The Victorian local council elections are rapidly approaching. From early October, Victorians will receive ballots in the mail, with voting to close on Friday, October 23.
The Victorian Socialists, formed in 2018, are standing an ambitious and unprecedentedly broad slate of new socialist candidates. If successful, they will join a number of incumbent socialist councilors in Yarra, Darebin, and Moreland, municipal areas covering Melbourne’s inner east and north.
Since at least the 1990s, gentrification has transformed these historically working-class neighborhoods. But they are still home to a socioeconomically diverse array of residents — which is why these suburbs have been witness to a number of flash points, as locals take up the fight against neoliberal local government managers, property developers, ecological destruction, and a host of other issues.
In Australia, as in the United States, local government is a crucial battleground. Thanks to the efforts of Sue Bolton and Gaetano Greco in Moreland and Darebin, and Bridgid O’Brien and Stephen Jolly in Yarra, we don’t need to speculate to know what can be achieved by committed socialists backed by working-class organizing. Their record speaks for itself.
Community Democracy, Not Managerial Neoliberalism
Over time, a process of amalgamation and corporatization, culminating in the staggered introduction of single-member ward voting has decreased local government transparency and accountability, widening the gulf between residents and council decision-making. That’s the impression one gets from talking to Yarra councilor Bridgid O’Brien, who says that since taking office in May 2019, she has been inundated by complaints from residents that their views are being ignored or misrepresented by the council.
For example, Cr O’Brien cited Yarra’s controversial public drinking bylaw, which bans alcohol consumption in most public spaces. Police argue that the law is important “to educate, to tip out [alcohol] and to get treatment and referrals.” Critics disagree, suggesting that such laws disproportionately target Indigenous residents, contributing to higher rates of incarceration and death in custody. According to O’Brien, the department responsible for local laws wanted a ten-year extension of the bylaw, largely to satisfy Yarra’s compliance department. At the same time, community outrage at the over-policing of the Aboriginal community was at a high point, coinciding with the state government’s move to abolish the public drunkenness laws following the Tanya Day inquest.
Following an inadequate community consultation process, in 2019 O’Brien and fellow socialist councilor Stephen Jolly (as well as two other councilors) voted to revoke the bylaw. In the end, the mayor’s deciding vote instead extended it for two years. Despite this setback, O’Brien and Jolly were able to ensure that an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reference group was set up to review the law’s further extension.
The Moreland Council has also moved to increase the power of unelected council officers over development, by introducing a Design Excellence Scorecard. This will enable the council to fast-track approvals for high-scoring applicants, including for higher-density or taller buildings.
Cr Bolton fears that removing democratic oversight from the planning process will further reduce community control over their neighborhoods: “Most of the community don’t follow planning issues so they won’t be aware that they have lost some rights until an unacceptable development goes up in their neighborhood.”
As local democracy has been eroded, gentrification has accelerated across Melbourne’s north. Garish, unaffordable, and environmentally unsound apartment blocks have multiplied from Preston to Footscray. These councils have historically been dominated by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and, to a lesser extent, the Greens, who have often acceded to developers’ demands.
In Preston, the home of the Darebin City Council, community groups, including the Darebin Appropriate Development Association, are locked in a protracted fight to save the historic Preston Market. Construction company Salta Properties, which also built the massive Victoria Gardens retail and residential complex in Richmond, bought the 4.6-hectare Preston Market site for $36.75 million in 2004. Previously, Salta has applied for planning permits to build twenty-eight-story apartment buildings on the site. An artistic rendering of the Preston Market redevelopment proposal from several years ago suggests the developer envisions building a carbon copy of QV Melbourne, a franchise-laden shopping mall in Melbourne’s CBD.
Although the state government has ultimate planning authority over the Preston Market, Darebin councilor Gaetano Greco is particularly critical of a Darebin City Council decision earlier this year that supports the option of relocating the market elsewhere on the site and does not specify any mandatory height restrictions for new residential buildings.
These moves threaten to drive out stallholders and radically alter the character of the market. Cr Greco, one of the three councilors who voted for the market to remain in its original position, says that the remaining councilors have not appreciated the implications of a heritage review that concluded the market was “of local historical, aesthetic, technical and social significance” and should be protected. By giving sanction to relocation, the Darebin Council has misleadingly given the impression Salta’s redevelopment is broadly supported by Preston locals. This, in turn, encouraged the Andrews state government’s decision to “fast-track” redevelopment, a move that could further empower Salta and disenfranchise residents.
Cr Greco says that protecting the Preston Market, which houses everything from Greek delis to Vietnamese pho joints, is essential for retaining the market’s culturally diverse, working-class character that draws visitors from Melbourne’s sprawling, largely ungentrified outer north.
