The day the politics started in earnest

Editorial comment by Shane Scanlan

July 20 could end up being remembered as the day the City of Melbourne’s well-intentioned Queen Victoria Market redevelopment became a political saga.

It was the day that an undercurrent of trader suspicion and discontent racked up several notches and manifested as serious opposition to the whole redevelopment.

It was also the day that Planning Minister Richard Wynne started sabotaging the council’s efforts to publicise its implementation framework and cast doubt over the viability of the project.

A mass-meeting at Trades Hall sponsored by the National Union of Workers emboldened traders who had previously harboured resentment and fears for the future but had now found a collective voice.

About 150 traders were involved – a minority – but such a sizeable minority to encourage upcoming council election aspirants to opportunistically hitch their wagons to the cause, throwing fuel on the emerging fire.

The City of Melbourne will feel aggrieved and somewhat bewildered that it has come to this. But it bears full responsibility.

Believing its own rhetoric that it is a transparent and consultative organisation, its failure to bring both traders and the Minister for Planning with them into a mutually beneficial future plainly demonstrates otherwise.

Part of its problem is that the “plans” are necessarily evolving through a series of practical contingent stages and the council itself doesn’t even know what the retail future of the market will actually look like.

Add to this vacuum of detail, an anachronistic frontier mentality among some traders, a legacy sense of entitlement and a history of conflict, perceived injustices and grudges and you end up with an environment where rumour becomes fact in the blink of an eye.

And it’s not as if the council didn’t know what it was dealing with. After all, it created this environment over years and decades.

Its major blunder was to abrogate the hard job of communicating its vision to outsourced consultants hired to tick a series of boxes off its project Gantt chart.  “Stakeholder engagement” is nowadays a cynical industry based on deceit, which thrives on government organisations like the City of Melbourne wanting to achieve project milestones at the expense of community sentiment.

The fact that so many small business people have counter-intuitively found succour in the bosom of the trade union movement is a measure of their desperation.

The fact that new market CEO Malcolm McCullough wanted to reassure them about tenure and other matters of concern, but was turned away from the July 20 meeting, says that many don’t even want to listen.

As the term of the current council comes to a close, the market redevelopment has become a political football.  Addressing the traders meeting, Cr Richard Foster declared opposition to the redevelopment.

Cr Foster says he had previously not had a firm view on the merits of the redevelopment but was now opposed based on traders’ concerns.

Cr Jackie Watts says she had been opposed to the scale of the redevelopment from the beginning and wants council decision-making suspended until after the election.

Minister Wynne says he too hasn’t been heard.  At a press conference on July 21 he said he had expressed concerns to the council at least three times. As the only person with the power to make or break the project, clearly the council needs to do some soul searching about how it consults.

Should this project go off the rails, the City of Melbourne can only blame itself.

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