A “dynamic, engaged community”: Martin Foley reflects on Southbank

A “dynamic, engaged community”: Martin Foley reflects on Southbank
David Schout

After 15 years as the state member for Albert Park, Martin Foley has announced he is stepping down and will not contest the November state election. He spoke with Southbank News about how he has seen the local area evolve during that time, its challenges going forward, and being health minister in a once-per-century pandemic.

In 2006, the year before Martin Foley was elected in a by-election for the inner-Melbourne seat of Albert Park, the national census revealed that Southbank had less than 10,000 local residents.

At the time, further development was forecast to take place in the urban renewal area, and it was earmarked as a suburb to accommodate a growing city population.

And that’s exactly what eventuated.

In fact, in the latest 2021 census data released in June, the number of Southbankers had (comfortably) more than doubled in that time and was now at 22,699.


“The population is going up but it’s actually getting younger, proportionally speaking compared with the rest of Melbourne, and more professional,” Mr Foley reflected in a wide-ranging interview with Southbank News.


“So, it’s actually now quite a mature, dynamic community but with its own particular features that come with high-density and vertical living.”

In his time as local MP for the seat (of which Southbank occupies the north-eastern corner), he has seen the growth with a particularly close lens.

As he prepared to say goodbye to a career in politics after announcing his retirement in June, he shared his thoughts on what made the suburb unique.

Referring to Albert Park, as a whole, as “the most dynamic, interesting and engaged community in Melbourne”, Mr Foley said Southbank was indicative of a community that “kept you honest and accountable”.

“The rate of growth and investment, particularly in Southbank, are among the highest in the state. People know change is a daily feature of their lives, but they want to negotiate that change on terms that are agreeable to them both individually and as a community,” he said, paying tribute to the area’s community groups.

Southbank’s rapid rise has also meant that it was subject to many different and often unique challenges.

Mr Foley said that how climate change looked in a high-density, vertical community like Southbank was a topic of particular interest in the years to come.

“Southbank is particularly vulnerable when you see the City of Melbourne’s drainage and water rises. These are big challenges for Southbank, some areas more so than others. When you see the CSIRO maps about what water rising and mega events increasing; it’s not just the Dandenongs that’ll have a hard time, it’s also the kind of risk that high-density living has.”

He said other challenges the area faced in years to come was, as it matured, how it managed “cradle to grave” services.

“What does accessible early childhood and family support services look like in this community? What does education look like? What about work-life balance — what’s that going to do to changes in demand for facilities well beyond just the Boyd centre?”

In a distinctly “young” area like Southbank (the recent census revealed that 66 per cent of locals were aged between 20 and 39), how would it also tackle an ageing population?

“As we increasingly see people move from the suburbs and indeed the regions into Southbank as they downsize and get ready for retirement, what does that mean for an ageing sector of Southbank? What does in-care support and aged care support look like in a high-density community?”

Mr Foley noted that a more pressing concern for locals was something many saw each day; transport, walkability, and the need for an improved public realm.

“The fact that [Southbank] is at the intersection of so many transport connections continues to be a really challenging set of issues for both local and state government.”

During his 15-year political career, Mr Foley has served (among others) in the Creative Industries, Equality, Disability and Housing portfolios.

Most recently, he served as Health Minister during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when he took over from former minister Jenny Mikakos in September 2020.

He said one thing in particular would remain with him when he reflected on his career in years to come.

“I got the job in fairly unusual circumstances at the height of the worst aspects of the pandemic. And my job was to really build and maintain confidence in the public health response in the most challenging set of circumstances the public health system had faced in living memory … at the time and since, the amazing amount of community goodwill to get through that and support the public health system is the thing that will endure with me.”

Mr Foley was one of four senior Andrews Government ministers to announce they’ll step down ahead of November, alongside Deputy Premier James Merlino, Police Minister Lisa Neville and Sports Minister Martin Pakula.

The vacancy created by his retirement has been filled by upper house MP Nina Taylor, who will contest the seat of Albert Park in the November state election for Labor.

The notion of Southbank, and Albert Park as a whole, being an engaged local community meant that a politician could never be comfortable.

“This is not a safe Labor seat,” he said.

“I’ve seen it go as marginal as one per cent, and I know that every vote will have to be fought for and fought over … I don’t take anything for granted. It’s always been a seat that’s been unpredictable, and it will continue to be so. Clearly, I’m going to support the Labor candidate Nina Taylor, but I don’t take it granted for a moment that this is anything other than a demanding, hard-to-convince community that need to be actively engaged with to win their support and confidence.”

Albert Park (an electorate that also covers Middle Park, Port Melbourne, St Kilda West, South Melbourne, and parts of St Kilda) has been held by the Labor Party since 1950, including by former Deputy Premier John Thwaites from 1992 to 2007.

Mr Thwaites’ resignation in July 2007 triggered the by-election that was won by Mr Foley in September of that year. •


Caption: Martin Foley has announced his retirement after 15 years as the member for Albert Park.

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