TATE, John Percival (1894–1977)
Senator for New South Wales, 1950–53 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Before entering the Senate in 1950, John Percival Tate had an extensive career as an architect, businessman, consulting engineer, housing adviser and town planner. He also had an impressive record of service in Sydney local government. He was born John Henry Tate on 21 March 1894 at Wellington, New Zealand, son of Robert Gillies Tate, cook, and Frances Lillian, née Gormley, both born in England. By the time of his first marriage he had changed his middle name to ‘Percival’. Tate received high school education, after which he served articles with both architects and engineers. Migrating to Australia, probably in 1920, he married, on 31 December 1920, Gladys Woodland Farquaharson, at the Scots Church, Church Hill, Sydney, according to Presbyterian rites.

By 1922 he designed what was reputed to be the first skyscraper in Australia—the fourteen-storey Manchester Unity Memorial Building in Sydney. He built up a diverse private practice designing aeroplane hangars, theatres and various types of factories. In 1939 he was engaged with European engineers in developing plans for the construction of low-cost worker housing in Australia and New Zealand. During World War II he was superintendent of progress and supply and construction manager for the Allied Works Council. He later advised the Chifley Government on housing. Tate was a Fellow of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and of the Royal Australian Planning Institute (Life Fellow, 1974) and was a director of several public and private companies including A. E. Goodwin, engineers and shipbuilders.[1]

Tate launched his political career in December 1944 when he was elected to Ryde Municipal Council, serving until December 1948. He was chairman of the council’s housing committee when it won the Bluett Award for housing development (1946). He also served as an alderman on the Sydney City Council (1947–56), and was leader of its Civic Reform Group during a turbulent period in the council’s history when, under ALP control, there were frequent rumours of corruption. In 1953 he called upon the ALP State Government to appoint a royal commission and appealed for those with allegations to make to come forward and substantiate their claims. He was also a member of the executive of the Local Government Association of New South Wales.[2]

Tate attained considerable prominence as foundation chairman (1945–51) of the Cumberland County Council, a town planning authority established to prepare a master plan for the Greater Sydney area. It was the first attempt to plan, by regulation, the growth of an Australian city and the council had planning jurisdiction over sixty-nine municipal and shire authorities including the Sydney City Council. The Cumberland Plan, described as ‘the most important social document in Australian history’, was presented to the New South Wales Government in 1948. It earned international acclaim and was used as a model for the rebuilding of Hiroshima, Japan. Denied funding—Tate felt betrayed and resigned—the plan languished until the Cumberland County Council was abolished and its functions transferred to the New South Wales State Planning Authority in 1964.[3]

Meanwhile, in May 1949, Tate received Liberal Party endorsement for the coming federal election. Seventh of seven elected to the newly expanded Senate for New South Wales in December, he was re-elected at the double dissolution election of April 1951.[4] His first speech, during the Address-in-Reply on 8 March 1950, ranged over issues of personal and professional interest—‘development, decentralization, immigration, and housing’. Concerned about the concentration of population in capital cities, he welcomed the Government’s approach to decentralisation and immigration. While he saw population growth as essential to Australia’s economic development and international standing, he endorsed the Government’s policy of retaining the ‘balance of British stock’ and personally favoured increasing the percentage of American immigrants to strengthen ties with the United States for defence reasons. He also believed it was vital to reverse the drift to the cities and supported the direction of ‘new Australians’ to regional areas in want of development. Tate advocated granting the Northern Territory a form of autonomy and stressed the need to develop the island territories, especially New Guinea, asserting that Australia should ‘use them or lose them’. Although supporting the Government’s intent to import prefabricated housing (writing an article on this in the Sydney Daily Telegraph) he pleaded for a new approach to housing construction. He wished to focus more on structures that were designed to last an individual’s lifetime rather than erecting traditional homes intended to last for three generations.[5]

Tate also expressed his ideas on the composition, election and role of the Senate, making it clear these were not necessarily those of his party. In May 1951 he published again in the Daily Telegraph, this time criticising proportional representation (adopted for the election of senators in 1949) and querying the role of the Senate. He claimed that proportional representation produced either an evenly divided Senate or gave a single party a small and unworkable majority. He proposed the establishment of a constitutional convention to consider the establishment of an electoral college; a role for state governments in the Senate; a minimum age for senators; and the division of states into smaller electoral zones in order to give rural districts larger representation.

Tate rejected the view that the Senate was a minor chamber of ‘tired old men’, asserting that it contained members of considerable ability, but argued that it needed more opportunities. Pre-empting later reform, he recognised the value of establishing specialist Senate committees. He suggested converting the Senate into a council of states with powers to initiate and delay bills. Highly critical of the partisan nature of Senate deliberations, which he believed detracted from the chamber’s original role as a States House and a house of review, he favoured the Senate focusing on issues of national importance rather than replicating debates in the House of Representatives. Earlier he had argued for a broader discussion of national affairs and regretted that the Senate was not as significant a chamber as was intended by the founders of the Constitution.[6]

Tate supported the Government’s approach to social services, particularly changes to child endowment, arguing, as did others, that ‘the best migrants are Australian children’, and that child welfare was ‘a national as well as a parental responsibility’. He urged the Government to curb what he perceived as the rising costs of government and administration. In particular he criticised the Postmaster-General’s Department for using day labour and the cost-plus system in contracts, stating: ‘Only a state of emergency could justify such a system’.[7]

