In the last recession in Melbourne, 1990, the city and state were financially and psychologically depressed. I became CEO of the City of Melbourne that year.
When I travelled interstate for business, I was often greeted with jokes such as: “Q: what’s the capital of Victoria? A: about $1.”
Times were tough, but everyone contributed to the comeback, and with hard work and innovative ideas (such as the Postcode 3000 project which brought back large numbers of people to live in the city) the city was revived, and went on to thrive and become, for at least seven years, the world’s most liveable city. Out of that time came public artworks, revival of our old buildings (the Regent Theatre is a prime example), the greening of our city, improvements in streetscapes, and reform of local government, including the City of Melbourne.
But 1990 was nothing like 2020.
Today we have not only a financial and psychological recession; we have a very real health crisis, the likes of which the world has not seen since the flu pandemic of 1918.
The Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Sally Capp, has gathered an eclectic group of people to advise her about what the city might look like when we recover. People such as Penny Fowler, Rebecca Scott, Tony Ellwood, Scott Tanner, Janet Whiting and I are part of “Bringing Melbourne Back Better”.
Under four headings (Live, Work, Play, Educate), we are looking at a range of ideas, small and large, to build on Melbourne’s strengths so that we can kick start the economy post Lockdown and then accelerate activity. In the short term, it is about giving people hope in these dark times, and also garnering their ideas about a raft of initiatives to bring the city back to life. In the medium term, it will be about bringing jobs, life and activity into the city, and in the longer term it will be about the future growth and prosperity of Melbourne.
The National Cabinet has been a powerful idea for almost unprecedented cooperation across Australian governments. It has worked well, largely in the absence of partisan politics, to give us a vision of what national post COVID Australia might look like.
At the city level, the focus of Sally Capp’s Advisory Group on Melbourne will allow us to help rebuild the Melbourne economy. Some of the ideas being considered include turning empty office space into affordable housing (Postcode 3000 of this century), build to rent accommodation, improving public transport to make it safer, and ideas to encourage people (locals first then interstate tourists and finally overseas tourists) to return to Melbourne.
There will be small projects (revitalising a much larger number of Melbourne’s laneways) and large (dealing with the problem of homelessness and rough sleepers in the city). We will need unprecedented levels of cooperation between the community, governments, and business to ensure that Melbourne does come back better than ever.
Some sectors and industries have been hit much harder than others.
The arts and tertiary education have been damaged; some of them may never recover. Small businesses have closed and many will not reopen.
Financial institutions have helped by offering loan holidays. But once JobKeeper and similar government assistance ends, further financial and psychological damage will be done.
For our future, it will not be a question of Melbourne “or” regional Victoria; rather it will be Melbourne “and” the regions. In the past, there has been competition for ideas, capital and people. Now, recognising that capital cities in Australia are the growth engines for their states, we will need to develop cooperative rather than competitive approaches to revival and growth.
So, are we up to the challenge?
I am confident that the pandemic has made us all realise that the way out of this depends on unprecedented cooperation because our interdependence has been highlighted as never before.
The business community has demonstrated that it wants to work with governments and the community for the wellbeing of all. I am confident that out of this great adversity, we will develop new ways of thinking and working.
Australians, in the past, have too often looked to governments to solve our problems. This pandemic has shown that our future depends on governments, of course; but it equally depends on communities, business, academia, the cultural sector, and our farmers.
It is perhaps a cliché, but 2020 has certainly demonstrated that we are all in this together.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Westpac Group.