By Shane Scanlan
Rohan Leppert is very inner Melbourne.
The hipster councillor would not look out of place on a fixed-wheel bicycle with brightly-coloured rims and hand-grip-only bars.
But he also has intellectual substance and capacity which goes way deeper than his youthful, male-model good looks might suggest.
Cr Leppert is one of only a few city councillors who can persuade his colleagues of the merits of his point of view using extremely well-articulated, deeply researched and reasoned logic – despite their political differences.
As the younger of only two Greens councillors, one might expect a degree of vocal outrage or at least some political grandstanding.
However, Cr Leppert is successfully navigating the consensual politics mandated by Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, even if this does raise suspicions within his natural constituency.
And it’s not as if Cr Leppert doesn’t feel like rattling the bars of the cage. He just knows that to get the right outcomes, you have to at least play the game.
“If I was to take the ‘boost the profile’ / ‘attack the conservatives’ line then I would be achieving less because there would be no reason for the other councillors to listen to my ideas, to consider my amendments and motions if all they saw was someone blocking what they were trying to do.” Cr Leppert said. “It’s a difficult balance and I get very nervous that a lot of the really hard work being done is not recognised. I think that Cathy (Oke) and I have achieved a lot, so there are good reasons why we have chosen this style of politics.”
Cr Leppert’s German grandparents (all four) came to Australia post World War II to work on the Snowy Mountains scheme. His father and mother met in Canberra where he grew up, coming to Melbourne to study music the moment he graduated from high school. He bypassed student politics but when he did become politically active based on his desire to save the planet, he jumped into the deep end – advising and guiding Adam Bandt to becoming the nation’s first Greens lower house member in 2010.
He had earlier put his hand up at the 2008 City of Melbourne election, losing by a slender margin to ALP candidate Jennifer Kanis. Between then and the 2012 election, he shadowed the council’s activities, so there were no surprises when he was ultimately victorious in 2012.
Although grateful for the relative harmony between all 11 councillors, Cr Leppert is far from happy with the current electoral system which discriminates against residents in favour of non-resident business and property owners.
He blames this system for the relative ease in which non-resident councillors can avoid becoming immersed in the detail of the council’s operation.
“I think that the councillors who live within the City of Melbourne interpret their responsibilities differently to the six that live outside. Certainly I think that some of the non-leadership-team councillors who work the hardest are those living inside the City of Melbourne,” he said.
“I do occasionally resent that I am caring so much about an issue and a majority of councillors don’t even know what language I am speaking.”
“This is not a criticism of councillors but more a reflection on the system that we have got, that the councillors can get away with not being on top of the detail.
It’s easy for councillors to read a report, say ‘yes that looks pretty good’ and put their hand up.”
He is also pained by the flip-side of this situation, that unelected officers get to run the council largely without regard to the views of elected representatives.
Being such a bright, young prospect, it would be easy to expect Cr Leppert to harbour political ambitions beyond local government.
In answer to where his apprenticeship on council was leading, he said: “I don’t know. I’ve worked in Parliament House for Adam Bandt and have seen how MPs work and I don’t like it. It’s been suggested to me that I look at something other than council and I don’t think that I ever will.”
“I am not seeking to become a career politician or anything like that. I would like to go back to music at some stage.”
The demands of being a councillor dictate that he has capacity at the moment for only 16 private music students. And, despite music being a major passion, Cr Leppert can no longer play.
He severed nerves, tendons and arteries in his right hand in an accident several years ago and now lives his musical life vicariously through others.
Of this major setback he said it was “a little bit” tragic but it meant he had more time to devote to politics.
“The arts and culture portfolio (which he chairs) really is a lot of fun. I’m having an absolute ball and, if I can’t play, the best I can do is to go along and see the best on offer and it’s absolutely wonderful,” he said.