginal seats?”
Morrison said he rejected the charge, including for projects the subject of a scathing audit report that found half were not recommended by Sport Australia, with funding instead directed to marginal seats.
“I don’t think public servants sitting in Canberra have a better idea of what people need in their communities than their members of parliament,” the prime minister said.
“Elected leaders, ministers, ultimately make decisions. We’re the ones accountable to the public. Not public servants. Not Sport Australia.”
Guardian Australia’s Pork-o-meter has found the Coalition has again made billions of dollars of commitments to marginal seat projects, promising about $3bn to its top 10 target seats.
Morrison pointed to a recent commitment made by the Coalition in the seat of Bass, in northern Tasmania, for a bowling green upgrade as an example of a community project that needed government help.
“We’re supporting them. Now, someone in Canberra may not understand how important that is. I can tell you what – they do, and Bridget Archer does, and I do. That’s why we support it.”
“I don’t buy into this narrative that’s put to us. Politicians, members of parliament, are part of their local community, they know what their community needs.”
Morrison was also pushed by host Leigh Sales about his assessment that he needed to be less of a “bulldozer”. She suggested voters were instead unhappy with him for “ducking responsibility, blame-shifting, being slippery with the truth [and] being slow to act when required”.
“They’re Labor’s criticisms and that’s not what I get,” Morrison replied. “What I get is people really just want to see me be more inclusive in terms of how I go forward and that’s the challenge going forward.”
When asked to respond to specific criticism of the government doing “too little, too late” during the bushfire and floods crises and the vaccine rollout, Morrison defended the government and said criticisms from the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, were those of an “armchair critic”.
Sales also asked the prime minister for his opinion on why the government was struggling in so-called teal seats with MPs vulnerable “for the first time” – prompting Morrison to suggest the affluence of voters in these electorates was to blame.
“Our members have done an extraordinary job there, but as time has gone on, many of these places, I suppose, are less vulnerable to the impacts of the economy than, say, many of the places I’ve been in this campaign,” Morrison said, pointing to the Ipswich-based seat of Blair in Queensland as an example, and “broader suburbs” throughout the country.
“I mean, they’re places that cannot afford the sort of risk that comes with a Labor party and a leader that just is a bit loose on the economy. They will pay the price for that.
“Perhaps some parts of our country may feel they’re a bit more insulated from the impacts of that and may be focusing on other issues.”
On climate change, Morrison said that he did not accept that the net zero by 2050 target required Australia to shut down most of its coal-fired power stations by 2030, but refused to nominate a timetable.
Morrison repeated his insistence that a vote for an independent would produce a “parliament of chaos” and would not be drawn on whether he would stand down to give a new leader a “clean slate” to negotiate in the event of a hung parliament.
“I’m not speculating on these scenarios, Leigh. Because my scenario, the scenario that my team is working for, is not to have a weakened parliament, to not to have a government that has to negotiate for its existence every day.”
Morrison also used the interview to spruik the government’s new super for housing policy, saying he rejected suggestions that the policy could expose people to risk if the property market crashed.
The policy, unveiled at the Coalition launch on Sunday, allows first homebuyers access to up to $50,000 of retirement savings for a house purchase, prompting warnings that house prices could spike as a result.
Sales asked Morrison what would happen to people’s retirement incomes if the housing market “tanked”.
“What you are suggesting is owning your own home is a gamble that Australians shouldn’t take. I don’t agree with that,” Morrison said.
“I believe that buying a home is the best economic decision you can make. It’s the strongest thing you can do for families and communities.”