What about John and Singers Limo… Will they be kept in the garage on Melbourne Car Free city day? What about deliveries and emergency vehicles?
Power and the Council and the State
Who controls Melbourne?
Source: The Age: Clay Lucas
Melbourne City Council has been accused of lacking a long-term vision and being a pawn of the State Government and big business. Clay Lucas reports.
IN THE lead-up to the debate at Melbourne City Council last week over whether the city should stage a car-free day, one councillor told The Age they were happy to support the project.
“But that doesn’t mean it’ll happen,” the councillor said. “Brumby will stomp on this thing by the end of the week.”
It was a cynical reading of modern Victorian politics. But, as it turned out, not cynical enough.
It didn’t take Premier John Brumby to the end of the week to stomp on the idea of five young, enthusiastic and idealistic women. It took 12 hours.
Amid squeals of fury from motoring, business and trader groups, Brumby stepped in to crush the idea. “This is just short-term populism,” he told ABC Radio. “It’s a stunt. It’s not going to change anything.”
Alicia Webb, one of the environmentalists who put forward the car-free idea, was thrilled when the council agreed to give it in-principle support.
“The council (were) so willing to listen to the ideas of young people,” says Webb.
But within hours, the group’s celebrations had turned into a media maelstrom. Webb says it was disappointing that the Premier rejected the plan without even hearing them out.
“The State Government criticised the concept before they even heard any of the details,” she says.
That the project was blocked should not have come as a surprise in car-obsessed Melbourne.
Three months earlier, in April, Roads Minister Tim Pallas slapped down months of work by Melbourne City Council’s transport planners, who had proposed installing new “Copenhagen-style” bike lanes on St Kilda Road.
In one call from Pallas to 3AW’s Neil Mitchell, the plan was snuffed out, by a State Government desperate to not appear anti-car — despite all its sustainability spin.
For David Dunstan, from Monash University’s National Centre for Australian Studies, the car-free day and the bike lanes were more than just one-off proposals.
“They were about inspiring the public. They were both very imaginative and sensible ideas, and both were immediately stomped on by the State Government,” he says.
Dunstan, who worked in the Cain government’s planning ministry in the 1980s, said a 1985 event he had helped organise — paving Swanston Street with grass, to capture city users’ imaginations over a plan to make the street car-free — would have been ridiculed by today’s State Government as loony.
“Anything original the council comes up with, Spring Street will immediately say no to,” he says. “It is a sign of the profound contempt for local government from both sides of politics.”
But it is also about something more obvious: power, and who controls central Melbourne. That was made blindingly obvious in January, after the council put forward an innovative idea to concentrate huge outdoor billboards in three key city sites, mimicking London’s Piccadilly Circus or New York City’s Times Square.
The council wanted to restrict the proliferation of “supersize” billboards, which they believed were overpowering the city’s heritage streets. But a word in the State Government’s ear from the powerful outdoor advertising lobby and the plan was overridden, subsumed in a statewide review of outdoor advertising laws by Planning Minister Justin Madden.
Rarely, if ever, is more than a whimper of protest heard from Lord Mayor John So when the State Government muscles in on council plans. “John will choose razzamatazz over usefulness every time,” says Greens councillor Fraser Brindley, who brought the car-free plan to the council.
“He makes every decision in the frame of a photo shoot.”
Last week So refused to back the car-free day, saying he supported it in spirit only. He did not publicly take on Pallas over the St Kilda Road bike lanes. Nor did he protest when the council’s advertising review was made redundant.
For Dunstan, the need to reform the City of Melbourne Act — last reviewed in 2001 — is obvious. “The reason why London Mayor Ken Livingstone has been able to achieve something is autonomy,” says Dunstan. “Melbourne City Council has no effective power.”
At a council committee meeting on Tuesday (that So did not attend), councillors voted to write to Local Government Minister Dick Wynne asking him to review the Act.
Ken Livingstone provides an excellent template for what can be achieved when a government is prepared to give real power to local government.
“Red Ken” was elected in 2000, after Tony Blair reinstated the Greater London Authority (Margaret Thatcher had abolished its predecessor, the Greater London Council, in the 1980s). Blair handed the authority executive powers over transport, emergency services and planning.
Seven years later, Livingstone remains mayor. And while his popularity is up for debate, his power is not.
