Business as usual in Melbourne

August 1, 2001


MELBOURNE — During the month of June, Melbourne was inundated with corporate self-promotion in the interests of developers, investors, big business and profiteers. The Melbourne City Council elections — for seven councilors, the mayor and deputy mayor — have been as ruthless, petty and anti-poor as a spat between John Howard and Peter Costello.

With the notable exception of sole Greens councillor David Risstrom, those elected ran on explicitly pro-business platforms. This is not surprising, given that business owners have two votes while residents have only one. A resident who is also a property owner gets two votes. Residential areas in Kensington and Flemington were removed from the electorate under the Kennett state government.

Consequently, 40% of the vote was cast by residents and 60% by business owners and residential property-owners.

The successful mayoral candidate was millionaire Dragon Boat Restaurants' proprietor John So. During the campaign his slogan, "So active, So reliable, So responsible" adorned buildings all over the city.

So claimed he would "stimulate business development by reducing operating costs, lowering council rates and coordinating marketing" and "extend council by-laws to remove drug dealers off the streets".

The Liberal-Party-dominated United ticket fielded 10 candidates in five different mayoral/vice-mayoral teams. They wanted "to clean up our CBD so families can return to shop" and promote "zero drug and alcohol tolerance".

Successful candidate for councillor, ALP member Katherine Kitching ran on the "Fresh Start Team". Her campaign material consisted mostly of pictures of herself shopping at the Queen Victoria Markets, riding a bike and posing outside of heritage-listed buildings, and featured the slogan, "compassion for victims, tough on culprits". She argued for all traders in the CBD to get a vote for council, not just business owners.

Mayoral candidate and Australian Democrats' founder Don Chipp fended off accusations that his running mate was a bankrupt (and thus ineligible to run). The Peter McMullin and Elaine Canty mayoral team were linked in the mainstream press to fugitive Mexican banker Carlos Cabal.

Candidates from joint Liberal and ALP tickets engaged in public walkouts over preference deals and shady business practices.

All these candidates were united in aiming to make the CBD profitable, to attract tourists and business investment.

Even though southern Carlton has the highest concentration of people living below the poverty line in Melbourne, only three among 25 of the councillor teams argued the case of the poor, the marginalised and the dispossessed: the Victorian Greens, Putting People First and Socialist Alliance.

Amidst the sackings, resignations and dissolutions which characterised the previous council, Greens Councillor Risstrom established a Social Housing Trust for improved public housing, and increased the resources allocated to health-based solutions to drug problems.

The Greens argued that residents concerns should have more weight, but that the needs of business should also be met. They campaigned under the slogan, "a city that lives better for residents and works better for business".

Stephen Jolly, national secretary of the Socialist Party, and John Maciulis ran on the Putting People First ticket, which received 600 first preference votes and came close to getting one councillor elected. Putting People First was critical of the pro-big business agenda of the Melbourne City Council and its undemocratic voting system. It put forward policies to benefit the community — especially youth and the oppressed.

Although the Socialist Party's support was noted in small type at the bottom of advertising material, Putting People First did not openly identify as socialist. The only openly socialist ticket in the elections was the Socialist Alliance.

Like the Greens and Putting People First, the Socialist Alliance campaigned for increased environmental justice and community rights. But it also went further and, as a publicly socialist ticket, argued for the interests of the oppressed majority, the working class, against the corporate interests which dominate the city of Melbourne.

[The author is the convener of the Seat of Melbourne Socialist Alliance branch and a member of the Democratic Socialist Party]

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