Labor cabinets leak a lot less than Coalition cabinets do, state Labor cabinets all the less, and a relatively smooth outfit like the Daniel Andrews cabinet scarcely at all. So it was a big deal when The Age got a Peter Hartcher-esque blow-by-blow account of the debate around the future of Melbourne’s Federation Square, and the decision to allow Apple to put a shop in the middle of it.

Sorry, it’s not a shop, is it? It’s a glittering Apple technology experience, a portal to the future, a foundation stone for an exciting new tech future blah blah blah. Yeah, crap it is. It’s a shop, and it’s going to be placed in the middle of a public square.

Consequently, voices were raised in objection, principally from Richard Wynne, Planning Minister and perpetually beleaguered member for Richmond, and Gavin Jennings of the Socialist Left. Andrews himself was said to be against — but ultimately voted for it, when the Right pushed for it, led by Tim Pallas.

The decision was given a boost when Don Bates, one of the two architects responsible for the Square, and still in a busy commercial practice, approved of the decision, and said that he had always envisaged commercial activities there (the other, Peter Davidson, has remained silent, and been written out of the narrative).

Well he would say that, wouldn’t he? But the reaction from the general public has been one of dismay, and it’s no great secret that the government has been disconcerted by the level of anger and disappointment expressed to it, about the decision. They thought it would blow over, as most such decisions do (such as the plan to gut the 1940s intact Campbell Arcade, which runs underground to Flinders Street station, and must be half-destroyed for the poorly designed Metro project, which has two separate stations within two blocks of each other).

Instead, everything about the project has revolted a large number of Melburnians, many of them Labor supporters, not least the cowardly sycophancy shown towards Apple, which has been allowed to hustle through the planning process, with all information about the cost, viability and final form of the building hidden from public view.

But it’s not simply the kow-towing to a corporate global overlord that has got people angry about this proposal. Nor is it the mucking about with the undistinguished architecture of Fed Square, a project that never lived up to the pictures we were presented with when it was created in the 1990s: a wonderland of glittering shards, shiny as icebergs or towers of silver.

The second-rate design of much of Fed Square didn’t matter. People began to use it, and began to like it. What it looked like didn’t matter much. It was a public space that became repurposed to a degree. Demonstrations and rallies shifted there. People came to watch the big telly. It became theirs, ours.

The debate about the success or failure of the architectural vision served to obscure the main point about Fed Square, and why people were so angry at a shop being put in the middle of it. And it seemed difficult for many people to vocalise it. But it’s this.

Public space matters. It matters that a city has different types of spaces in it, as a simple feature of the many-sided nature of human life. Public space can have commercial activities — food, drink, movies, etc — but what matters is that people go there to be there, as an end in itself, to be there with others. Public spaces such as Fed Square are the agora, the gathering place where the city is itself, for itself: not a market, not a depot. Without such features at the centre of a city, there are no citizens.

Putting shops in the middle of such destroys the in-itself character of public space. The space becomes something you go to, to get something, and take it away again. Public space becomes a means to an end, and its character dissolves. That’s why a shopping mall feels like a shopping mall, and no bits and pieces of entertainment bollocks changes the feel. That’s precisely why Apple wants to colonise public space; it doesn’t want to be just another shop in the QV centre, which is the sort of place it should be in.

Labor used to understand that a commitment to public space, to the idea of a citizen, and limits to the market, was part of its mission. The eight hours movement, with its emphasis on “eight hours recreation” (i.e. re-creation, becoming a full human being again) was a limit to the market in time. The creation of public parks, libraries, museums, etc, was a limit to the market in space. That Labor, of both left and right, cannot now understand the importance of this is a measure of the self-defeating nihilism that has crept into its heart. The party’s vision for the good life of a society has shrunk to a cynical core: get piped to work on your overcrowded train, to pay for your overpriced concrete shoebox, and go to the Apple store to get your screen fixed and back to your shoebox again. The spruiking for Apple is naked desperation — not least to solve the problem of the privatised Fed Square corporation, a hopelessly bloated boondoggle that lost $32 million last year — in the absence of any real solutions to a thinning and precarious economic base. Yeah, a chain store shop; that’ll do for a technology development policy.

By now, the Andrews government has realised just how greatly it has underestimated the anger at this proposal, and the degree to which it will feed directly into Green and other non-Labor left votes in the inner city.

Can a public movement against the Apple store proposal get up on its hind legs and walk around? It’s highly possible. The object would then be to ask the construction and other unions to green ban the site, and call on their residual commitment to trade union traditions around public space, and a citizen’s city, to commit to that. Labor could then use the escape clause to quit the contract.

Couldn’t happen? Stranger and tougher fights have been won. If a public movement can be got up, Labor will bleed from its arse all year, and deserve it, a sight that will make even Fed Square look attractive by comparison.

Peter Fray

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