Latte man and Councilor: Philip Le Liu giving voice to the community

City of Melbourne Councilor, Philip Le Liu’s primary goal is to reframe the international student debate. Speaking of “two-way investments” and a “knowledge factor economy,” the business geared politician takes his role seriously as voice to the city’s largest underrepresented community: international students.

There’s often this myth that a person’s coffee order speaks volumes of who they are; long black – solid, firm, assertive; soy chai – artsy, easy going and soft. Is this really a legitimate way of reading people? Or is it something a double-degree hipster invented in-between peak hours?

Sitting across the young councillor in a tucked away coffee shop, I can’t help but think about these characteristics. Reliable, steady, well-liked and no nonsense – Philip is a latte man.

Representing Melbourne’s international student community is no easy feat. But however difficult, the passion Phillip had was evident. As he spoke about his role and the changes he hopes to instigate during his term; extended free tram zones, stretching the 20 hour working limit, and portraying international students in mainstream media, his enthusiasm was made abundantly clear.

“The things I can do in four years, most people couldn’t in a lifetime,” he affirms.

Since joining the City of Melbourne in 2016 as chair of the International Engagement portfolio, Philip’s role in building relationships with communities has intimately intertwined him with the city’s expansive international student population.

Philip views international students as a “big investment,” and continues to list a string of facts and figures to support his statement.  I found his businesslike manner unusual, but soon understood it as one of the councilor’s quirks.

After sharing his early experiences moving from Shanghai to Melbourne’s inner city suburb, Balaclava, it becomes clear that China’s largest financial hub has left a significant cultural imprint on him. Beyond using his Chinese roots to propel him in the business world and help build connections, he spoke of missing home cooked food. It seems that nightly dinner functions, no matter how flashy they may be, don’t match up.This is an experience echoed by the millions of us here who miss the taste of home as well.

Lunging back into business-talk, Philip revealed, “the agenda now is about how we can accommodate the growing population in Melbourne, whilst remaining the most livable city.”

“I want to give them that return on investment, by ensuring a safe environment, integration programs…providing opportunities and widening experiences,” he explained.

Activating the entrepreneurial part of his mind, Philip described Melbourne as a “knowledge city”. He also refererred to the city’s financial foundations as a “knowledge factor economy”. In this environment, information, ideas and solutions are exchanged in a two-way flow between an international student and their host city.

This knowledge Philip said, should be valued as mutually beneficial.

“We want them to keep contributing to the economy…we want them to get the most out of our leading universities,” in addition to enjoying all the many things Melbourne has to offer he continued.

Many international student alumnis have now found their place amongst Melbourne’s thriving multicultural community and he expressed the importance of that through the work done at City of Melbourne’s ‘Melbourne Knowledge Week’. This annual event celebrates the next wave of movers and shakers, and according to Phillip many of them are previous international students.

I think this is one of Philip’s most lasting attributes – he is proactive, he listens to what the international community needs, he creates spaces for these needs to be met, and most importantly, he is present. As cliché as it is, he is a peoples’ councilor.

Working with community is not a one way street and Philip was quick to remind me that he needs the international community to work with and support him as well.

Delving into more personal questions – small glimpses into Philip’s fears, passions and pursuits continue to surface.

“We are an agent of change,” he declared. The councilor is not only fighting for but also wants to fight alongside those that belong to the international student community.

To do this, he is throwing himself into his career and has accepted the sacrifice of being publicly scrutinised in return for all the good he believes all of us can achieve together.

“My biggest fear is that no one will take up the batton and continue my work.”

So as this latte man looks me in the eye, pours my glass of water before his, speaks seriously at first and then candidly as he warms – I trust that us city dwellers are in safe hands.

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