Giving a voice to our international students

By Sean Car

While Cr Philip Le Liu has brought many passions to the City of Melbourne, his greatest ambition continues to be making Melbourne the number one student city in the world. 

Having first been elected to the City of Melbourne in 2016 on former councillor Ken Ong’s ticket, Cr Le Liu is now one of the more experienced members on council after being re-elected for a second term last year.  

And at just 38 years of age, he also represents an emerging younger voice at the City of Melbourne, and during his time as a councillor, the plight of the city’s growing international student population has been at the top of his agenda. 

Having previously chaired the council’s international engagement portfolio during his first term, Cr Le Liu told CBD News he had made it his priority to ensure the council better served what was “pretty much our biggest community now”.

Making up around 40 per cent of the residential population in the CBD prior to the pandemic, it’s a community that represents one of the hardest hit by COVID and the impacts of its absence continue to be felt right throughout the municipality. 

While he now chairs the council’s finance, governance and risk portfolio, he said he was happy to continue playing a driving role in supporting international students as deputy portfolio lead for education and innovation. 

Together with that portfolio’s chair Cr Davydd Griffiths – a former teacher and education policy advisor himself – Cr Le Liu he was determined to reinstate Melbourne’s title as one of the world’s best cities for students. 

“When I first came into council, international students were right down at the very bottom, no-one had done anything with it, yet they are one of our biggest communities,” he said. 

“We’d never had any funding or initiatives or anything, so when I got in I said, ‘I really want to put it up here [at the top]’. We were the third best student city in the world, I want to make us number one.” 

“I hope that by the time I leave here [council] we’re number one, and I think we can.”

Amid one of the most difficult economic periods in the City of Melbourne’s history, as chair of finance, Cr Le Liu has already been central to recovery efforts in helping to deliver the council’s biggest budget in its history this year.

While admittedly “less about the numbers”, he said he had been able to call on his background in auditing to “put a different lens” through the council’s finances and make a “real mark” during a crucial time.  

And despite the often “black and white” nature of council treasury, he said the role had been able to “reconnect” him with his more than 10 years of experience working across a variety of sectors, including finance, government, telecommunications and not-for-profit.

But as the city braces for a long-awaited reopening, he said the council needed to continue advocating to both upper levels of government to ensure the city’s economy “roared back to life”. 

“I come from a different side of politics but I have to say that the state government has done pretty well in supporting the City of Melbourne with the Melbourne Recovery Fund,” he said. 

“It is a good partnership, but you know what? Just because they support us on one thing it doesn’t mean we should stay silent on everything. The best relationship is when you test each other.”

“We really need to push the state government, and hold them to account. It’s decision-making impacts our city the most.” 

“I think we [the City of Melbourne] have always been a bit of a rollover and we often stay silent and never really challenge the big brother.”

“It’s about looking after our ratepayers, from residents to business owners. There is so much that we need to do for the small business owners, who have been absolutely smashed to bits.”

“My family comes from a small business background. We ran our own shop in Balaclava for 15 years so I know what it means to run a small business. I ran a milk bar when I was 16. It’s the migrant story – they can’t get ahead, so what do they do? They run a small business.”

“I know a lot of small business owners can’t really speak English, some have no idea about the bureaucracy so I think we can play a real role in the advocacy and untangling all of the red tape.”

As one of four current councillors of Asian descent, Cr Le Liu said that representation of the city’s Asian community had never been better at the City of Melbourne. 

A prominent member of that community, in 2019 he was recognised as one of 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australians and the winner of the public sector/government category. He also previously served as the general manager of the Australia-China Youth Association in Beijing, looking after Australian international students studying in China. 

In reflecting on how much his community had “really suffered” during the pandemic, he said a key motivation for running again had been a desire to provide support and help it engage differently with the city.

“When COVID first hit, the Asian community was the first to get slammed,” he said. “The racism is real.” 

“We’re mainly business people, we want a good education and the right opportunities and that’s essentially it for many. For me, I want to get more of the Asian community into philanthropy and just giving back.”

“They’re very humble and I think the amount of work the Asian community has done during COVID hasn’t really been reflected well but it’s been really powerful.”

Having been re-elected last year on an “unofficial” Liberal Party ticket led by prominent night club owner Nick Russian, Cr Le Liu’s conservative stance on a range of issues are occasionally at odds with a number of his fellow councillors. 

There are few issues he is more diametrically opposed to than the state government’s current proposal for a medically supervised safe injecting room on Flinders St, which he said he was “saving all his energy” for to continue fighting. 

But despite the differing political persuasions inherent at times, he described the current team of councillors as “really energetic”, adding that they were each dedicated to achieving good outcomes for the community. 

And as a resident of the CBD himself, Cr Le Liu said no community was more important than the city’s local residents and stressed the importance of giving them a “real voice” in decision-making through “better engagement”. 

“The role of councillor is to represent the people. So, back to basics,” he said. 

“I think we’ve really got to give residents a voice and ensuring that they’re in the thinking in of our decision-making. There are too many times we’re they’re an afterthought.”

“When the night-time economy was raised, I was one of the few people who said we needed to ensure residents’ views were across it because they’re going to be most affected from it.” 

“As a resident myself living in the Hoddle Grid, I know exactly when the cleaning trucks come into the laneways at different times of the morning. I know that when we approved the extension of construction permits in the city, I couldn’t get any work done [in my apartment].” 

“We need to engage with them [residents] more. There is no much knowledge and energy that we don’t tap into.” •

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