Once home to an ammunitions factory, Maribyrnong has struggled after the weapons depot closed. The city became weighed down by debt, which was the highest of any metropolitan council in Australia.
Unemployment was also a burden, with a rate that was consistently higher than Melbourne – the nearest city.
But the debt is now gone, and the city is investing. How did it do this? GovInsider caught up with Mayor Cameron Mcdonald to find out more.
The city beat its bust by raising high taxes, and making large cuts to infrastructure budgets, he notes. “We were struggling to maintain the infrastructure we had”, he admits.
But the city kept spending on social programmes and its wage bill. “That’s the way our philosophy was – looking after people was a bit more important than playgrounds. Now that we have balanced the budget we are doing a lot of catching up, and a lot of the residence are quite happy now that we’re renewing and replacing old infrastructure”.
Like Adelaide in South Australia, the city is prioritising inclusion schemes to bring people on board. South Australia has faced high unemployment as the shipping industry slowed, and is renown for its open government problems, like the citizens’ juries and open state agenda.
Mcdonald has focused on the city’s feedback mechamisms. “Someone might have a specific complaint that gets shifted from department to department and eventually just evaporates,” he says. “We’ve been trying to make sure that we capture every issue we can to try and get a better result”.
“Someone might have a specific complaint that gets shifted from department to department”
His team invested in a central database that pulls complaints together, so the right complaint can be routed to the relevant agency. “We have a better roster system now, and i think we are more progressive in the way we plan and regulate our services”, he says. A task such as clearing up a fallen tree, for example, will be “live until someone ticks it off as being done”, the Mayor says. “The idea is that someone takes ownership of it.”
It also enables accountability to citizens, and that has made them feel more valued. “We’re getting a lot less complaints about things not being done, and a lot less people are ringing me personally about our standing claims”, he says.
The city residents are a diverse group, with a significant Vietnamese community and an equally large Chinese population. In all, residents hail from more than 135 countries and speak over 80 languages.
The council has used its improved finances to note the importance of these groups – it recently dedicated a landmark to its Vietnamese people. The Saigon Welcome Arch features a pair of giant cranes, which conveys culture and symbols of the country. “It has been going for a plan for over 20 years, and we finally got the funds – because of our debt situation”, he says.
His team has also built a library and community hub for a “disadvantaged suburb in our municipality”. Baybrook didn’t have these public facilities, and set-ups like these “in a modest neighbourhood can make a dramatic difference, [because] that means that kids can leave school and have somewhere safe to do their homework, or… people that may be normally socially isolated can actually meet up during the day and have a simple conversation”, he says.
They have even been able to provide free wifi, which has also “made a dramatic difference in some of our areas, because people now can just sit around and access their devices, rather than leave” to surf the net, the Mayor says.
His term ends on October 21st, but he’s pleased to be leaving his city in much better shape.
“We are part of a team, and some of the initiatives and the success we had, some of them started maybe a decade ago under previous mayors and previous councils,” he says.
“I’ve just had the good fortune of being at the end of the process”.
Images taken from Maribyrnong’s Twitter page