For a failed former opposition leader with no executive power, a limited budget and a minority on his own council, Melbourne’s talkaholic Lord Mayor Robert Doyle might seem a curious inclusion on a list of movers and shapers.
Sure, he carries off the usual city hall duties, like ribbon cutting and sound biting, with aplomb. But is he really that powerful? Or is it just empty symbolism? According to Doyle himself, it’s neither.
Approaching his cavernous office in the lavish interior of the Victorian-era Town Hall, you expect the pugnacious former English teacher to bowl up wearing the mayoral robes, such are the trappings he’s become expert at exploiting.
True to form, the man most people regard as Ron Walker’s successor as “Mr Melbourne” leaps from his desk, piled high with books by AA Gill and Tony Blair, and immediately apologises for a shocking case of the sniffles.
Zinging through anecdote after anecdote with only slightly less chutzpah than his regular slots on Neil Mitchell’s 3AW morning radio program, Doyle does a mean impression of someone who takes his official duties very seriously indeed. You sense he’s crafting his off-the-cuff answers with a view to how it might be reported, covering off every possible ‘gotcha’ angle with ease.
“You can be seen as a champion of the city … as one of the powerful voices in that Melbourne conversation,” Doyle explains. “But it’s not like you can say in a grandiose way ‘it’s my city’ like a Boris Johnson or a Mike Bloomberg could.”
Thus usual critics like pollster Gary Morgan mightn’t agree (he’s “incompetent”, “inept”, “full of hot air”) but perhaps that’s where Doyle’s influence lies, as a front-man the city never had, a self-described “passionate” defender of the metropolis, with a generous ego only adding to the aura of autarky. His regular gig on Mitchell’s show and a column in the Herald Sun help.
“I don’t kid myself about being lord mayor, this is not a position of executive power. You have some power over the budget we have and the capital works and the services, but the decisions are collective,” he admits.
Even good pal Mitchell, who basically ran the media arm of Doyle’s initial campaign for mayor in 2008 (even to the extent of savagely denigrating Doyle’s Labor rival Will Fowles), has disputed whether he has any real influence.
But others with real power are taking notice. When asked about his top Melbourne power picks, media buyer Harold Mitchell (who we’ve ranked above the mayor in our list) placed Doyle front and centre. And the council’s 3000 staff work on hundreds of projects including planning, parks, roads and childcare. Sixty well-paid executives make sure the council’s plans are implemented.
Labor Left Councillor Jennifer Kanis, who “definitely doesn’t agree with everything” Doyle says, reckons the mayor’s power is sourced almost exclusively through momentum and consensus building. On the nine-member council, Doyle must cultivate the support of two others outside his immediate orbit of Deputy Mayor Susan Riley and Cr Carl Jetter to command a majority.
And even then, voting records suggest the process can throw up unpredictable results, driven not by Doyle but often shaped and massaged by the internal debate itself. Even his enemies agree he’s great to work with.
“He’s definitely an operator, he talks to us regularly, he steers the ship as such in certain respects, he knows where we are on certain issues and he knows what he can and can’t say,” says sole Greens Councillor Cathy Oke.
Doyle lists a grab bag of 2011 achievements including rebuilding Swanston Street, balancing the budget and creating a Melbourne music festival. But it’s perhaps his most savvy act of shapeshifting that has built the city’s green reputation on the international stage, with its Green Cities program being picked up as a sustainable cities model around the world.
Oke notes the irony of someone from the scorched-earth wing of the Liberal Party emerging as a global green. But for Doyle the appeal is obvious: “You get to be friends with Mike Bloomberg and former [Toronto] Mayor Miller and you get to write opinion articles about how Melbourne should be, why wouldn’t you keep going?”
Traverse the leafy eastern suburbs of Melbourne, or whack a towel on the beach at Sorrento, and it’s clear that like any other big city, a rarefied cabal call the shots. But Doyle appears to struggle with the notion of power full stop, preferring to talk about networks and “conversations” that resemble the polite practices of a pre-modern village rather than the Foucauldian nightmare his Occupy Melbourne enemies decry.