Lord Mayor Sally Capp speaks at Melbourne Press Club

Melbourne has endured one of the longest COVID-19 lockdown periods of any city in the world, but the experience has only fortified its resolve.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp has spoken at Melbourne Press Club about the city’s revitalisation, and the rollercoaster journey from being the most locked down city in the world to Australia’s busiest.

She spoke about how partnerships have been key to Melbourne’s recovery and how international students are pivotal to enabling the next period of growth. Here’s what she had to say:

As a city, we’ve had many titles over the years.

Most liveable.

The state’s engine room.

Fastest-growing city in Australia, fourth in the developed world.

In just a few months, all that was forgotten.

Replaced by the unenviable moniker – most locked down.

As a community, we clocked up 262 days reflecting on what’s important, what makes life meaningful during so much stay-at-home-ordinariness.

What is clear now, as we emerge from the COVID haze, is that we emerge bruised, but bolder and braver because of it.

I was walking through Carlton the other day when I passed a man wearing a t-shirt featuring a different title for Melbourne.

In lettering across his back were the words – ‘Melbourne – world’s most resilient city’.

And underneath, the dates of each of Melbourne’s lockdowns, like battle scars in fancy font.

I love it.

It speaks to the power of the bruise. To the ways that adversity has strengthened us and our resolve, not just as a leading capital city council, but as a community of people.

Two people engaged in a panel discussion

Lord Mayor Sally Capp in conversation at Melbourne Press Club

Over the past two years we’ve forged something that we will not soon forget – a certain strength that urges us on as we step back out into the world again – emboldened.

Melbourne has a good track record of resiliency and transformation – of responding to change and challenge.

Even in the midst of COVID, the biggest shock to our city in our lifetimes, we were planning for future prosperity, sustainability and growth.

Our bold $300 million Greenline project will tick all of these boxes.

Over the next six years it will transform the northern bank of our Yarra into the stunning centrepiece of our city, bursting with environmental, economic and social gains.

It will deliver a continuous four-kilometre promenade connecting five distinct precincts.

Think upgraded parks, pedestrian bridges and boardwalks – a well-frequented promenade that acknowledges and celebrates our city’s rich Aboriginal culture and heritage and our more recent maritime history.

The original concept was inspired by the Highline project in New York, which is now the Big Apple’s most popular tourist attraction.

We know that Greenline is going to be just as popular for Melbourne.

Forecasting shows Greenline will attract up to 1.1 million more visitors to our city annually, increase visitor spend by $23 million and create up to 6,400 new jobs over the life of the project.

That is why we are calling on the State and Federal governments to partner with us to fast-track Greenline’s delivery.

What’s good for Melbourne, is good for the State, is good for the nation.

As we were focussed on dealing with the crisis of the pandemic we continued to pursue action on the greatest challenge of our lifetime, climate change.

Power Melbourne is a new project that will deploy mid-scale batteries across inner Melbourne that will help us achieve net zero emissions by 2040.

Power Melbourne positions Melbourne as a centre for clean energy innovation that will create jobs, research opportunities and result in a greater uptake of renewables.

The project builds economic resiliency as we transition to a renewable energy economy nationally.

As the city with most days in lockdown, most people would understand if we were still in a foetal position in a dark corner somewhere.

But the ambitions of our community, the determination of our city, translate into these bold, landmark projects reflecting our resilience despite recent shocks and at the same time delivering future resilience for Melbourne.

Melburnians themselves have shown impressive resilience.

Six official bounce backs and now in this current bounce-back 6.5, Melburnians are flocking back, making us the busiest Australian city in March.

  • Last weekend, foot traffic around Town Hall was at 95 per cent of pre-pandemic levels
  • We recorded our biggest-ever crowd at Moomba with 1.44 million people attending over the March long weekend
  • Melburnians have snatched up 120,000 tickets across 1100 shows for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in the opening week alone
  • Round One of the AFL men’s premiership season was the highest attended round of football in Victoria since Round One in 2018
  • 103,000 people attended the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show last week
  • the Grand Prix this weekend is sold out and our hotels are close to bursting with more than 90 per cent of rooms sold
  • and people are rushing to cash in on Midweek Melbourne Money and the State Government’s Victorian Entertainment Scheme.

None of these things happened by chance.

There were – and still are – many who said the city would not recover, many who scoffed at our reactivation efforts.

The doubters fail to grasp that cities remain preeminent.

That Melbourne is a place of many possibilities – as both a Central Business District that attracts talent, investment and growth, and as a Central Experience District – the undisputed events, sports and arts capital of the nation.

Melbourne has an inherent pulling power, it’s just up to us to break people out of their lockdown habits.

What those who scoffed also failed to appreciate was that people were eager to get back to the city once they were vaccinated.

Our research revealed that people were nostalgic for events and experiences that they had missed over the past two years.

And so far in 2022 that research has been prophetic.

That’s why I advocated for a $300 million joint recovery and revitalisation fund with the State Government – which was the only partnership of its kind in Australia.

Already, we’ve spent $21.5 million on major events, $5 million on city marketing, $2.6 million to transform vacant shopfronts, and we’ve peppered the city with exciting activations and promotions, like the popular Melbourne Money dining scheme.

We know Melbourne’s strength as a culinary destination is the single most popular reason that people visit our city – so we turbo-charged the offering with Melbourne Money.

Over three schemes, it has supported a $90 million surge in spending across our local bars, cafes and restaurants with more to come.

It beckoned people away from their well-trodden five-kilometre radius to our world-class hospitality offering.

