The thing that joins us together—the renter and the landlord, the business woman and the customer, the artist and the audience–is that we are all citizens first of all. Local democracy is about our shared common good, not our personal self-interest, writes a citizen of longstanding.
In my nearly forty years living in St Kilda I've been a renter and a property owner, at times I've been poor but I've got by; I was at the pointy end of gentrification in the 1980s; I've mainly lived off the arts so I know how insecure cultural work is; I've counted the takings as a small business person while my partner struggled with MYOB, and over all this time the value of our flat has increased so absurdly that we are now among those property-rich-but-income-poor people the backroom boys of Ratepayers Of Port Phillip (ROPP) group imagine they can attract with their hip-pocket appeals.
But do people recognize themselves in the one-dimensional caricatures employed by ROPP in their attempt to harvest votes? And are there really any 'natural' constituencies in local politics?
The ROPPERS make a big point of constantly speaking up for the small business community, as if they were its only protectors. And they complain about rates and bins as if that was something that unites all property owners. The mistake they make as they parade their backward ideas for a post-COVID austerity is assuming that business owners and property owners are solely motivated by self-interest and that reducing costs is the one thing that matters to them.
But, as everyone who has ever bought a coffee knows, that is a delusion. Business is not conducted solely as a cost-benefit exercise. There is a pleasure in the engagement, in the service and, hopefully, in the success. There is no such thing as 'just' running a small local business and anyone who acted in that way would soon find themself not running a business at all.
For Progressive Port Phillip, business owners are not just business owners, nor are landlords simply landlords. They have complex lives like everyone else. As do renters, a group that does not seem to exist for ROPP even though nearly half the residents in Port Phillip are tenants and they all have the right to vote.
Business people are members of the community with a keen interest in the general welfare of the neighbourhoods in which they operate—and not just because it is good for business. While the numerous business associations across Port Phillip are committed to promoting shared commercial interests, they also support many projects that go well beyond commercial self-interest. They genuinely care about the neighbourhoods where they operate. They lobby for general improvements to amenity and streetscapes; they take on issues such as homelessness, drunkenness and drug use; they concern themselves with the reputation and presentation of their neighbourhoods. As do we all.
And it is often assumed that the gentrifiers and wealthy property owners along Beaconsfield Parade and from West St Kilda to Albert Park are also 'natural' Liberals. The last State election surely put paid to that notion. Rather than being socially and politically conservative, there is every reason to think that most of them are broad in their cultural attachments and progressive in their social values. They didn't just move to this area because of the real estate. They came for the character, too.
And those property-rich-income-poor people like me are not helpless even in our sometimes straitened financial situation. Many were here from before the real estate boom. We retain our old allegiances to Port Melbourne, St Kilda, East St Kilda and Balaclava. We came because this was an accepting area, migrant and artist friendly—and cheap; a place where diverse people could live on fairly equal terms. That old ethos may be submerged, but it has not disappeared. It is one we need to nurture and one, I suspect, that most people do want to nurture.
The thing that joins us together—the renter and the landlord, the business woman and the customer, the artist and the audience–is that we are all citizens first of all. Nobody owns us. Nobody can take us for granted. Local democracy allows us to determine what sort of city we want to be. And we will all be unhappier without a compassionate and creative community to call home.
Port Phillip is more than an economy. Community life does not rest on a cost-benefit analysis. The narrow-minded Ratepayers group has no natural constituency because so many of those whom they imagine in their camp will prefer candidates who embrace a more generous vision, one that reaches beyond self-interest to the common good. If there were any doubt, the general response to COVID has shown how powerful that community welfare sentiment remains.
It's a sentiment on which we can build a caring, sharing city.