A committee meeting to remember

By Stephen Mayne

As the nation collectively groaned over petty partisan finger pointing about bushfires and climate change in recent weeks, there was a political ray of light emanating from the Melbourne Town Hall.

The marathon 3 hour and 49 minute Future Melbourne Committee on November 12 will go down as one of the best meetings ever.

This paper has lamented the lack of meaty topics coming before council in the post-Doyle period, with councillors reluctant to put up controversial notices of motion and a surprising lack of substantive policy debates coming forward from the administration.

Well, that all changed on November 12 when there were three issues which dominated – inclusionary zoning policy, pill testing at music festivals and the Melbourne Cup Parade – all of which could have been completely left alone.

If you weren’t there or missed the live webcast (a commendable transparency measure in itself), I encourage readers to visit the City of Melbourne website and have a listen to all three debates, which were conducted with passion, honesty and powerful arguments. The inclusionary zoning discussion ran for 24 minutes (starting one hour and 32 minutes into proceedings), pill testing went for 43 minutes starting at (1 hour and 56 minutes) and the horse racing debate went for 55 minutes (starting two hours and 50 minutes).

Town Hall did not necessarily need to weigh in on the state government’s policy review on tackling housing affordability but landed with what planning chair Nicholas Reece declared was a “momentous” policy shift towards supporting inclusionary zoning to mandate a slice of affordable housing in new major developments on private land. 

Whether Spring Street agrees is another matter but the councillors shirked making this change when they last looked at this policy in late 2014 and, with Melbourne having the lowest amount of affordable housing of any capital city, the switch is well overdue.

The support for inclusionary zoning was particularly noteworthy for the Lord Mayor Sally Capp, given her strong opposition to such a policy in her previous role as CEO of the Property Council.

The submission supporting a pill testing trial at music festivals was another state government issue that many councils across Victoria just ignored. But this council was up for the debate, unafraid to buy in.

The reports by the officers supporting both a pill testing trial and the policy shift to embrace inclusionary zoning were well argued progressive positions, which both prevailed, although some remnants of the old Team Doyle (Crs Susan Riley and Bev Pinder) plus the solitary Liberal councillor Phillip Le Liu opposed the pill testing position.

However, there isn’t a lot of factionalism or party politics amongst the current councillors, which actually leads to better debate, independent thoughts and good decision-making.

Cr Rohan Leppert’s motion to withdraw council’s support for the Melbourne Cup Parade down Swanston St on the Monday before the Melbourne Cup was the most ambitious and contentious push by the Greens councillor that we’ve seen. It attracted 170 overwhelmingly supportive written submissions and five oral presentations on the night but ended up going down 6-3 with only Cr Nic Frances Gilley supporting the two Greens.

The Lord Mayor, backed by Cr Le Liu and all the former Team Doyle councillors came up with a much softer alternative motion which gave the racing industry a minor whack over the animal welfare issues highlighted on ABC TV’s 7.30 program but then ultimately backed the parade, albeit with a nudge to bring forward the banning of the whip.

There has never been a debate like this about racing, gambling and animal welfare inside Town Hall. Passions ran high with Cr Cathy Oke in tears over the poor treatment of animals. Ultimately, it was rare defeat for Cr Leppert but was nice to hear Cr Le Liu commend him for bringing forward a motion that reflected the concerns of many of his constituents.

At the end of the evening it was apparent that the Capp council has certainly become more progressive than the previous Robert Doyle-led councils – witness the earlier support for declaring a climate emergency and the ambitious transport plan to reduce car access in the city. But taking on the Melbourne Cup was a bridge too far as the Greens suffered an increasingly rare defeat.

The conservative Herald Sun newspaper responded to all this with a highly critical article suggesting the Lord Mayor has become too left wing and anti-business.

The anti-business line is patently unfair but Victoria is the most progressive state and it becomes more progressive the closer you get to the City of Melbourne, so why shouldn’t the council reflect this shifting ground?

And if only our state and federal politicians could conduct respectful public debates on tricky policy questions without reducing it to an unedifying slanging match. Let’s hope we see a lot more of this in the period ahead as November 12 was quality democracy in action.   

Stephen Mayne is a former City of Melbourne Councillor

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