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Bourke, John Mountfort (Jack) (1916–1987)

by Michael Di Francesco

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

John Mountfort (Jack) Bourke (1916-1987), public servant, was born on 12 May 1916 at Petersham, Sydney, son of Richard Joseph Bourke, a tram driver born in New South Wales, and his Melbourne-born wife Cecilia, née Mountfort. Educated at De La Salle College, Ashfield, John completed the Leaving certificate in 1934. He took up an appointment with the New South Wales Department of (Works and) Local Government in October 1935. In 1937 he became secretary of the relief works regulation committee. He was later acting-secretary of the local committee of the Department of Labour and Industry and Social Services tradesmen training scheme.

Called up for full-time duty in the Militia on 4 December 1941, Bourke transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force on 22 April 1942 and trained as a telegraphist. He served in signals and radar units in northern Queensland from 1942 to 1944, and was discharged on 24 September 1945 as a temporary corporal. He resumed his public service career, moving to the Housing Commission of New South Wales, of which he became secretary in 1950. He also returned to the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1949; Diploma of Town and Country Planning, 1951), where he had begun to study economics and public administration part time in 1936.

Bourke’s time at the helm of the Housing Commission coincided with the formative years of Australian housing policy. In the immediate postwar period policy was directed at meeting pent-up demand from both returned servicemen and low-income groups, although policy makers were divided between supporting renters and assisting struggling home buyers. At first Commonwealth-State housing agreements directed Federal funding to bolster State rental housing stock, but after 1956 also assisted home buyers, the aim being to curb what the Menzies coalition government saw as the rise of state landlordism. Between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s State governments of all political persuasions `sold off’ public housing stock in preference to supplying inexpensive rental properties.

From 1958 Bourke oversaw an expanding housing construction program. Remembering his own working-class origins, he was sympathetic to the plight of the `battlers’. He helped to steer the commission away from austere paternalism and towards a dignified variety in the location and design of dwellings. The program ranged from ambitious housing estates on the outer fringes of Sydney—such as Green Valley—to the first tentative steps towards urban consolidation via slum clearance in inner city areas. By the early 1970s New South Wales faced a severe shortage of public rental housing, fuelled by a combination of the legacy of the Commonwealth-State housing agreements and spiralling land and building construction costs. Long convinced that rental assistance was more effective (and equitable) than home buyer support, in the years after his elevation to chairman in September 1970 Bourke expressed his views freely to the press in an attempt to angle housing policy in this direction, often to the annoyance of the Askin government, which gagged him in 1972 after he had spoken publicly about the housing plight of low-income earners.

By 1973, however, the Housing Commission was increasingly under attack for its overly `bureaucratic’ approach to managing public housing programs. The advent of both `resident action groups’ and trade union `green bans’, particularly those opposed to high-rise development in Woolloomooloo and Redfern-Waterloo, drew press attention to the commission. For Bourke such activism was an unfortunate by-product of `gentrification’ in inner-city areas, and while he resented the adverse impact on the commission’s clients, he did ensure that community consultation occurred. By the time he retired in May 1981, he was seen as both a thorn in the side of organised residential protest and a staunch defender of the value of public housing.

Urban design issues and the quality of public housing administration loomed large in Bourke’s life. He was a councillor of the Australian Institute of Urban Studies and a member of the Civic Design Society of New South Wales, and was elected to fellowships of the Royal Australian Planning Institute and the Australian Society of Senior Executives. At his own expense he travelled to many countries to investigate housing problems. In 1979 he was appointed ISO. Almost six feet (183 cm) tall and bald in middle age, he was described by a journalist as an `emotional, generous man, capable of formidable toughness’. Affectionately known as `Jack’, he never married. He died of coronary artery disease sometime between 9 and 11 May 1987 in his home at Petersham, and was buried in the Catholic section of Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Annual Report of the Housing Commission of New South Wales, 1960-81
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Sept 1955, p 2, 11 July 1972, p 1, 12 July 1972, p 1, 26 July 1972, p 1, 27 July 1972, p 3, 19 Feb 1973, p 3, 12 July 1973, p 7, 2 Nov 1973, p 6
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 20 Sept 1970, p 106
  • Sun (Sydney), 31 Mar 1976, p 7.

Citation details

Michael Di Francesco, 'Bourke, John Mountfort (Jack) (1916–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bourke-john-mountfort-jack-12236/text21949, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 19 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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