Over the decades

By Meg Hill

Dr Andrew Lemon wrote two essays for the local history book Melbourne’s Twenty Decades – one on the 1940s and one on the 1980s. Part of his family history helps to underline what he sees as the underlying factors behind the city’s changes.

Presenting a talk on September 15 to a meeting of CBD residents, the East Enders, Mr Lemon explained, “my earliest memories of the CBD are of my father’s business in one of those bluestone offices, long since demolished,” he said.

Mr Lemon’s father’s business was in William St, opposite the Supreme Court. It was an importing business for raw materials for the manufacturing industry and had a warehouse on site.

“Isn’t that a quaint, old-fashioned concept – in the middle of William St in Melbourne there was that sort of warehouse,” he said.

“I think we forget why the CBD of Melbourne is where it is – historians will always tell you a geographical explanation of why a city develops in a particular place.”

He outlined the proximity to the Victoria Docks, where Docklands sits now, and the old Spencer Street Railway Station – the two main places were goods were coming into the new settlement.

But by the time Mr Lemon was 10 years old, the nature of the CBD was changing. His father’s business made the “far-sighted” decision to sell the city site and move to the outer suburbs – where land was cheaper and new freeways were connecting the growing city.

As shipping changed – moving into “containerisation” – Victoria Docks became too small and new docks were built in the Port of Melbourne.

And as for Dr Lemon’s father’s business – “it was floated as a public company and gobbled up by corporate asset strippers by the ‘80s”.

“If you think about the period of the ‘80s you see a period where the Melbourne manufacturing industry, which is such a big part of the history of Melbourne up to that time, is very much eaten away in that period and its largely to do with federal policies that impact on Melbourne,” Dr Lemon said.

He said that although “the ‘80s we tend to generalise as the decade of John Cain and the ‘90s are the decade of Jeff Kennett”, much of what we think of as ‘90s-related began under Cain, and the narrative also neglects the role of federal politics.”

Under the category of job losses in the ‘80s “forcing Melbourne to change its idea of the way it operated” Dr Lemon listed the Government Clothing Factory, created in 1912 and which relocated from South Melbourne to Coburg in the ‘70s, before moving to Bendigo and being privatised.

The period of “rationalisation and technological change” also saw Telecom becoming Telstra, “becoming corporate, had major job losses through outsourcing and eventually moving call centres overseas,” he said. 

And the role of the Hawke federal Labor government.

“You start getting the Hawke Government bringing in reforms that were going to reduce jobs enormously across Melbourne through the car manufacturing industry being put on notice,” Dr Lemon said.

“You’re seeing staff reductions in transport through rationalisation, through deals with the unions, you get a lot of corporate takeovers going on, you start getting media job cuts.”

Dr Lemon mentioned the tram strikes over the efforts to remove tram conductors, and the transformation of Southbank from what was an industrial precinct.

“The disappearance of the rag trade out of Flinders Lane and then out of Fitzroy, the chocolate factories moving out of the inner suburbs, cuts to the public service, the 1987 stock market crash led to a lot of jobs being lost in the stockbroking industry as well,” he said.

And then the immense scale of privatisation under Kennett and the fast-tracking of development (like the Crown Casino) and “splash-making” investments like the Melbourne Museum.

One of the big picture results, according to Dr Lemon, is that Melbourne transformed in a way which “indelibly changes the idea of the city”.

But looking forward, he believes the COVID-interruption we’re living through now may mark another turning point.

“The COVID- interruption gives us a chance to ask how far we’re prepared to lower our standard in terms of living conditions, housing conditions, what sort of minimal standards we should have,” he said.

“We might rethink the spaces we take for granted and use every day and think ‘do we have to do things in the same way?’” •

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