Senators hear Alan Tudge told staff to consult marginal seat MPs despite claims car parks chosen on merit

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  • Alan Tudge
    Australian politician (born 1971)
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Officials have told Senate estimates that Alan Tudge instructed staff to first consult marginal seat MPs before commuter car parks were selected, despite the former urban infrastructure minister’s claims that projects were chosen on merit.

Tudge, who is now the education minister, claims he was “not aware” of a list of top 20 marginal seats used to guide the location for the car parks.

On Monday evening, Australian National Audit Office officials revealed the document was created and maintained by staff in Tudge’s office to ensure marginal seat MPs and those responsible for six target seats were consulted on “what they’re looking to have included” in the program.

In June the ANAO issued a scathing report that not one of the 47 commuter car park sites promised by the Coalition at the 2019 election was selected by the infrastructure department, with projects worth $660m handpicked by the government on the advice of its MPs and candidates.

Tudge has denied any wrongdoing, insisting that all projects were “were chosen on the basis of need”.

ANAO executive director Brian Boyd told Senate estimates that in mid-September 2018 Tudge “asked his staff to start organising some meetings with, as he put it, particular named marginals”, starting with six Coalition MPs.

The staff developed a “key tasks list” in response. The document went through various iterations, including one referring to the “top 20 marginal seats” before a final version with 29 marginals in April 2019, shortly before the federal election in May.

When Boyd observed the list “grew over time”, the Labor senator Tim Ayres remarked that it had done so as the government’s “target seat list expanded”.

The auditor general, Grant Hehir, said the ANAO “couldn’t speculate” about that, and cautioned that the evidence was merely “descriptive” of the process, noting the report didn’t make any findings about those actions.

According to ANAO evidence in July, the same staffer in the prime minister’s office who was engaged in the sports rorts affair was also involved in the canvassing process for the commuter car parks.

On Monday, Boyd confirmed that evidence, adding that the list was prepared by Tudge’s office and canvassing was “primarily led out of the portfolio minister’s office … certainly they were maintaining the list”.

Boyd said that, unlike sports grants, there was no master spreadsheet of commuter car park projects. Instead, the list tracked whether the government had spoken to Coalition MPs and candidates or duty senators responsible for “six targets [seats] not held by the Coalition” and was used to determine “do we have a list of what they’re looking to have included”.

Boyd said there was “no evidence” that any Labor MPs were canvassed about possible projects.

Greens senator Janet Rice asked for more detail about the documents, noting that the current urban infrastructure minister, Paul Fletcher, had knocked back a Senate order for production of documents claiming he doesn’t have them or they don’t exist.

Related: Alan Tudge says he was not aware of ‘top 20 marginal’ seats list for Coalition’s car park grants

Hehir said he was “uncomfortable” giving more detail than was in the ANAO report without the minister present to claim public interest immunity over it, and took the questions on notice.

In August, Tudge dismissed suggestions the allocation of projects was corrupt, because all spending was “lawfully based” and that most projects had been “ticked off by the department before coming up for decision”.

“And we took those to the Australian people and Australian people voted for it.”

ANAO officials were also asked about Hehir’s decision not to investigate the ABC for paying $200,000 of Louise Milligan’s legal costs in the Andrew Laming defamation matter.

Earlier in October, Hehir said he was unable to judge the appropriateness of the decision because there was no policy or precedent for it.

On Monday evening, Hehir told estimates there were no documents setting out the rationale for the decision, so the ANAO could only judge off ABC testimony about a number of meetings between its in-house counsel and the managing director.

The ABC had explained they paid Milligan’s costs because of fears it could be vicariously liable for Milligan’s tweets and the relationship between the Laming matter and another defamation case.

Hehir criticised the lack of documentation, saying “normally you’d have an expectation that they would document those decisions, [such as] meeting the costs of an employee – that’s something you’d expect to see”.

Asked if the legal costs decision was appropriate, Hehir responded that it was “hard to say without evidence one way or the other”.

“Not being able to form an opinion is a reasonably strong statement from that perspective.”

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