Governing austerity in Melbourne

In this post Hayley Henderson, Brendan Gleeson and Helen Sullivan report the findings from the exploratory research in Melbourne, carried out as part of the Collaborative Governance under Austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network, and led by Prof. Jonathan Davies.

Melbourne is the capital city of the state of Victoria and the second most populous city in Australia, with a current population of 4.5 million spread over more than 9,900 square km. The sprawling metropolis is governed via a multi-level system of centralised state and dispersed and diverse local government. Our research focuses on The City of Greater Dandenong, a significant municipal region 30km southeast of the Melbourne CBD and home to a major regeneration initiative, ‘Revitalising Central Dandenong’ (RCD 2005-25). RCD is emblematic of the kind of ‘place-based’ targeted interventions led by governments in Australian and other developed economy cities in the last two decades. It affords the opportunity to situate strategies and practices suggestive of contemporary ‘collaborative governance’ in time and space to illustrate and help explain their particular character.

Traditionally a seat of industrial activity, Dandenong experienced sectoral economic decline in recent years with the long run contraction of Australian manufacturing.  However, strong plural migration furthered the community economy, or at least its prospects in the context of significant disadvantage, as an array of migrant communities asserted a stake in the area’s commercial, retail and property sectors.

Initiated under a state Labor administration in 2005, RCD brought multiple actors from State and local governments together formally and funded a program of work on common goals over a long-term period to combat structural issues of disadvantage.  The project commenced with an unprecedented investment in a single urban renewal site of AUS$290 million.  This investment supported land acquisition, staff costs and infrastructure delivery over the first five years of the project life.  It leveraged both considerable private investment in development (the aim is for a 1:10 public to private ratio in investment) as well as local government spending of approximately AUS$120 million in complementary improvement projects.

The preliminary findings from the Melbourne case study suggests that the central concepts ‘collaborative governance’ and ‘austerity’ are problematic in the Australian (and especially Melbourne) context.

The idea of collaborative governance has limited purchase amongst practitioners; rather the idea of ‘integrated planning.’ is preferred. This may reflect the distinct spheres that urban planners and scholars inhabit in contrast to their public policy colleagues – a distinction that does not necessarily apply solely to Australia. It is also likely a product of a particular interpretation of ‘collaborative governance’ as the shared rule of interdependent actors from all sectors. This does not resonate in a context where state governments and their agencies dominate in terms of resource power, and where municipalities have (or are perceived to have) limited capacity to act as assertive collaborative entities in contexts that invite or demand the ‘joining up’ of policy settings.

Collaborative activity abounds, however, across policy areas and between different sectoral actors. RCD is characterised in almost entirely collaborative terms with repeated references to relationship-building, community-building, formal ‘cross-government’ structures and processes, ‘partnerships’ with non-government entities and informal strategies for effecting change in a multi-actor context.  Informality is key here. Where structures are deemed to be weak or lacking, actors and their practices are deemed to be able to make things work.

The concept of ‘austerity’ is also rather alien to Australian urban policy discourse. Austerity is not a label generally used to describe or conceptualise public fiscal cutbacks, constraints or institutional change (e.g. corporatisation, privatisation).  Rather a more episodic language of ‘crisis’ is evident from the 2000s, used to frame and rationalise specific instances of what might be regarded as austerity governance.  Here too though the political rhetoric is rarely matched by the real material crises visited upon other cities and countries in recent decades. What is notable is the ongoing use of the rhetoric of a ‘migrant crisis’ to create a sense of othering amongst local communities. This can have material consequences for plural localities such as Dandenong.

It is the case that fiscal conservatism is the dominant political trope for both major national (and state) political blocs. This political trend towards restraint in public revenue and expenditure over the last 15 years (and earlier) is a persistent theme, frequently evidenced in expenditure cutbacks in specific areas and reductions of institutional effort and capacity. Even so this political aspiration has been more honoured in the breach, with expenditure and revenue across all levels of government at historically high levels throughout the 2000s.

Our case study examines an urban renewal episode that extended through Labor and Liberal-National state administrations.  Amongst other things, our early findings show how Labor state governments are prepared to undertake intensive urban investments and interventions without departing necessarily from the general narrative of fiscal restraint.  Commitment to integrated planning appears, inter alia, to be a means to maintain the uneasy balancing of these twin commitments – intervention and restraint – by aiming to enhance policy effectiveness and efficiency through strategic, place-based interventions. Under conservative rule, this tension is relaxed and fiscal minimalism is coupled to voluntaristic collaborative policy efforts.

Hayley Henderson is a PhD candidate in Urban Planning, Brendan Gleeson Professor of Urban Policy Studies and Professor Helen Sullivan director of the Melbourne School of Government at the University of Melbourne, Australia.