Voters left stuck in the electoral traffic as car park fund falters

Trying to find a car park can be infuriating at the best of times.

But it should be nothing compared to the anger voters are legitimately entitled to feel towards governments that flippantly use taxpayers’ money to pork barrel their way to electoral victory.

The carpark at Surrey Hills railway station in Josh Frydenberg’s electorate of Kooyong.Credit:Andrew De La Rue

The decision on Thursday by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to abandon the four car parks he promised to his own eastern Melbourne electorate has its origins in the 2019 budget and the Coalition’s desperate attempts to win that year’s election.

Aping a Labor Party program, the $500 million Commuter Car Park fund was born with Frydenberg using his budget speech to promise it would “take tens of thousands of cars off our roads”. But it was never a fair fight for those who spend their days circling car parks for a spare spot.

Behind the scenes, this fund was nothing but a funnel into which cash was directed with laser-like precision at key marginal seats.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison signed off on 27 car parks worth an estimated $389 million the day before he called the 2019 poll. A few had been promised ahead of budget day while more were pledged during the campaign.

All up, 47 car parks were promised including the four in Kooyong.

Today, just six of the 47 have been finished (including at least one finished by the Victorian government before the Commonwealth announced it would help pay for it), six are under construction and nine have been abandoned.

An Auditor-General’s report into the car park fund found 77 per cent of its projects were pledged to Coalition seats, with most going into Melbourne’s east where the Liberal Party was defending a string of marginal electorates.

In Sydney, the key marginal seat of Lindsay sits at the western extreme of the city. To this day, the government has yet to explain how three car parks were promised to this seat and none to the almost 30 stations that sit between Lindsay and Sydney’s CBD.

Candidates came up with estimated costs that did not come close to reality. Car parks promised on land in expensive inner-city areas were thought to cost the same as those on promised on vacant blocks across the urban fringe.

The program is on track to cost more than $700 million with some car parks unlikely to be in place until the second half of this decade.

Three years on, no one within the government has been held accountable for a program that is 40 per cent over budget, way behind schedule, politically skewed and failing to deliver on its stated aim of making it easier for people to get to and from work.

The minister who oversaw the program’s creation, Alan Tudge, has been shifted out of the portfolio in late 2020 so can’t face questions in Parliament over the saga. Freedom of information requests for the role of the Prime Minister are rebuffed on flimsy grounds or only contain sheets of black ink.

Scott Morrison’s “miracle” election victory was built on promises of commuter car parks, roundabouts and sports grounds. All to be funded with taxpayers’ money.

It remains to be seen whether the government has learned the merits – or otherwise – of splashing cash around to win over increasingly cynical voters when it has no control over the land to be used or the planning processes involved.

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