“It’s an iconic part of our city because the different waves of migration are reflected in the market,” says Cr Greco. Preston market stallholders Athina and Jim Katsaros say that Cr Greco has been “the voice” of the Preston Market for the past fifteen years. His role in setting up the Darebin Ethnic Communities Council in 1990 speaks to a long-term commitment to ensuring that the Darebin Council represents the full diversity of its constituents.
With around one hundred thousand Victorians on the social housing waitlist, it’s clear that property developers and the Victorian Planning Authority have placed profits above building affordable residences. A 2018 Victorian Planning Authority report found that existing planning controls on the Preston Market site did not “adequately address the provision of affordable housing,” were the site to be converted into residential apartments.
The issue is also pressing to Darebin’s south, where 15 percent of households in Yarra are experiencing housing stress. It’s also estimated that there are over one thousand homeless people in the electorate.
Thanks in part to Crs O’Brien’s and Jolly’s efforts, Yarra Council Policy now requires that any new residential development over fifty dwellings must provide at least 10 percent of that as affordable housing. Even local government doesn’t have the power to enforce this; Cr O’Brien says that she and Cr Jolly are fighting for this quota to be increased and made mandatory. “These big new developments aren’t about community building,” she says. “They’re about private companies making a ton of money and walking away.”
In Moreland, Cr Bolton is also campaigning to make affordable housing mandatory in developments over four stories, and to use council land for affordable housing. The plans draw on the experience of a community campaign to establish affordable housing in St Kilda in the early 1980s, where council land was used to set up affordable housing in partnership with the state government and a housing association.
In partial recognition of the problem, the Moreland Council has set up an affordable housing entity, which allocates council-owned land to develop low-cost housing, either through community housing associations or state-owned public housing. However, Cr Bolton maintains that vigilance is necessary to ensure the scheme doesn’t become a vehicle for privatizing council land by stealth. As she argues, public housing, with rent capped at no more than 25 percent of a resident’s income, is the only way to truly ensure affordable housing.
Solidarity and Sustainability
Melbourne is the most progressive city in Australia — and residents of its inner north and east are among the city’s most left-leaning. Local government can be an important battleground over issues of national and even international importance.
In Darebin, for more than a year, over fifty refugees who were brought to Australia from Manus Island under the short-lived Medevac Bill (2018) have been detained on a single floor of Preston’s Mantra Hotel. As Cr Greco said recently, “Darebin Council has been concerned about refugees for many years when they were on Manus and Nauru. But now they are right here in our municipality, and there is an extra onus on us. We have to stand up for them.” He has fought for a Darebin Council resolution calling for a commercial boycott of the Mantra hotel group that he hopes to extend to the Brisbane and Adelaide City Councils. Greco is also investigating whether using the hotel as a detention facility violates the terms of its accommodation permit, and has helped to pass motions offering the refugees library and health services.
Progressive councils can also be an important bulwark against environmental vandalism. Cr O’Brien has pushed the council to launch an independent inquiry into serious river bank damage behind the massive, commercial-residential redevelopment of the former Amcor paper mill site in Fairfield. She is also fighting to ensure that new developments are more energy-efficient, using airflow for cooling instead of relying on air conditioning.
In Moreland, Cr Bolton is campaigning for the Moreland Council to expand community rooftop solar, move toward zero carbon emissions, and divest from all companies that invest in fossil fuels. In 2017, she forced the council to apply tough permit conditions to the residential rezoning of a former pesticide factory in Fawkner, the soil of which was contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals. She has also fought off plans to sell off public land along the Merri Creek in Fawkner and Glenroy and committed the Council to an urban forest strategy to combat the urban heat island effect.
In line with growing support for Indigenous sovereignty, socialist councilors in both Yarra and Moreland played a part in their council’s decision in 2017 to stop recognizing January 26 as Australia Day. The move triggered a large backlash, with the federal government stripping Yarra of its ability to host citizenship ceremonies. Cr O’Brien is unphased and is pushing for the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung language to be made prominent and for Yarra to provide an Aboriginal-owned and -controlled community center and a set quota of rate-free housing for Wurundjeri people.
In Moreland Cr Bolton has backed a similar push to prevent the planned sale of Ballerrt Mooroop, a former Aboriginal school site, to developers and transform it instead into a First Nations community hub, including a health service, that would cater to the sizable Aboriginal population living in the northwest.
Local Government for the Many
Crucial to all these efforts is a commitment to grassroots community organizing. Cr O’Brien says that socialists at the local government level must avoid the pitfalls of “operating as parliamentarians,” and instead seek to provide residents with “inroads into the decision making of council.”
Or, as Cr Bolton argues:
You’ve got to break the logjam of council and capitalist-state bureaucracy, and the only way you can do that is with community campaigns. The role of socialist councilor should be like a union delegate. You have to stand up over issues that may seem trivial, but are important to people in the community. If you don’t take up those issues, you can’t have credibility on the bigger political issues.