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Greater Melbourne Movement

This term describes the political activity, dating from the 19th century, that sought a metropolitan council for the extended Melbourne area. A Greater Melbourne Council (GMC) would either replace the metropolitan municipalities or coexist with them in a federal scheme, but take over functions of government common to the extended area. Although never implemented, a GMC attracted considerable support, and has been the subject of vigorous - and at times acrimonious - political debate and conflict.

At the heart of the problem was the difficulty in administering common urban services across many municipal boundaries. Melbourne's system of government comprised the centrally located Melbourne City Council, suburban municipalities, and special-purpose authorities such as the Melbourne Harbor Trust and the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW). Support for a GMC actually grew out of the extended controversy that led to the formation of the MMBW in 1891. The idea came from the London Metropolitan Board of Works, but London's board was unpopular and mired in scandal. In 1886 the Age newspaper noted the irony of adopting the flawed London model and instead suggested 'a metropolitan common council'. The MMBW was only a partial resolution of the city's problems. It took over from the government the supply of water to the metropolitan area and the provision of Melbourne's overdue system of underground sewerage, responsibilities that the divided municipalities could not, by themselves, take on.

The idea of a GMC proved too ambitious in the short term but in 1898 the Age attacked the MMBW and its chairman, Edmund FitzGibbon, advocating a scheme of 'civic unification'. The London board had been abolished in 1887 and replaced by a London County Council (LCC). This was an elected council with wide-ranging powers and a parliamentary style of government in which the radical 'Progressives' dominated. LCC innovations in service provision and trading enterprises - the profits from which helped to underwrite its more radical social interventions - attracted the tag of 'municipal socialism'. The Age newspaper now sought such a body for Melbourne, acquiring a leading advocate in London-born journalist (and sometime Progressive candidate for the LCC) Leonard Biggs, who rose to become its editor from 1927 to 1939.

The Australian Natives Association and the Australian Labor Party embraced the prospect but the final outcome was uncertain. Should the municipalities be abolished, or a federal scheme created? Should there be direct election or nomination by the municipalities? If elected, should the existing three-tiered property-based franchise (and multiple and plural voting) be adopted; or one ratepayer one vote, or adult suffrage? Should the issue be resolved by the Victorian Parliament or municipal agreement? The MCC favoured agreement but its only success was the absorption of North Melbourne and Flemington and Kensington in 1905. Continuing problems of administration forced the issue. The cable trams were due to revert to municipal ownership in 1916, after a long lease to a private company. New electric lines had been established, including some by municipal trusts, but no authority existed to take control.

Liberal Premier William Watt introduced a bill in 1913 with unpaid members elected on the local government franchise. Labor sought full adult suffrage, but conservatives feared a Labor-dominated GMC. But the government fell. A minority Labor ministry - Victoria's first - lasted only two weeks. The Liberals reintroduced a GMC Bill in 1915 with a one-ratepayer-one-vote franchise but Labor demanded adult suffrage, payment of members and provision for initiative and referendum. Liberal Premier Alexander Peacock abandoned the bill, knowing it would not pass the conservative Legislative Council. The formation of the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board in 1918 resolved the tramway question.

City planning, roads, bridges and housing provoked further discussion. The municipalities met in 1925 but the wealthier, more conservative councils opposed the idea, favouring instead an extension of the powers of the MMBW, which supporters of a GMC opposed. The result was a stalemate. For want of an authority to implement them, the recommendations of the Metropolitan Town Planning Commission lapsed. When floods destroyed the Tooronga Road Bridge in 1934 no authority existed to restore it. In 1935 the Age newspaper claimed government in the metropolis was 'breaking down'. The Municipal Association called a meeting of councils in 1936 and the minority, Labor-supported, Country Party Government of Albert Dunstan brought in a bill for a GMC. It failed in the Legislative Council, as did a revamped initiative the following year. A 1944 royal commission recommended reconstitution of the MMBW to make it, in effect, a GMC.

A GMC was held by its supporters to be just a matter of time. But between 1944 and 1954 there were 10 governments. Both major parties split with the Country Party the volatile element. In 1951 J.G.B. McDonald's Labor-supported Country Party Government introduced a ratepayer-elected GMC Bill that proposed to abolish Melbourne's municipalities. Fiercely opposed by conservative interests, it failed in the Legislative Council by one vote. The coming to power of the Liberal Party after 1955 put paid to Labor's dream of a GMC but questions of municipal amalgamation - in inner Melbourne especially - and controversies surrounding the MMBW kept the issue alive. A 1962 inquiry found the metropolitan area 'overgoverned' and claimed 'tremendous economies' would result from amalgamations. Another investigation into local government, the Bains report, in 1979 claimed 53 municipal districts in the metropolitan area excessive, the lack of a metropolitan focus a failing and urged a 'Metro Melbourne' greater city government along the lines of that of the Canadian city of Toronto.

A GMC was still Labor policy when it regained government in 1982 but time appeared to have expired for the creation of an institution that would rival the State Government. Instead of bringing public utilities under restructured civic government the trend has been towards their corporatisation and privatisation of services. Some recognition of the GMC idea was paid when, following the report of its own local government commission in 1994, the Jeff Kennett-led Coalition Government reduced the total number of metropolitan municipalities from 53 to the present figure of 32.

David Dunstan