A champion of private enterprise, in November 1951 Tate recommended ending the housing agreement between the Commonwealth and the states: ‘The Government should remove all shackles from private builders’. Likewise, he castigated Labor for lumbering the Commonwealth with an ongoing financial commitment to the aluminium industry. Tate supported the Commonwealth Bank Bill of 1953, claiming that it was necessary ‘to prevent the possibility of socialization of banking should Labour, unfortunately for the country, be returned to office’. Contributing to the second reading debate of the Communist Party Dissolution Bill, he stressed the urgency of the measure ‘to deal with traitors’ and warned against the danger of allowing ‘alien forces’ to control the distribution of essential foodstuffs.[8]

He must have engaged the respect of his parliamentary colleagues for from 1950 to 1953 he chaired the Senate Regulations and Ordinances Committee and served also as a temporary chairman of committees. Prior to the May 1953 half-Senate election, he nominated for the Liberal Senate team, and in a political climate that was causing anxiety to the Liberal Government, he lost preselection to Kenneth Anderson. Anderson, recently defeated in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, was a former serviceman, and more of a party politician than the intellectually inclined Tate. Tate appealed and, in what was described as a first-class Senate election row, lost. Some Liberals were reported as saying Tate had ‘failed to impress’ in the Senate, but this in itself could have been part of the ‘backstage party squabbles’ suggested by journalist Alan Reid. Describing Tate as ‘a decent, quiet, reasonably capable fellow . . . who has performed modestly well’, Reid attributed Tate’s demise to machinations within the New South Wales Liberal Party.[9]

Upon leaving the Senate, Tate returned to private practice as a senior member of the firm, John P. Tate and Associates, architects, consulting engineers and town planners, and to his leadership of the Civic Reform Group, as well as remaining chairman of A. E. Goodwin. Following the death of his first wife he moved to Canberra where, on 7 June 1976, he married in a civil ceremony, Berenice Ida Cheetham, of Sydney, the couple living in the Canberra suburb of Farrer. The following year, on 21 January, Tate died at Canberra Hospital and was cremated at Norwood Park according to Presbyterian rites. His second wife survived him, as did the four children of his first marriage—Peter, Dennis, Rex and John.

Recognised as a pioneer of Australian town planning, Tate was an articulate man with a dynamic personality. He was skilful and astute, a good writer and speaker, a practitioner of democracy, but not really one to relish the rough and tumble of party politics.[10]

Clive Beauchamp 

[1] Decoration and Glass (Syd.), May 1939, pp. 56-7; CT, 25 Jan. 1977, p. 7; Records of the Royal Australian Planning Institute, MS 5750, NLA.

[2] SMH, 4 Dec. 1944, p. 6, 5 Dec. 1944, p. 8, 10 Dec. 1948, p. 14; Renato Perdon (comp.), Sydney’s Aldermen: A Biographical Register of Sydney City Aldermen 1842–1992, Sydney City Council, Sydney, 1997, p. 99; SMH, 20 Dec. 1947, p. 3, 23 Dec. 1947, p. 4, 24 Dec. 1947, p. 1; F. A. Larcombe, The Advancement of Local Government in New South Wales 1906 to the Present, SUP, Sydney, 1978, p. 124; SMH, 12 Jan. 1953, p. 3, 29 Aug. 1953, p. 1, 23 Nov. 1953, p. 1, 24 Nov. 1953, p. 1, 10 Nov. 1953, p. 1, 11 Dec. 1953, p. 1.

[3] J. P. Tate, ‘Cumberland County Council: History, Structure and Methods’, Public Administration, Mar. 1947, pp. 240–5; John P. Tate, ‘The Cumberland County Plan—The Early Years 1945–1951 in Retrospect’, Australian Planning Institute Journal, July 1964, pp. 6–8; SMH, 21 Sept. 1945, p. 3, 3 Jan. 1946, p. 4, 28 July 1948, pp. 2, 3, 27 July 1950, p. 2; DT (Syd.), 4 Sept. 1950, p. 4; SMH, 3 Jan. 1951, p. 1, 4 Jan. 1951, p. 4, 6 Jan. 1951, p. 5, 15 Jan. 1951, p. 4, 16 Jan. 1951, p. 3.

[4] SMH, 3 May 1949, p. 3, 17 May 1949, p. 1, 11 Jan. 1950, p. 5, 20 Mar. 1951, p. 1; Sunday Herald (Syd.), 1 Apr. 1951, p. 3; SMH, 7 Apr. 1951, p. 1, 1 June 1951, p. 2; Harry Evans (ed.), Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 10th edn, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2001, p. 17.

[5] CPD, 8 Mar. 1950, p. 439; DT (Syd.), 22 Aug. 1950, p. 8.

[6] DT (Syd.), 1 May 1951, p. 8; CPD, 21 June 1951, pp. 215–17, 8 Mar. 1950, p. 445.

[7] CPD, 20 Apr. 1950, pp. 1669–72, 22 June 1950, pp. 4719–21, 21 June 1951, p. 215.

[8] CPD, 8 Nov. 1951, p. 1750, 22 May 1952, p. 697, 18 Mar. 1953, pp. 1218-20, 1 June 1950, pp. 3522–3.

[9] SMH, 14 Mar. 1953, p. 3; Sunday Herald (Syd.), 22 Mar. 1953, p. 1; DT (Syd.), 1 Apr. 1953, p. 1; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 22 Mar. 1953, p. 10; Sunday Sun and Guardian (Syd.), 12 Apr. 1953, p. 40; Katharine West, Power in the Liberal Party: A Study in Australian Politics, F. W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1965, pp. 135, 145.

[10] R. D. L. Fraser, ‘John Percival Tate: 1895–1977’, Royal Australian Planning Institute Journal, May 1977, p. 49; CT, 25 Jan. 1977, p. 7.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 461-464.

TATE, John Percival (1894-1977)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1950–53

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1950–53