BML ownership –

why privatisation was needed

20 years on from the successful bid to purchase the Brisbane Markets site from the State Government, Brisbane Markets Wholesalers reflect on why the move was necessary.

Now with new generations of Wholesalers and support staff in the Markets, some who never experienced life before industry-based ownership, the anniversary is a timely reminder of just how much things have changed.

“The place didn’t have a long term plan,” remembers Brismark Chair, Gary Lower. “There was no appropriate management of the site. It just wasn’t a very good place to do business.”

Under resourcing was considered a real issue, with only two staff employed to maintain the site and unable to cope with the growing list of repairs needed to keep the site in good working order.

The Central Trading Area in 2002 (top) and in 2022 (bottom).

Wait times at the site entry points were not uncommon, as a shortage of security personnel would result in people sitting in cars at locked gates and waiting to enter or leave the site until a security patrol returned to open the gate.

By the late 1990s, an adversarial relationship between landlord and Tenants had developed following many years of disagreements over a lack of focus on resourcing, security, maintenance, operating rules and a lack of collaboration.

“It was just constant aggravation. The governing body at the time were virtually outsiders who took no account of what our requirements or needs were,” said Mr Lower.

Market Authority representatives at the time included Brisbane City Council and grower representatives who did not consider Wholesaler input to be valid.

“Peter Betros and I were on the Brisbane Markets Trust in the 90s and it became impossible to discuss anything with them.

“Whenever an issue came up related to retailing or wholesaling, we would be asked to leave the room. We couldn’t even be part of the conversation,” said Mr Lower.

Without documented policies or procedures in place, a lack of transparency behind decisions made by the Market Authority would inevitably benefit some businesses at the expense of others.

This lack of regulation promoted a use and abuse mentality, with reports that some Market operators would dump waste on site and leave it for other operators to deal with at their expense.

Conversely, regulation was stifling businesses, with Wholesalers facing barriers of red tape before they could secure the infrastructure required to grow their businesses.

“Approval for a new building could take two or three years,” recalls former BML and Brismark Chair, Tony Joseph AM. “Then it would cost you a fortune to pay for the upgrades yourself.”

Aerial view of the Brisbane Markets in 2002 (top) and 2022 (bottom).

With many Wholesalers frustrated at a perceived lack of focus from the landlord in cultivating a sense of community and consultation between landlord and tenants, tensions were peaked and all options were on the table, including setting up a rival market where Wholesalers could govern themselves and do a better job.

“We bought a parcel of land in Yatala which we thought would make an appropriate site for a new market,” said Mr Joseph.

Ultimately, the State Government acknowledged it didn’t have a role in owning and managing a fruit and vegetable market, and put it up for sale by public tender.

Brismark Director, Troy Beaton, remembers a flurry of action and determination to get the site into the hands of Wholesalers, and laments that some people struggle to maintain perspective on how far we have come.

“It amuses me when people complain about the way things are now,” said Mr Beaton. “They forget that BML was born out of necessity and on our terms.

“BML spends millions on site infrastructure, is aligned with Brismark and invests in project that Brismark supports, including supporting retailers.

“There are multiple tiers within the Market who are invested in BML, making sure BML continues to do the right thing for the horticulture industry as a whole.

“The advantage is that we are influencing our own destiny. That’s the main benefit of industry-based ownership,” he said.

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