By David Schout
Elected in 2012 at the age of just 27, Greens councillor Rohan Leppert is a Town Hall veteran of sorts. But he admits that in his third term, the role is harder than ever.
One gets the sense that with Rohan Leppert, things are rarely done half-heartedly.
Perhaps it’s an innate thoroughness, mixed with a healthy level of anxiety, but the City of Melbourne councillor rarely enters discussion or debates without being fully armed with the facts.
This shines through in public forums, both at Town Hall and online.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising then that, soon after COVID-19 hit Melbourne, he felt the need to commit full-time to his role as councillor.
For Cr Leppert, life on council has changed.
“It’s a great honour and privilege to help everyone every day through council. But it’s also harder to do this job now than it has been at any other time in my nine years here,” he said.
“The role of political leadership is very different to what it was before the pandemic. We have to be champions for a city in crisis.”
Speaking with CBD News just as Melbourne entered a fifth period of lockdown, Cr Leppert said the pandemic had sharpened his focus.
“Taking on the trauma of people who are going out of business or whose loved ones are experiencing acute mental health issues is not easy. But I do know what my purpose is at the moment, and that at least is something that spurs me on.”
Cr Leppert was first elected back in 2012 as a fresh-faced 27-year-old.
A profile piece in this very publication around this time described him as the “hipster councillor”, who would “not look out of place on a fixed-wheel bicycle” (generously, it credited an “intellectual substance and capacity” to boot).
As with any new councillor, he had to learn the ropes quickly.
And now, nine years on, he’s thankful for a more welcoming initiation.
“I think now is the hardest possible time to start as a new councillor. If I was starting now as opposed to nine years ago I would be … quite upset,” he said, laughing.
It’s not difficult to see that a fire burns bright on a broad range of topics.
Equally comfortable speaking about social mobility as he is the finer details of planning matters, a common thread is apparent; putting people and the planet at the heart of policy.
On the former, he expresses a regret that the pandemic had severely impacted local residents, particularly in the CBD.
“I am increasingly agitated that we keep asking people to lock down, stay at home, and that’s going to keep the community safe. But we also always consider construction workers’ essential work, which makes the staying-at-home for central city residents living next door to a construction site an absolute living nightmare. That doesn’t seem, to me, to be the right balance. We need to recognise that we have tens of thousands of residents in the central city now and if the overarching health message is ‘stay at home, be safe’, we shouldn’t make that staying-at-home experience tortuous at the same time.”
From an environmental perspective, Cr Leppert has been front and centre of the city’s accelerated rollout of protected cycling lanes.
He derives pride from the changes these projects can make.
“I still want to be part of a movement that’s saving the planet but doing that at a local level … the ability to introduce new reforms and see those reforms actually change the way people live, is still quite exciting to me.”
Rather than being met with a sigh, the complexity of complaints he receives from constituents keeps things interesting.
“The challenges and the enquiries that come up every day are completely fresh, and I just absolutely love that. You can be working on so many things every day — you’re never, ever going to get bored in a job like this.”
While on different ends of the political spectrum to some councillors, Cr Leppert paid tribute to the “really healthy, collaborative” group at present.
A move to upper levels of government would seems a natural progression, but he is more than happy shaping policy at the local level.
“I admire those who want to be lower house MPs, but it’s something I’ve always decided is not for me.”
For this councillor, he’ll know when the gig is up.
“I still love this job, and still get a hell of a lot out of it. If that ever stopped, I’ll know I need to give the role to someone who has that energy.” •