92 per cent of people who claimed during the first round of Midweek Melbourne Money said the scheme was a key reason why they visited the city.

But it’s not only hospitality that benefits.

More than 53 per cent of diners who have claimed cash back in this current scheme said they also took part in other activities across the city, with almost half spending up to $200 on retail and entertainment.

We have also introduced initiatives that have changed our city permanently for the better. Like extended outdoor dining which has more than doubled our outdoor dining presence, to 1500 parklets across the city.

That’s an extra 18,000 restaurant seats supporting 100 new jobs.

In a recent survey, more than 70 per cent of city hospitality venues said outdoor dining has significantly benefited their business, particularly as more customers choose to dine outdoors.

Last week, we extended fee waivers for outdoor dining and busking until 31 October to support city business owners and keep Melbourne bustling with energy and excitement.

The return of workers to the city remains a challenge. We accept that the rhythm of our city has changed forever with flexible working being embraced in workplaces across Australia.

We strongly believe the city has a fundamental role as a Central Business District and research confirms this with the majority of CBD workers stating that people who attend the office are more likely to advance in their careers.

And 59 per cent agreed that, when working-from-home, work had consumed more personal life than they would like.

Office attendance bounced up to 15 per cent in February – exceeding November’s rate of 12 per cent – even though the work-from-home recommendation was only lifted on February 25.

I’m confident the next jump will see office occupancy doubling into the thirties.

We will continue to do everything we can to earn the commute and move from COVID caution to COVID confidence.

At the City of Melbourne, we would typically see 1300 staff in our office with many more out in our libraries, parks and child care and rec centres each day.

We are sitting at 85 per cent of pre-pandemic weekly levels back in the office despite the ongoing impact of COVID isolation requirements.

Everyone at Town Hall knows that we must lead by example in returning to the office.

While these bounce-back initiatives and responses are encouraging, we know we need a prolonged recovery. Many businesses are still on a precipice.

As their customers are now returning, Traders identify access to labour as a key priority.

Students and skilled workers are central to our longer-term resilience.

They are pivotal to enabling the next period of growth for Melbourne and future resilience in our labour market and economy.

Pre-COVID Melbourne’s greatest challenge was harnessing a decade-long booming population. We were destined to overtake Sydney as Australia’s biggest city by 2026.

New ABS data released last week found that Melbourne’s population declined by 7.5 per cent in 2020–21.

This decline is overwhelmingly due to our international students returning home when borders closed. In fact, the biggest declines were in our university precincts in Carlton and Clayton, which witnessed a 10 and 9.4 per cent decline respectively.

International students are key to our education sector, and our largest export earning industry for over a decade, generating $10.5 billion in revenue, and 55,000 jobs in 2020.

But they are also critical to local labour markets as employees, business operators, tenants, consumers and volunteers.

International students represented 3.1 per cent of City of Melbourne’s workforce – according to the 2016 Census – with 38 per cent working in accommodation and food services, 11 per cent in administrative and support services and 10 per cent in education.

There are 100,000 student visa holders studying in Victoria which is the highest number over the past 12 months but still only 65 per cent of our normal student population.

We are currently welcoming about 4,000 international students each week, but we still have a long way to go.

The Federal Budget forecasts that the reopening of international borders is expected to generate a return to positive net overseas migration and higher population growth, which will support higher consumption growth.

We are optimistic our city population will bounce back.

Projections show we will reach 270,000 residents, an increase of 100,000 people, by 2031, driving the biggest city economy in Australia.

But to achieve this we must ensure the settings are right to enable this growth.

That is why we’re calling for greater pathways to post-study work and permanent residency for international students who complete degrees in Australia.

We’re asking the next Federal Government to give every student who completes a bachelor degree or above in Australia automatic access to a four-year post-study work visa.

Equally, we want to ensure those who maintain work over this period have a clear pathway to permanent residency.

By pulling these levers we will make it easier for students to build on their hard-won networks and profit from the abundant experiences and possibilities that exist here in Melbourne.

This is a sensible policy solution that will strengthen positive and constructive relationships within our region, and provide seamless post-graduation pathways for our students.

It will help to make Australia a more attractive and conducive destination for students, and allow us to retain smart and globally connected talent, and address current labour and skills shortages.

This will also make us more competitive with key markets for international study with many countries such as the USA considering a four-year post study visa.

We will partner with our Sydney counterparts, universities, and international students to see this initiative come to fruition.

We also think that 457 visas can play a role in tackling our labour challenges.

We join with others who have called for 457 visa categories to be expanded to assist with the shortfall of staff in hospitality and tourism.

Melbourne has well and truly proved its resiliency, but we need to keep the momentum building and sustain the revitalisation and recovery efforts especially as we head into winter. We can’t go into lockdown again.

So many meetings I’m in at the moment are punctuated by someone reminding the room that: winter is coming.

After two years of lockdowns, five-kilometre limits and work from home mandates, it will take some time to change behaviour. To remind everyone of the benefits of being in the city.

I am confident that we will succeed.

Melbourne – formerly known as one of the world’s most locked-down cities – is back on a glimmering trajectory.

In the words of the late, great Tom Petty – we won’t back down. We will boldly stand our ground.

We remain a city of unending possibilities, a city that says yes, that continues to take risks and be brave.

And a city full of people wearing t-shirts that say ‘Melbourne – the world’s most resilient city’.

Sally Capp
Lord Mayor

To find out what else we are doing to support people and businesses as we welcome people back to the city, visit Reignite Melbourne.