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Reginald Gabriel (Reg) Tanna (1933–2000)

by Darryl Bennet

This article was published online in 2023

Reginald Gabriel Tanna (1933–2000), civil engineer, government corporation general manager, and community leader, was born on 28 December 1933 at Toowoomba, Queensland, sixth of eight children and third son of Lebanese-born parents Melak Jobair Tanna, hawker, and his wife Mary, née Melhem. The Tannas, who had migrated to Australia in 1926, became well-known wholesale and retail fruiterers at Warwick, where Reg attended St Mary’s Primary School and Christian Brothers’ College. A scholarship enabled him to board at St Joseph’s College, Nudgee, Brisbane, for the last two years of his schooling (dux 1951). Keen on sport, he played tennis and cricket, and—despite being short and lightly built—rugby. He was awarded a Commonwealth scholarship to the University of Queensland (BE, 1956), graduating with honours in civil engineering.

On 9 February 1956 Tanna was appointed as an engineer in the Queensland Department of Harbours and Marine. In 1958 the department sent him north to supervise the contractor building a wharf at Mourilyan Harbour, near Innisfail. There, he met Norma Alice Porter (1942–2023), a clerk-typist in the Queensland Public Service, with whom he shared a love of music. They were married on 27 August 1960 at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Innisfail. Reg’s parents had opposed his marrying outside the Lebanese community but they warmly accepted Norma when they saw the couple’s first baby.

In 1962 Tanna was transferred back to Brisbane. Four years later the Gladstone Harbour Board (Port Authority, from 1987) appointed him as engineer-manager (general manager, from 1984). His thirty-four-year tenure would span a period of massive development of the port, stemming predominantly from the growth of coal mining in the nearby Bowen Basin: in the financial year 1966–67 the port handled 2.5 million tons of cargo, of which 1.7 million tons were coal exports; in 1999–2000 the respective tonnages would be 46.2 million and 29.5 million. Fostering a culture of service to port users, Tanna persuaded Australian and overseas shippers to operate through Gladstone. He oversaw the construction of wharves and the dredging of channels to accommodate bigger ships, the upgrading of bulk-handling equipment, and the reclamation of land—it was cheaper, he argued, to bring the shore to deep water than deep water to the shore. By 1994—the year the port’s main terminal, the Clinton Coal Facility, was renamed the R. G. Tanna Coal Terminal in his honour—the port had the third largest coal-handling capacity in the world. Other important cargoes were imports of bauxite and caustic soda for Gladstone’s alumina refinery and exports of the finished product.

Tanna regarded the continuing enlargement and enhancement of the port as essential for the economic development of the Gladstone region, Queensland, and Australia. He travelled extensively to build networks and acquaint himself with methods and systems used overseas. Prominent in the affairs of the Association of Australian Port and Marine Authorities, between 1995 and 2000 he was an alternate director, representing Australia, of the International Association of Ports and Harbours. When, in 1993, a Bureau of Industry Economics report had claimed that Australian coal ports were much costlier than international competitors, he obtained comparative financial information from the huge, privately owned coal terminal at the Port of Richards Bay in South Africa; the data proved that the Port of Gladstone was more than competitive. An earlier bureau report had recognised the efficiency of the Clinton facility, the port’s official history noting that ‘world class performance can be achieved by public as well as private organisations’ (Gladstone Ports Corporation Limited 2014, 24). In 1991 Tanna was awarded the Public Service Medal for his leadership.

Believing that the development of the port depended on the good will of ‘a supportive community’ (Gladstone Port Authority 1999–2000, 19), Tanna induced its major corporate users to fund civic amenities, such as extensive parkland and a marina for Gladstone. In addition, he ensured that the authority provided financial and in-kind help for cultural, educational, health, welfare, and environmental initiatives, as well as for sport and major events. His community leadership included the chairmanship of the Gladstone Sports and Parks Development Committee (1973–86) and the Central Queensland Institute of Technical and Further Education. The Gladstone Lions Club and the Flying Angel-Stella Maris Club for seamen were among numerous charitable bodies he and his wife supported. As in his dealings with all people, he sought harmony with environmentalists opposing port expansion projects, his own view being that industrial development and environmental protection were both essential. He was Gladstone’s Australia Day Citizen of the Year in 1998.

Dedicated, diligent, and down to earth, with a ‘no-frills, no-fuss’ (Jordan 2022) approach, Tanna complemented the professionalism of his public roles with a private life of happy domesticity, church-going, sport, singing, and sociability. His hobby was studying the form of racehorses and placing small bets that persistently yielded smaller returns.

In 1999 Tanna began planning his succession, intending to retire in August 2000. Professionally detached from party politics and privately uninterested in them, he was deeply distressed when his nomination of Leo Zussino as his replacement provoked political controversy because of the latter’s membership of the Australian Labor Party. Tanna’s retirement was never to occur. He died of heart disease on 12 June 2000 at Gladstone and was buried in Port Curtis lawn cemetery. Tents and closed-circuit television were provided outside Our Lady Star of the Sea Church for the estimated one thousand mourners at his funeral. Tributes and obituaries emphasised the humility and humanity of ‘the most respected person in Gladstone’ (Observer 2000, 1). His wife; their daughter, Catherine, a prominent international business leader; and their two sons, Michael, an architect, and Anthony, an engineer, survived him. Norma established a new career as a school music teacher.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Civil 55: Life Stories of the Final Year Undergraduates, Civil Engineering, University of Queensland, 1955. Brisbane: P. Breene, 2007, 217–24
  • Gladstone Port Authority. Annual Report. Gladstone, Qld: The Authority, 1999–2000
  • Gladstone Ports Corporation Limited. Port of Gladstone Book Three: 1955 to 1974. Gladstone, Qld: Gladstone Ports Corporation, 2013
  • Gladstone Ports Corporation Limited. Port of Gladstone Book Four: 1975 to 1994. Gladstone, Qld: Gladstone Ports Corporation, 2014
  • Jordan, Bryan. Interview by Darryl Bennet, 8 December 2022
  • Observer (Gladstone). ‘Farewell. A Tribute to the Man who Shaped Our Future.’ 14 June 2000, 1–4
  • Tanna, Norma, and Jane Gilmour. Norma Tanna: Family, Friendship, Music and Community. Gladstone, Qld, 2018
  • Tanna, Norma. Personal communication
  • Zussino, Leo. Interview by Darryl Bennet, 7 December 2022

Citation details

Darryl Bennet, 'Tanna, Reginald Gabriel (Reg) (1933–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tanna-reginald-gabriel-reg-33411/text41763, published online 2023, accessed online 17 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

28 December, 1933
Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia

Death

12 June, 2000 (aged 66)
Gladstone, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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