The making of a lord mayor

Robert Doyle’s six years as Lord Mayor of Melbourne has benefitted both the city and the man himself.

Melbourne has had a highly articulate, hard working and talented champion.  And Cr Doyle has experienced a rehabilitation of sorts and has emerged a better person.

This is largely because of the nature of local government.  Although still robust and potentially poisonous, it is not institutionally adversarial.

The attack dog who was dumped by his own as leader of the state opposition in 2006 is today a master of collaboration, consensus and compromise.

“I supposed if you’ve got the numbers, it’s winner takes all. But I don’t find that a very attractive or satisfying way of operating,” he said.

“Part of that collaboration is knowing where people are coming from and what’s important to them and being able to deliver for everyone without compromising yourself.”

“This is a town of conversations and of networks.  There is something deeply satisfying about putting together coalitions of people in order to work on a problem of mutual interest and get a great resolution. I think that I have that skill.”

Cr Doyle is proud of the way a politically-diverse group of councillors keep their squabbles behind closed doors and, by and large, present a united front.  Gone are the public brawls and the “clown hall” headlines.

No doubt, tactical regrets remain from his state political career. But he doesn’t miss the politics.

“State politics is so partisan and I look at it now I think it is so much more bitter,” he said.  “I think there is a rancour there which I don’t think serves the public well.”

It would be wrong to characterise Cr Doyle as “gone soft”.  He runs a tight ship, often displays a short fuse and can be savage when his buttons are pushed.

He says his mother attributed his self-assuredness and independent thought to leaving home at 10 for boarding school and never really coming back.

His parents divorced when he was very young, with mum taking the three kids and scratching out a living as a hairdresser in multiple Victorian country towns.

He speaks of cold Myrtleford mornings in a small flat with a tin bath, no indoor plumbing and an outside toilet.

“I remember when there was a hole in that bath, mum would drip candle wax to seal the hole,” he said.

“I don’t want to overplay this. I didn’t have any sense that we were destitute or anything like that. I didn’t have a sense that we were terribly poor but, then again, there were quite a lot of poor kids in Myrtleford.”

The obviously brilliant young Robert was encouraged to sit scholarship exams and successfully won a valuable, classical education at Geelong College.

He blossomed in this environment and went on to study law but opted for teaching without ever finishing his law degree.

Teaching at some of the finest schools brought him in contact with top-level Liberal Party luminaries and his activism against ALP education reforms kick-started his political career.

The conservative and strict school master is still evident as chair of the city’s Future Melbourne Committee and council meetings.

“Rules are very important to me – following the right process is very important to me,” he said.

And woe betide anyone taking advantage of public submissions or questions who crosses the line.

“In public meetings, there should be respect, but I don’t think it should be loosely-wrapped,” he said.  “It’s not a coconut shy either.  We’re not sitting back there so people can chuck rocks at us.  That’s not appropriate either.  I expect respect to be both ways.”

It’s hard to say what drives Robert Doyle to do what he does.  For someone so outwardly self confident, he is very sensitive to criticism.  He has a fine record of public service – both as a teacher and politician.  But he also takes enormous joy and satisfaction from the lord mayoral role.

“I feel it a very deep honour and a privilege to walk into this building every day and into this office,” he said.

He is at the top of his game.  In his personal life too, he has recovered from divorce, has experienced new love and has a young child.

With two years left in the current term, will he again contest the lord mayoralty?

“I’m going to try to make a decision by Christmas this year,” he said.

“For me, it would have to do two things.  I would have to have a sense that I had unfinished business that I need to see through and, secondly, that the challenge and my energy for the challenges remained.”

And how would be like to be perceived?

“If I reflect on what is said of me the most, I hope that people observe that I am very passionate about the city, that I am committed to it, that I see the promotion of it and its wellbeing as a really worthy enterprise,” he said.

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