Since 2000, Livingstone has introduced a congestion charge to keep cars out of London’s city centre, and used the revenue to improve London’s buses. He has fought hard against Gordon Brown’s privatisation of the London Underground, helped win London the 2012 Olympics and introduced a plan to put 50 per cent of affordable housing in all new projects.
Back in Melbourne, such revolutionary plans are seldom considered by the city council, partly because under a system set up by the Kennett government in the 1990s and continued under Labor, its voting system is gerrymandered to business.
Businesses registered within Melbourne City Council’s areas get two votes, while residents get just one vote.
THE pro-business candidates that are elected, such as John So, who was returned on a platform of keeping city rates low, are reluctant to rock the boat for the big end of town.
The situation is unlikely to change at next year’s council elections. So has already indicated he will run again. Such is the cost of running a lord mayoral campaign that several prospective candidates have already told The Age they will not even consider running against him.
In 2001, So spent at least $120,000 to get elected. In the most recent 2004 poll, insiders say he spent upwards of $200,000.
Critics of the current system of election at the city council complain that it stops candidates with big ideas running. One critic is John Young, a former Melbourne town clerk who spent 30 years working for the council finishing in 1994.
Since April, Melbourne City Council has been touting its Future Melbourne strategy as the source of new ideas for the city. The plan, a partnership between the council and Melbourne University, aims to come up with new ideas for the city, despite the council’s biggest idea — support for a proposed tollway tunnel linking the Eastern Freeway with the western suburbs — already being backed by both So and senior council bureaucrats.
But Young questions whether Future Melbourne is really the vision the city needs. New ideas for the city’s future should come from elected councillors, he says.
“Where is the vision coming from? I’m not sure it should be coming from a bunch of Parkville academics,” says Young.
One Parkville academic, Melbourne University’s Paul Mees — who is not involved in the Future Melbourne project — argues that the most important part of coming up with ideas for the city is being a passionate advocate for them.
Instead, he says, the current council serves one purpose for the State Government: compliance. It never makes trouble, says Mees, and backs the State Government on big projects such as road tunnels, freeway extensions and new car parks.
“In all of the world’s cities where things have gone well, the push has come from the central city council.
That is never going to happen under the system we have now,” says Mees.
But Chris James, a spokesman for the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says the council does not need reforms, and that the changes put in place in 2001 have worked well.
The stability of the council has given business stability and been a force for good in the city, he says. And it has vastly improved on the days of old, when constant sniping reduced its ability to function well.
But others believe the council’s high watermark as an agent for change was the 1980s; it saw the first woman lord mayor (Lecki Ord), the first avowed conservationist lord mayor (Trevor Huggard) and vibrant public debate about Melbourne’s future.
The council wrote the massively influential 1984 Strategy Plan, which laid out a blueprint to reinvigorate inner Melbourne. It worked hard to relax fire regulations and other red tape so that artists could work in the city and those keen to live in the CBD could do so.
Then, in 1993, the Kennett government gutted the council, undermining the likelihood of dynamic resident activists — such as Huggard — winning seats again.
For Dunstan, there is little chance the Brumby Government will reform the city council to give it real teeth.
“The Labor Party has walked away from City of Melbourne politics. It is part of its deal with the big end of town, and it has meant handing over the city to the people who profi t the most from it: the property managers. And they are troglodytes … who do not believe in local democracy.”
Other critics say it is crucial that planning powers are returned to the city council if it is to regain its importance in the public policy arena.
In 1980, Melbourne City Council was stripped of its planning powers on all applications bigger than 25,000 square metres. They automatically go to the State Government.
It is a stark comparison to Brisbane, where all the major parties run tickets and the 26-member council divides into government and opposition.
Councillors are paid the same as state backbenchers. The council in Brisbane (which covers a far larger area than Melbourne City Council) runs public transport. Additionally, the council has authority over large planning projects.
Dick Wynne is not keen on changing the City of Melbourne Act. “We have no plans to review (it),” the minister said through a spokesman. And this means keeping the status quo, and the likelihood that, should he run again, So will be re-elected in November 2008.
Privately, Wynne and the State Government are happy to have a Lord Mayor like So. The Liberal Party, too, is happy enough; it has no plan to reform the council should it win power in Victoria.
According to Dunstan, it is unsurprising both parties support the current system, or So. “He is exactly the person both sides of politics wants.”