Stepping up Victoria's night-time economy

By Professor Michele Acuto
Melbourne Centre for Cities, the University of Melbourne

Much is happening daily in the lead up to Victoria’s state election, with candidates and media afoot across the state from early morning to late evening.

Yet to date little has happened at night or, as I want to put a spotlight on here, about the night. Quite the contrary. Critical to our next Premier’s agenda should be stepping up Victoria’s night-time economy and buy-in on what happens across the state after hours.

This is not a piece about partying and drinking. Not only that, at least. The night is about jobs, livelihoods, and a sizeable portion of the state’s capacity to thrive and keep functioning as a 24-hour economy.

At a conservative estimate, 8% of working Australians do so at night-time - even if we only account for the food and entertainment sectors. Accounting for health and care, logistics and transport, services and maintenance would at least double this figure, with upwards of 1.4 million Australians taking up night shift work and the night-time economy (NTE) accounting for billions in revenue.

As the state election looms, it is time to step up Victoria’s commitment to its night-time economy. Whilst lacking from electoral debates and promises, a clear state-level initiative on the NTE - like a 24-hour commissioner or ministerial portfolio - would be a smart move for the next Premier of Victoria.

The night-time economy as an electoral issue

This should come as no surprise when we take a broader view of the Australian NTE and what is happening internationally. Australia has a solid track record of similar initiatives taken by secondary cities across the country ranging from Newcastle and the Gold Coast, to capitals like Canberra, Hobart and indeed within Victoria, as for instance with Ballarat and City of Yarra.

The Council of Capital Cities Lord Mayors (CCCLM), a peak collaborative hub for the capitals’ leaders, has a working group dedicated to the NTE which also encompasses many other metro and regional cities. The NTE is also easily pivoted into a key realm of electoral debate. It was for instance a hot issue in the November 2020 Melbourne mayoral election that saw Sally Capp being reconfirmed as Lord Mayor, launching the city’s Night-Time Economy Advisory Committee in February 2021.

Candidates left and right (literally) got busy proposing anything from ‘night mayors’ to a New York City-style Office of Nightlife as they battled to propose a step change in recognising how much the pandemic had affected one of our state’s major sources of business and revenue. Other ideas included a better sleep campaign, action to address homelessness, and neighbourhood festivals, to name but a few. The state, meanwhile, remained relatively silent.

So, how to do that all of at a state government level? This is again not uncharted territory and some state-level models are well tested just across the northern border. In February 2021, the New South Wales Government announced former TimeOut executive Michael Rodrigues as the state's inaugural 24 Hour Economy Commissioner (with a dedicated state office for it). His office would be backed by a 24-Hour Economy Advisory Group to implement NSW’s 24-Hour Economy Strategy.

Flinders Street station at night
Victoria needs a dedicated NTE portfolio to embrace the noctural potential of the state. Pic credit: Unsplash/Matt Zhang

By far and large, this is working well and catalysing attention, activity and collaboration to step up city-based local action to a cross-state effort on the NTE. In fact, a stronger night-time economy and a better 24-hour voice for the state is, in some respects, a bipartisan matter there, with the NSW Labor opposition fronting a Shadow Minister for the Night-Time Economy (Legislative Council Deputy Leader John Graham MLC). Again, Victoria remains silent at both ends of the political spectrum.

Yet Victoria, as on many other fronts, was a national frontrunner here. Melbourne was the very first in Australia to launch (in 2005) a 24-Hour City policy focus. Victoria, and Music Victoria in particular, is recognised globally for night-time advancements like the establishment of the 'agent of change' principles in night-time urban planning, which have even influenced how Greater London and the UK operates.

Embrace the night-time economy

Putting the NTE on the next Premier’s agenda makes good economic sense. The night-time economy is no small matter: it accounts for $133 billion in revenue across Australia. Victoria (along with NSW) plays a critical national role representing 28% of the national economy. The city of Melbourne alone provides revenues upwards of $3.3 billion.

Recent research from CCCLM and Ingenium Research points at how, in spite of the pandemic’s downturn, New South Wales (+11%) and Victoria (+9%) had the greatest percentage and absolute establishment growth in NTE establishments in 2020/21. This is no ‘big city’ matter for Melbourne only, as most of Victoria’s NTE growth is now occurring in the Greater Melbourne area, outside of the city centre.

This is not just an economic opportunity area for the state, but also a central context for post-pandemic recovery, and something that speaks to the attention paid by most state election candidates to cost of living and affordability, as the majority of night-time workers are in precarious low-wage conditions, short-term jobs and often poorly recognised for their central contribution to keeping the state happy, entertained and quite practically ticking through maintenance and care.

Victoria as a state, not just Melbourne, presents a great opportunity to better leverage the NTE right from the get-go of the next state government’s term. Some promise of this viability at state level is there. The state government has put on the plate a $200 million, jointly-funded Melbourne City Revitalisation Fund supporting NTE-incentivisation programs in the capital like Melbourne Money, or more broadly with a $40 million Night-time Economy Business Support Initiative.

Melbourne skyline at night shown from St Kilda
The night is about jobs, livelihoods, and a sizeable portion of the state’s capacity to thrive. Pic credit: Pexels/Pat Whelen

Yet, contrary to Melbourne’s 2020 mayoral race, the NTE buzz across the country, or the leaps forward made by NSW, the issue of the night-time economy is sadly silent in Victoria’s 2022 state elections.

No talk of the large imprint of the NTE generated across the state by major events and activities, from the Arts and Culture, through flagship sporting events like the Grand Final or the F1 or indeed the upcoming Commonwealth Games (badly needing a regional NTE Strategy).

A step change, with perhaps a recognised ministerial NTE portfolio or a state commissioner à la NSW is urgently needed and well within reach. The pathway ahead for the next premier of Victoria: embrace the night-time economy, recognise the critical contribution of its hundreds of thousands of workers, and leverage the unique potential of a 24-hour ministry.

This would embrace the nocturnal potential of the state, once again propel it to international visibility, and more importantly offer a chance to recognise the voice of so many who draw their livelihoods from what happens after hours across Victoria.

Banner image: A street in Richmond, inner Melbourne, at night.  Source: Pixabay


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