No one lives in Port Phillip

"In the process of constructing Port Phillip the political relationship that once existed between councillors and the neighbourhoods in which they live has largely been severed", writes Bill Garner, local writer, playwright and activist.


They live in Port Melbourne and Albert Park and St Kilda and Elwood and Balaclava and so on. But no-one ever says that they live in Port Phillip.

Indeed, in a placemaking sense, there is no 'place' that is the City of Port Phillip.

We all know the reason for this: Port Phillip is a municipal construct grafted from the historic suburbs and neighbourhoods that preceded its invention.

What is the city of Port Phillip? Where is it? What is its character (in the way that St Kilda and Middle Park and other neighbourhoods have distinct characters)? How does it express any form of unity? There is no city in the way places like Ballarat or Geelong are cities. No centre. There is no singular Port Phillip community. The best we can talk about are 'communities' which are often a complex amalgam of neighbourhoods.

What now is represented as a city is a manifestation of the political movement that found its expression in the amalgamations of the Kennett years. This was a managerialist and anti-democratic strategy which placed efficiency above purpose and identity. The influence of councillors was diminished in newly-fashioned domains of  powerful CEOs and their ranks of lesser managers.  Budgets became more important than purposes. 

A consequence of amalgamation was that the once direct connection between the people and government at the local level has been drastically watered down, turned into business units but simultaneously constrained by rates caps and other legislative means to restrict the capacity of local councils. Port Phillip Council  is a case in point, nervous about assuming its full authority in case that runs up against the State or the shibboleth of 'business always does it best'.

Until now it has seemed highly unlikely that any of this conceded ground might ever be regained. But suddenly things are different.

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. Globalism, that so recently seemed set in stone, the only way to go, is suddenly vulnerable. Nations are retreating behind borders. Government is back in fashion. So are deficits. Even State borders have been reintroduced. Suddenly the Commonwealth is dependent on the states to be in the front line.

In this new era of possibility, the Council and the people who live in its distinct neighbourhoods should be reacting boldly, not nervously.

For above all—and without knowing what will happen—we recognise that this is a 'moment' when the future can be reimagined in ways that seemed impossible just a year ago. This also fits with the sort of alternative reality that many of us understand will be essential if the earth is to be saved from catastrophic global heating. If we fail to seize this moment we will be condemned to fatally sliding back to the 'old normal' which was paving the way to doom.

It is in this context that we wish to open a conversation about the future of the 'City' of Port Phillip.

In the process of constructing Port Phillip the political relationship that once existed between councillors and the neighbourhoods in which they live has largely been severed.  The building blocks of this municipality are Wards that do not meaningfully map onto any of the old neighbourhoods. This makes the job of representation almost impossible.

One upshot is that if residents do not feel their area is directly spoken for they may be less inclined to vote in council elections. This has been the case in the past in Port Phillip.

Yet this is the one zone of government still within reach of citizens and where they can determine the sort of world they live in day by day. Even within the present system, if a 'neighbourhood' vote is evident, councillors will respond.

There is a fresh struggle on about what the future may be like. What counts as 'progress' is no longer self-evident.  Business-led growth and the privatisation of public goods and services are no longer accepted as the 'obvious' answers. There is a strong push back against neo-liberal pieties.

A stark choice is emerging between Port Phillip as a place that looks after our communities and plans for the future and one that slashes services in the interests of a few.

Ironically, from being the city where no-one lives, our challenge is to ensure that Port Phillip is a home for all.