John Mant remembered

Jul 20, 2021

John Mant, who died on 10 July 2021 aged 84, leaves a legacy which is still in the making, especially in the field of urban planning. 

With a passion for public policy and social justice, John claimed many distinctions as lawyer, planner, public servant, and politician. He was Gough Whitlam’s Principal Private Secretary on dismissal day, 11 November 1975.

The built environment became his passion and he brought the perspective of a lawyer and an insightful political operative with an appreciation of institutional process in good decision-making, along with the imperatives of integrity and transparency.

His vision for the places where we live, work and relax, and how we move between them, was informed by the need to put common sense, consultation and competence above the frequently prevailing forces of short-termism, sloth and surreptitiousness.

John worked as a senior bureaucrat and ministerial adviser for the Commonwealth and several State governments, a consultant reviewing and recommending administrative change, drafting legislation and planning codes for capital city, regional and suburban authorities, a wily solicitor for numerous private and public clients, often pro bono, and a tireless advocate for organisational reform to better promote more sustainable, liveable, equitable and productive communities.

He produced numerous seminar papers, journal articles, and an influential book, Living and Partly Living (1971), co-written with Robin Boyd, Hugh Stretton and Ian McKay.

His arts and law degree (1963) and town and country planning diploma (1968-1972) from Sydney University, allied to a partnership in the Sydney legal firm founded by his father (Davenport & Mant, later Phillips Fox), along with firsthand experience inside major planning organisations, uniquely equipped him to appreciate the critical link between good governance and quality results.

‘Form follows organisation’ was his mantra which solidified into a pioneering endorsement of integrated and holistic place management by multi-skilled entities, rather than the departmental ‘silo’ based approach inherited from the colonial era.

The comprehensive reform of planning systems went hand-in-hand, employing a formula that remained remarkably consistent through the years: simplicity, division of strategic (goal-setting) and statutory (implementation) functions, independent planning panels, openness, ethicality, permitting legitimate challenges by third parties to counter corruption, and harnessing the efficiency of digitisation.

John’s decades of exhortations, submissions, recommendations, counselling and decisions within the corridors of power saw him influence numerous initiatives and reforms in virtually every Australian state and territory. He was awarded an AM in 2016 for ‘significant service to urban planning and public administration as an advisor and consultant to local and state governments’.

John Hayward Mant was born in Sydney in 1936 – a good year, he’d quip: ‘Too young for the Korean War, too old for Vietnam.’ After attending Cranbrook School and Sydney University (consorting with the Sydney Push) he followed his father into the legal profession but was grafted to the idealism of his mother’s Christian socialism.

While John Mant Sr was a founding member of the Liberal Party, Mant Jr took a more left-of-centre course. He ran for federal parliament in 1966, one of 22 candidates for Gordon Barton’s Liberal Reform Group (he was the last survivor), the forerunner to the Australia Party (later integrated with the Australian Democrats) whose preferences helped Labor win in 1972 and 1974.

Re-aligning with Labor he headed to Canberra to work for the National Capital Development Commission, a sobering immersion in traditional bureaucracy that shaped much of his later planning work. He was seconded as an adviser to Whitlam’s Minister for Urban and Regional Development, Tom Uren, and he held a senior position in the reformist Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD).

His political and administrative nous were recognised with his 1975 appointment to the Prime Minister’s staff where he served for the tumultuous last five months prior to the Whitlam Government’s dismissal by the Governor-General. Regarding himself as more spectator than player, John broke the news to ALP Secretary David Combe on 11 November 1975 with his ‘usual mischievous grin’: ‘We’ve been sacked’.

Thereafter John had a successful trajectory in planning administration and local government law, commencing as Director-General of South Australia’s Department of Housing, Urban and Regional Affairs (1977-80) and pursuing a DURD-like reorganisation for Premier Don Dunstan.

Returning to his Sydney legal practice, a steady procession of client and consultancy briefs ranged across planning, organisational and regulation reviews, land management, health and transport policy.

Most notably, he completed a game-changing review of the NSW Department of Housing (1992), acted as interim commissioner of the NSW Independent Commission against Corruption (1994), chaired Paul Keating’s Urban Design Task Force (1994), pioneered place-based zoning in a new Local Environmental Plan for Warringah Shire (2000), comprehensively rewrote the NSW Local Government Act (2003) with Julie Walton, and, in so-called retirement, served as a Sydney City Councillor on Clover Moore’s team (2012-16).

In a life dedicated to fashioning public processes and policy toward quality and socially inclusive outcomes, he found time to lend expertise, skills and leadership to other causes, including two terms as President of the Paddington Society (2003-08, 2011-13) and deputy chair of Common Equity, the peak body for cooperative housing organisations in NSW.

John had told the Herald back in 2008 that whenever he complained about things, his father would say: ‘Well, what are you doing about it?’  Right up until his death he worked with Michael Neustein of the Australian Institute of Urban Studies on a new state planning system embodying all the far-reaching reforms he had long advocated. Their Better Places Act envisages a place management approach to planning, involving greater community participation, appeal rights, and digital dexterity.

As recently as June he was still ‘doing something about it’, meeting with NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes to discuss how to advance the Better Places mission. Encouragement has come from many quarters and the proposal is gaining traction. John did not live to see the increasing acceptance of his ideas but the momentum he helped create for a better planning system will not falter for his passing.

Mates like Richard Broinowski shared John’s love of sailing as both a burden and great fun. Whether on the Adriatic, Sydney Harbour or in the Whitsundays,  ‘like Captain Queeg rolling his marbles, John was always at the helm, master and commander. We did his bidding. No rope uncoiled. No anchor left to drag.’ There were early morning swims at Bondi, where birthdays were celebrated at 6.30am with champagne around the boot of the car, and in earlier years, parties at his fashion-statement, Petit and Sevitt house in Canberra, his cynical sense of humour an antidote to the greyness outside.

John never allowed ill-health to define him. For someone who had confronted severe adolescent illness and been given a life-time expectancy of 40, he faced later afflictions including polymyositis and cancer with equanimity, uncomplaining about the cards he’d been dealt. He remained a bright and witty companion, conversations spiced with his withering takes on Sydney politics, or his love of classical music and opera. Many came to share John’s belief that he was indestructible.

 John Mant is remembered by his family including children Julia and Jim, step-daughter Roberta, grand-daughters Vivienne and Minka, and a legion of friends and admirers as a rare and impassioned individual who can legitimately claim to have ‘made a difference’.

His funeral service (limited attendance because of Covid), was held on Monday 19 July. You can see it here:

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