In Conversation with Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate

Man in Suit

Deepa Calais, publisher of the Australian Over 50s Living & Lifestyle Guide, met up with Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate, partly to understand Tom’s philosophy behind the initiatives he has taken in the Gold Coast, especially those that impact the over 50s; but more so to discover what motivates him and gives him the drive and optimism that he has become well known for.

Tom Tate took office as Mayor of Gold Coast in 2012. It was a tough year, with the local economy in the doldrums and not too much light at the end of the tunnel. Community expectations were high that the new Mayor would bring a fresh feel to the Council, fresh ideas and above all, that he would get the Gold Coast going again. Tom did not hang around or wait to get his feet comfortably under the table. He certainly was not concerned about rocking the boat.

Tom is a sleeves-rolled-up guy, who got straight down to delivering to the community and demonstrating that the Gold Coast was in for a period of progress. He put a halt to the building of a brand-new Council complex in Robina that could have put a large dent in the City’s coffers and quickly turned his eye to the major drivers of the Gold Coast economy. He gave a clear message for better performance.

In July of 2012, less than three months after Tom came to office, the Australian Leisure Management reported on their website that, “Mayor Tate wants a monthly assessment of Gold Coast Tourism’s performance to ensure Council-approved targets and key performance indicators (KPIs) are being met… the newly appointed Mayor has suggested that if the tourism body fails to achieve its Council-approved benchmarks, funding may be diverted for other economic development activities.”

Now in his third year in office, Tom has managed to maintain that same focus on constant improvement. What motivates this kind of drive and focus in Tom? Deepa, started the conversation at the beginning, asking why Tom Tate the successful businessman had changed his life so drastically and entered the world of politics?

Tom explains, “I didn’t stand for Mayor because I wanted the glamour or the cudos and trappings of the position, but because I saw it as an opportunity to make a real difference.”

“It was a very personal lifechanging decision for me and my family. Financially, life had been kind to my family leaving us in a comfortable position. I had the opportunity to devote a significant part of my life to giving something back. You get to the stage in life when you know it’s almost a duty to give more meaning to life that goes beyond your personal interests. So that’s why I ran for Mayor. I believed it was time to give back to the community.”

“It was a decision I was happy with in my heart. Some of my friends actually advised me against it,  they didn’t think I had the right profile, and maybe my language and choice of words was not what people expect from a refined politician and that I would have to change in order to fit a mould. I figured, if you win because of a carefully staged show then it’s not you who is getting elected but the show. So if I was going to run for Mayor, it would be as myself, not a practiced and managed political figure. Ultimately, in my personal life I rely on the judgement of my wife Ruth. We met in university and have been together ever since. In that period of time you get to trust each other’s judgment because they understand you so well. She encouraged me to follow my heart and that’s what I did.”

The residents of Gold Coast decided they could relate to a mayor who spoke from the heart and elected Tom Tate for a 4-year term in 2012. Was the world of politics a very different world from the world of business?

“Absolutely” says Tom, “It’s different at many levels, but the most important lesson for me was that in business, after a level of analysis, you make a decision and you do it. If you make it, that’s great and if you fail, only you will suffer. The situation is totally different as Mayor. Your decisions can affect many people in different ways and really you must take account of all the diverse impacts. In business, the decisions are more clear-cut and once you are done you are done. In the public sector, decisions affect more people and can affect future generations, they have long-term effects on people’s lives and so it is more a case of convincing people to join you in a journey and make progress together, as a community.”

“Take the new cultural precinct for instance. Now this is a long-term project. It will take many years for all aspects to come together. It is a real community project and the community has to be behind it for the long haul,  otherwise it will not be fully realised.”

What Tom talks about in terms of community involvement, however, is not a one-way street and he is anxious that he, the Council members, and the Council administration are all open and accessible and take every  opportunity to engage with residents. Whilst Tom has put in a number of communication initiatives, Deepa asked him about the novel idea of the Mobile Mayoral Office. It’s a simple but effective concept. The mayor sets up a small open-air stall in a common place in a local suburb and people can come and talk with him about anything under the sun.

“I like the Mobile Mayoral offices,” explains Tom, “I learn a lot from them about what people in the Gold Coast want and really think. There are no middle persons, we talk straight and that’s the best way. People tell me about the practical problems in each suburb and I meet some remarkable people, people who care about the Gold Coast that’s why they take the time to come and discuss things with me.”

