By Shane Scanlan
The City of Melbourne is half-way through its “deliberative democracy” process, which it hopes will get its Queen Victoria Market (QVM) redevelopment back on track.
A 40-person “people’s panel” has two more sessions scheduled, concluding on November 7, before it is asked to recommend to the council an infrastructure solution to secure the market’s future.
The council is privately hoping the panel will come to the same conclusion as it has – that a three-level underground facility is the answer. But critics are already questioning the process and will be lining up to cry foul if this eventuates.
The city was stymied in March this year when Heritage Victoria (HV) refused a permit for its proposed basement and, soon after taking office, new Lord Mayor Sally Capp convinced her colleagues that the people’s panel was the only way forward.
Cr Capp has invested substantial political capital in the (yet-even-more) consultative approach and the outcome is likely to be a defining factor in her ambition for re-election in 2020.
The council is starting behind the eight-ball in terms of perceptions around the impartiality of the process because it determined the sessions would be held behind closed doors and that participants would remain anonymous (unless they chose to identify themselves). The last time the council embarked on a similar process, in 2014 to inform its 10-year financial plan, it allowed the public viewing rights.
One of the obvious dilemmas it faced was whether to invite outspoken critic, the Friends of Queen Victoria Market, into the tent. Joint convenor Mary-Lou Howie was admitted and is personally challenged by the dual responsibilities of approaching the task with an open mind while remaining true to her many (more militant) constituents.
Ms Howie has been reporting publicly her experience and has flagged concerns with the process. In her lengthy October 18 Facebook post, she said the all-day October 13 workshop “channelled” the group towards council-preferred undergrounding options and questioned many of the workshop’s starting-point assumptions.
Ms Howie concluded by requesting future sessions be shown the detailed reasons why HV rejected the council’s heritage permit application in March and also that trader-funded architect John McNabb be invited to personally present his alternative solution.
The council’s claim of an open and independent process would be severely undermined if Mr McNabb was denied the opportunity.
On the HV report issue, it seems that while everyone agrees the 30-page determination should be made public, no one will do it. In May, HV refused to release it to CBD News.
Ms Howie says HV told her it was willing, but to talk to the council about it. Councillors have taken to Twitter to say they haven’t seen it and, in any event, the document is not theirs to give. CBD News understands the council administration has the document.
The council would be delighted if the full reasons for HV’s determination were in the public realm. It believes the report is so superficial that it will point to political interference by Planning Minister Richard Wynne, who is battling to save his lower house seat of Richmond from The Greens at the November 24 state election.
A broadly-held view within the council is that a change of planning minister could reset the QVM debate in its favour. So, the election might turn out to be far more influential than any people’s panel.
In related news, the council is at the expression of interest stage of assembling a committee of trustees which it believes is a more representative ongoing model of QVM governance. It has engaged an independent recruiter, SHK Asia Pacific, to find three traders and two customers (one being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander) to join Lord Mayor Sally Capp, Cr Rohan Leppert, Cr Jackie Watts and QVM board members Jane Hodder and Jane Fenton on the committee.
Expressions of interest close on November 5.