A ‘common-sense revolution’? The transformation of the Melbourne City Council, 1992−9

  • Angela G. Munro

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    The unilateral substitution of an appointed commission for the elected Melbourne City Council in October,1993 by the incoming, neoliberal Victorian Government, was followed by its disempowerment as a democratic institution before reinstatement in emasculated form in 1996. The resounding defeat of the Labor government, in 1992,coincided with an unprecedented global property collapse whose cataclysmic economic and political consequences in Melbourne were conducive to this marginalisation of the City Council and citizenry. A historic dual conflict over the governance and development of central Melbourne between the Victorian Government and the City Council on the one hand, and between central city property interests and citizenry on the other, was immediately resolved. Whereas efficiencies justified council amalgamations statewide, the Melbourne City Council was subject to separate and extreme centralisation of state government power, deregulation of urban planning and de-democratisation as a micro CBD council. In order to examine how this extraordinary capital city transformation was enabled the historical institutionalist framework of Mahoney and Thelen is applied.1 The institutional change between 1992 and 1999 is thus interpreted in the context of the previous 150 years, rather than as a discrete period. In the seven year case study period, historical analysis of institutional change is grounded by interviews with twenty-three protagonists who had occupied positions of power in enabling, opposing or as experts witnessing the City Council’s change. While globalisation and neoliberalism were universal megatrends, certain historic political and institutional attributes of the Melbourne City Council and its setting (a Victorian paradigm) are seen to have shaped its singular and radical metamorphosis. Further, these attributes permitted a rapid evolutionary transformation rather than a commonly perceived revolution in the City Council from 1992−9. This longitudinal perspective also indicates that, insofar as revolutionary change occurred, it was during the previous Labor decade of government (1982−92),including the only democratically elected Melbourne City Council then or since. It is argued that the changes which delegitimised Melbourne City Council from 1992−9 were in part counter-revolutionary in dismantling the democratisation of the 1980s,while harnessing Labor’s centrist, social democratic reforms to neoliberal ends. An extreme ideological commitment to small government and to facilitating the market, belies the claim by then premier Jeff Kennett to have effected a ‘common-sense revolution’ (1995) in Victorian governance. Indeed, the bipartisan interests of state governments and those of the property sector coalesced increasingly in post-industrial Melbourne from the 1970s as a so-called ‘growth machine’. This facilitated the dramatic institutional transformation of the City Council in the 1990s in strategically favourable economic and political circumstances. As a corollary, the delegitimised CBD council entailed the effective disenfranchisement of Melbourne citizens in capital city governance, without institutional recourse. It also represented another lost opportunity for metropolitan governance at the behest of its traditional opponents – state government (notably the Legislative Council) − and property interests. In practice, rather than a dual conflict over the Melbourne City Council, relations between the political and institutional duality resemble a double helix, bound by the imperatives of property. Despite recurrent pressure for democratic city government and for metropolitan government for over a century, the nineteenth century paradigm of central government control of a property-based, central business council was substantially reinstated between 1992 and 1999.
    Date of Award2015
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorJohn Halligan (Supervisor) & Christopher John Sadleir (Supervisor)

    Cite this