“These mobile offices have also given me opportunities many times to explain things which somebody may have misunderstood. We chat, so that people get the full picture and the reasons why the council is doing something. I’ve had people come to me and say they have a ‘bone to pick with me’,  sometimes using stronger words than that, but once we talk it through, they may get a different perspective and we can agree that what we are doing is a good way forward. I really value the time that people spend to come out and talk with me.”

“It is this interaction with people in the Gold Coast that gives me the inspiration for many of the things I know I need to do.” “For instance, for the age group of your readers, the over 50s, I can relate to them because I’m 56 myself, but when I talk to people I get the validation that I am on the right track.”

“For instance, in our fifties, we start to rethink where we live, it can be a question of empty nest, it can be health related and a dozen other things, but it’s a decision we consider – where to live as we grow older?”

We are really lucky in the Gold Coast in terms of having the whole range of retirement and aged care living options. And they are good. I visit a lot of retirement communities and aged care facilities, and I ask some of the residents how they like where they are living. I’m impressed that whenever I ask, I’m told that, ‘It feels like it’s home’. That’s pretty good.”

“Transport is a big issue for the older age groups. They want to be out and about, enjoying the city, meeting friends and relatives, doing work in the community. Doing all the things that make life so great in the Gold Coast. But you can’t do that if you are always reliant on somebody to take you out or bring you back home. In the long-term we are going to extend the tram system and that will have so much impact on the ability for residents to get around easily.”

“The free travel for seniors on the bus system is part of this vision I have to make transport easier. It was a pragmatic initiative I guess. I saw the empty seats at certain times of the day on our buses. My thinking was why not use those empty seats for people who want to get around but are finding it difficult and sometimes impossible to do so? I think we now have something like 21,000 seniors who have registered to use the free facility. That’s 21,000 people who can now get around easier and for free. This contributes to their lifestyle and also helps them be a more vibrant part of the community. It allows people to be more active both socially and physically. I am sure that mental and social stimulation must have a good effect on our general health and well-being. The travel programme for seniors started off as an experiment, but the take-up has been excellent and I would like to see the scheme continue.”

Asked about the controversial proposed Cruise Terminal, Tom says, “I think that if something can bring 15,000 jobs to the Gold Coast, that is something we have to look at seriously. Of course, if it is going to have unacceptable environmental impacts, then we don’t do it. All I suggest is we wait and see what the environmental study says. It just makes sense, to wait for the study because it is such an important issue.”

“Business growth, job creation and strong families are all linked together. I try to give this message every chance I get. I have grown up children, who for now live and work in the Gold Coast. My older son got married last November, my second son is a paramedic here in the Gold Coast and I hope my daughter, after her studies, will live here too. That closeness is very important to me and I think all families can relate to that. We all want our kids and grandkids to be near us. We don’t want them to go away, but you know what, if they can’t find jobs or business opportunities here, then they have no choice and they will have to go away to the bigger cities to find the jobs. That’s what I want to avoid. By having a strong Gold Coast economy, we can offer job opportunities right here, nobody has to go away and the Gold Coast will be a thriving, growing  community that can look after the dreams and aspirations of every generation.”

Getting more jobs into Gold Coast is clearly a significant part of Tom’s efforts to date. Not only did the Commonwealth Games and if it goes ahead, the Cruise terminal bring new prosperity, but the city now also has a clear strategy for diversifying and not being so reliant on tourism and construction as the only mainstays of the local economy.

The cruise terminal is not the only controversy that Tom has had to face, but in spite of the difficulties, he seems remarkably cool, at least in the public eye, even at times when most people would have found it extremely difficult to bear the stress.

A particularly remarkable incident that gives real insight into Tom’s character happened that January. After a long illness, Tom’s father passed away in Sydney. Every feeling inside him, must have been pulling at Tom’s heart to drop everything and go to Sydney. But he didn’t. He didn’t even announce his sad loss to the public at large, instead in his words, “I did what I think dad would have wanted me to do. I took care of what had to be done here in the Gold Coast and then I went to Sydney.” Tom stayed on in the Gold Coast. There were official functions because of the Australia Day weekend, but more than that, Tom stayed on to coordinate the city’s disaster management response to the storms that lashed the Gold Coast. Where does Tom find this kind of inner strength and dedication?

“I’m not sure I would call it inner strength. But what makes me tick, is easy to answer – my family and particularly Ruth. When you are out there, working hard, maybe copping criticism, even when you are cut up emotionally like when my dad died; at the back of my head I always know that Ruth and my family are with me. I know I have done the right thing and all is well. I get home and the stress will evaporate.”

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