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Victoria’s Planning Minister Richard Wynne is focused on the job ahead

Minister for Planning Richard Wynne. Photo: Penny Stephens Benalla Art Gallery.
Nanjing Night Net

The propensity of life to produce the unexpected struck Richard Wynne forcefully in the first days of December. Sworn in as Victoria’s new Planning Minister, only days later he was having heart surgery.

The veteran politician – minister in the Bracks and Brumby governments, a former lord mayor – was readying for another four years running Victoria. The planning portfolio – among the toughest and most contentious – was unexpectedly his after Brian Tee, the shadow minister in opposition, lost his seat.

Ask him about those few months, he immediately goes to the political: the election result, and his own victory in his seat of Richmond, where he saw off the inner-city surge of the Greens.

But it is, of course, his personal story that also makes this period notable. “I don’t really want to be defined by this, actually,” he explains. “There is a level of discomfort with me talking to you about it.”

Wynne pauses, and considers, and decides to speak about that episode, which came from nowhere, beginning as he walked out of his office and down the street to buy lunch.

“This was completely unexpected,” he says. “I’ve maintained quite a high level of fitness and look after myself. But this came on me, really without any warning and without any of what you would normally associate  with a heart attack – the so-called elephant on the chest stuff and all of that. I had none of that.”

Instead it was the pain radiating down his arm. Fortunately, the 59-year-old father of two was seeing his doctor that day. “And, of course, then it cascaded from there.”

He ended up in the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and is forever grateful for the care provided.  When he returned to work and his first meeting of the Labor caucus, he told his colleagues: “If we do nothing else as a Labor Party, we absolutely have to be advocates for the public health system, because it’s world class.”

He has been in the minister’s office in Spring Street since the last week of February. He looks in robust health.

His wish not to be defined by his health scare is likely to be granted, for he will be judged on what he achieves in a portfolio that has made reputations, and broken them. His predecessors have often been cast as heroes or villains. The direction he sets will have a profound impact on the lives of every Victorian.

Wynne’s background provides some clues to the approach he will take. A son of inner Melbourne, he worked as a social worker in the public housing estates of Flemington and Kensington. He was an advisor to former state Labor planning minister Andrew McCutcheon in the early 1990s and on the staff of former Labor deputy prime minister Brian Howe, working on the Better Cities program. His six years on the city council included a year as lord mayor in 1991, working closely with the city planning guru Rob Adams.

As Wynne puts it, he has been in training for this job. “Planning is ultimately about people,” he says. “It’s about where we live, it’s about where our education is, where our jobs are, how we recreate. What sort of a space are we creating for people. And fairness. They are the touchstones for me.”

He will be judged against the performance of his predecessor, Matthew Guy. Now opposition leader, Guy created a legacy in the relatively short period of one four-year term. His performance divided opinion, from his embrace of city high-rises to the blueprint for Melbourne’s development, Plan Melbourne.

The new planning minister is refuses to trash his predecessor – as expected  as that would have been.

Plan Melbourne has its share of critics. “I’m going to do something that’s quite radical,” says Wynne. “I’m not going to tear it up.” Expect, instead, changes such as the removal of the East West Link.

On the sprouting of skyscrapers, Wynne stresses he is not against height. “Height in appropriate settings is a good thing. But we all live on the ground. We all get about the place on the ground. So what’s happening on the ground? Is it an activated space? Is it a space that is pleasant? Is it a space where we are interacting?”

He walks around the city, knows it at the all-important street level.

In the past month, Labor has farewelled Evan Walker, the visionary behind the development of Southbank, who died at 79 after a long illness. Wynne is taking his inspiration from this minister’s legacy  and echoes what he told Parliament in a condolence speech:  “If I can be half the planning minister that Evan Walker was, I will have done my civic duty.”  GRAND DESIGNS: Wynne’s favourite architecture

* Benalla Art Gallery

Designed by Philip Sargeant and Colin Munro and opened in 1975, the gallery celebrates its 40th anniversary next month. The same architects designed McClelland Gallery + Sculpture Park at Langwarrin.

“It’s the most beautifully sited regional art gallery. My wife was a director for six years. We spent many happy years there. It’s spectacular.”

* Republic Tower, corner La Trobe and Queen streets

Designed by Nonda Katsalidis, this 34-storey tower caused a stir when plans for it were unveiled in the 1990s.

“Quite a few of us were looking aghast at it [because of the height]. But you look at it now and you think, ‘What’s the problem?’ It’s a beautiful building. It’s a tall building but a good building.”

* Brambuk Cultural Centre, Halls Gap

Richmond architect Gregory Burgess designed Brambuk, meaning “white cockatoo”, in the Grampians National Park.

“It’s a spectacular design and tells the story of Aboriginal culture in the Halls Gap region.”

* East Melbourne

The streets around East Melbourne as they come off the Fitzroy Gardens are some of the city’s best preserved and most beautiful.

“Walk around East Melbourne, it’s spectacular. Some of our beautiful built heritage is extraordinary still.”

* Flagstaff Gardens bowls club

Designed by Melbourne City Council’s design team, this sustainable building was built in 2010 after the old bowls clubhouse burnt down.

“It’s a contemporary design that fits beautifully into the very historic gardens. It was a nondescript council building and bowls club before, and it’s now a fantastic community space.”

* Canning Street public housing, North Melbourne

Built under the Better Cities program in the 1990s, these public housing apartments replaced some rather grim concrete four-storey walk-up flats.

“It demonstrated you could rebuild these estates and provide public housing tenants with really quality, affordable places to live.”

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