It was always ambitious, but in the end consensus over red-light areas proved just too hard, writes Karen Kissane.
The poster is edged by condoms and syringes. The picture in the centre has two smiling girls, aged three and five, holding more condoms and syringes. The headline reads, “We play in a sex-tolerant zone in St Kilda”.
Deputy Premier John Thwaites seemed not to blanch when St Kilda traders showed him the poster last week. They told him it would be part of their campaign if Mr Thwaites, also their local member, did not halt the push for red-light zones in their neighbourhood.
“He’s been around for a long time,” cafe owner George Takis says of the way Mr Thwaites’ expression seemed not to change. But Mr Takis says that the minister’s adviser’s did.
It is hard to know to what degree the traders’ threats influenced the decision to pull the plug, at least for now, on the proposal to regulate street prostitution into “tolerance zones”. The government says Attorney-General Rob Hulls was concerned by community protests. The St Kilda council says it too is listening to the people.
But it is also possible that this controversial experiment in participatory democracy, which tried to include residents and sex workers, has been vanquished by a coming ritual of participatory democracy: the looming state election.
“It’s probably related to the state election and that’s probably not unreasonable,” says George Tickell, president of the Fitzroy and Acland Streets Residents Association. “I don’t think the issue itself should be tackled during an election because it’s just going to become a political football.”
The anti-tolerance campaign posters, devised by the Fitzroy Street Traders Association, alienated even protesting residents who would otherwise have been the group’s natural allies. Mr Takis says that as well as the children’s picture, there were posters of a house disappearing down a toilet (attacking possible damage to property values).
“I found (the pictures) extremely offensive and didn’t want to be associated with them,” says Jeanette Davison of the Port Phillip Action Group.
But Steve Paraskevas, president of the Fitzroy Street Traders Association and a leader of the delegation to Mr Thwaites, thought they were justifiable.
“Mr Thwaites has . . . obviously listened to us and at this stage we are just going to see if we get a better outcome.”
The push for sex zones was always going to be hard to win, Mr Tickell says. It suffered multiple blows: “Council probably mishandled it. Some of their consultation wasn’t as good as it might have been. There were pretty heavy attacks from talkback hosts. And the issue has been heavily politicised in that the position of some of the groups campaigning against tolerance zones has been closely aligned with the opposition.”
And then there was the not-in-my-backyard factor; even those who sympathised with the idea of tolerance, like resident Leslie Cannold, erupted when told that their own area was a proposed site for it.
Ms Cannold, a spokeswoman for the St Kilda Circuit Action Group, says she was pleased with the report that first recommended tolerance as a strategy because she thought her area would be protected as it contained homes and a church.
“Anyone who had been following the process was dumbfounded (by the proposed sites),” she says.
Ms Cannold says the council talked about “Best fit, least harm”, as if they were going to move it to places where 2000 residents weren’t going to be bothered but 1500 were.
She says residents were so concerned that groups from different areas banded together to object, even though it would have been easy for each to lobby that the other take the problem.
Ms Davison first joined the advisory group that recommended tolerance zones because she lives in a street affected by the sex trade. But she too was disappointed by the proposed sites.
Port Phillip Mayor Darren Ray insists that the council still supports the recommendations of the State Prostitution Advisory Group. He says the council’s decision had nothing to do with state political agendas, and that its processes were not fundamentally flawed. However, he says the council realised the process needed to slow down if it was to win support.
But has the idea been so utterly defeated by geography that notions of consensus are wishful thinking? Does St Kilda have any areas that fulfil the sex workers’ requirements – lighting, toilets and a circuit for customers – and are separated from houses, shops and places where children congregate?
Ms Cannold thinks not: “The only way to implement (tolerance) is to go outside St Kilda. The logic is incontrovertible. None of the sites made sense.”
THE STORY SO FAR
· The State Government proposes tolerance zones in St Kilda and at least one street-worker centre. The Attorney-General’s Street Prostitution Advisory Group recommends a two-year trial.
· Opposition Leader Denis Napthine says the Liberals won’t support the plans , claiming the area could become “seedy”.
· About 200 residents attend a meeting of Port Phillip Council as it considers the zones.
· About 130 rally outside St Kilda Town Hall to protest against the proposed zones.
· Residents and traders threaten to sue the council.
· Luna Park operators say the plan for Cavell Street, between the park and the Palais Theatre, to be a zone for male prostitutes will jeopardise the park’s “ability to maintain the perception of a clean, safe environment”.
· The government shelves the proposed legislation.
A HEATED DEBATE
LESLIE CANNOLD, St Kilda Road resident
We welcome that the council has allowed us to have meaningful input into the process and that they’ve heard our concerns.
STEVE PARASKEVAS, Fitzroy Street Traders president, Monroe’s restaurant managing director
I don’t agree with having tolerance centres in one of the best boulevards in Melbourne. The residents and traders are all united on this, and I think we are going to fight this one off.
DARREN RAY, Port Phillip Mayor
This is not about stopping. What we need to do is take slower steps to ensure all of our community understand the process so that we can move forward with confidence.
JOHN THWAITES, Acting Premier
If you’re going to move forward in this area, which is extremely difficult, you have to move forward gradually with community support.
First published in The Age.