Farming out South Melbourne Market

With their eyes on the prize, some candidates in the upcoming Council election have a plan that will destroy our Market's heart and soul.


There is no doubt about how much our community loves the South Melbourne Market. It is a treasured public place open to all comers. And some candidates in the upcoming Council election have a plan that will destroy its heart and soul.

South Melbourne Market is a one stop shopping magnet.  Where else can you buy your food for the week, check out the second hand books, organise framing for your pictures, buy footy scarves, find treats for your dog, find kitchen appliances, buy sustainable socks, buy clothes, shoes, flowers and even get a massage?

Many of its stallholders are living legends, people we have all come to know over the years and who know exactly what this community wants and needs.

The day might begin with a fabulous breakfast whether it be pastries or eggs and bacon and when you finish the shop there is lunch- Spanish, Greek, Thai, Turkish  and more- take your pick.  Finally, who can forget the famous South Melbourne Market Dim Sims, an iconic Melbourne experience and now the Oyster tasting which brings many new visitors.

And we all love the 3 pm sell off on Sundays when you can buy bags of produce at greatly reduced prices.  For many, this means big savings for the family budget.

A 2018/19 Market Report says it all:

86% of Port Phillip residents think the market is a significant benefit to them. 

76% of Port Phillip residents visited the market in the year 2018/2019 and of those 89% rated The Market as very good or excellent.

Port Phillip Council has been responsible for the Market for decades.

But the so-called Ratepayers of Port Phillip (ROPP) group propose that an outside body should run it and that the Market ‘should be producing a healthy dividend for ratepayers’. This is a recipe for running down the Market, a slippery slope towards the Market’s demise, corporatisation and eventual privatisation. That’s what happens when ‘returns to ratepayers’ are the driving force. And now this group is running candidates in the October 2020 Council elections.

So let’s have a closer look at how the Market is managed and what we might be facing if this group gets control of Council in the forthcoming election.

Since 1867 the Market has been owned by the former South Melbourne Council and following amalgamation, by Port Phillip Council.  It is run by a Special Committee at arm’s length from the Council.  Did you also know that this Committee meets every two months  in the Food Hall and is open to Port Phillip citizens and all market traders?

Here’s what Council laws prescribe:

The Market Committee is required to ‘Establish and oversee the execution of a commercially sustainable retail strategy, that covers market mix, connection to locality, approach to licences and fees, trader and customer experience management and asset requirements.’ Source: South Melbourne Market Committee Charter, September 2018*

With its eye on creating a great place for everyone, it’s the planning and decisions of this Committee that have made for a great market. And with more community input, in future we could have an even more thriving market and civic space.

Would this transparency continue if the market was privatised?

Let’s look at some Facts


ROPP claims Port Phillip Council is running the market at a loss and is not a fit manager of this community asset.

The Market Committee Charter states that ‘It is intended that the operations of the Market and the Committee be funded from the rents, licence fees and other moneys which will be payable by lessees, licensees and occupiers of the Market’.

In 2017/2018 the market reported a surplus of $212,000 and after adjustments for non-cash operating items a cash surplus of $973,000.

In 2018/2019 the market had a cash surplus of $47,000.

In fact, income was up in 2018/19 by 5% as the market stalls were nearly at full capacity along with an increase in visitor numbers. And what might appear as a fall in income was in fact an investment in vehicle barriers to create a safer environment for market goers. Source: South Melbourne Market Annual Report 2018 – 2019* 

Of course, for the year ended 30 June 2020, hit by three months of lockdown, the market suffered a deficit of approximately $1.7M mainly driven by the reduced income of about $1.28 million as COVID-19 restrictions hit.  Stall holder income decreased by $855,000 and parking income by $170,000. However, under this unprecedented circumstance, the Council was able to redeploy Council staff to support traders and to support supplying food to the public.  

In summary, far from subsidising the market, the Market Committee has wisely ploughed surpluses into beneficial investments in the market for the benefit of market goers and the wider community. A thriving market generates surpluses which can be invested to improve the market- exactly what its mission says it should be doing.

Who would benefit if the market’s profits were used, instead, to return dividends or reduce rates?

Governance and Transparency

The Market Committee is responsible for overseeing the management and ongoing development of the Market to continue to promote and encourage use by residents, visitors and community.

The Market Committee has an independent chair, Jo Plummer, two independent members, Simon Talbet and Andrew Danson , and two Councillor representatives (C Bernadine Voss and Cr Marcus Pearl at present).

There is also one non-voting senior officer of Council who attends these meetings

The independent members were all appointed following an open advertising and selection process from a large and highly qualified field of candidates. Each independent was required to demonstrate specific skills relevant to oversee the Market as well as a strong local association and a love of markets.

The agenda, meeting papers and minutes for the bi-monthly Food Hall meeting are available on the Port Phillip Council website. During the Covid-19 crisis meetings are being held by Webex and live streamed on Facebook. Members of the public can also contact the Committee via email.

This structure of the Market Committee blends expertise, commitment, community participation and democratic accountability.

Who would be accountable if the market was transferred to an external, commercial entity?

Environmental Impact

The Market is also passionate about protecting our environment, and is implementing sustainable initiatives to reduce its environmental footprint by reducing waste, improving recycling. In 2019/20:

50,000 meals were provided by food donated to Secondbite

4,256.7 kilo litres of potable water was saved - that’s 1.7 Olympic swimming pools -  from rain water capture.

148,717 KWh of solar power were generated, thus avoiding carbon emissions equivalent to taking 35 cars off the road for a year. 

1,050 tonnes of rubbish diverted from landfill - that is equal to 105 garbage trucks of rubbish.

4,163 trees saved due to Cardboard recycling 

Would this commitment to taking responsibility for the market’s environmental impact continue under a private, dividend driven manager?

So, what’s the upshot?

We do not want a market run by a lot of Scrooges to strip the market of its surpluses in order to subsidise private residential rates. This is not just bad for the good environmental and social outcomes the market creates for the community, it is also bad business.

We’ve seen this ideology work its way through so many public institutions, from TAFE, to Aged Care, to Child Care. The model sets services on a trajectory where roles are reversed: the people they are meant to serve in fact come to serve the profit making processes of the organisation, rupturing the sense of community purpose that should be at the core of public institutions. Adopting this approach will run down the market and undermine the sense of community that makes the market such an enlivening place to be, for business and the community.  

The condition for good business at the South Melbourne market is a strong community, that is, there is a virtuous circle  between the two and that circle is made possible by Council connected arms-length good governance. If that governance is dissolved and the market is treated as a commercial cash cow, it creates instead a viscous circle undermining both the community and businesses at the market.

Let’s not slash and burn. Let’s keep our market thriving by maintaining a close community eye on its governance and improving that governance, the very thing that makes it one of Melbourne’s best markets and a cultural gem in the heart of Port Phillip.

*Both the Market’s charter and the annual report can be found by following the links from this page:

NOTE: Though the Market’s governance arrangements will need to change in line with the requirements of the Local Government Act 2020, there is no requirement to shift governance to an external commercial entity as proposed by conservative lobby groups. The new Council will need to review and recommend a revised governance structure by September 2021.