A socialist activist, poet, lawyer, academic and former Assistant Commissioner for Taxation, John Passant passed away peacefully on April 5 with his partner, Patricia Langenakker, at his side.
John was born on November 11, 1953, and grew up in Wollongong. His father, from Sydney, was in the navy. Some of his Wollongong relatives worked in the coalmines, where he probably imbibed their militancy and that of the blue-collar working-class city. One of John’s poems, “Beach Walk”, is about his father, and is set in Wollongong. The family moved to Canberra in the late 1960s and John started school in 1970, completing senior high school in Daramalan College.
In the early 1970s, John was radicalised by the Vietnam War and the opposition to it. He studied for a Bachelor of Economics at the Australian National University (ANU), graduating in 1975. He then studied law, graduating in 1979.
In 1979, he joined the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and was active in the Australian Clerical Officers’ Union, as well as in the Public Service Action Group. He met his partner, Patricia Langenakker, also a lawyer, at this time. Patricia told Green Left that he was always very interested in socialism. In the mid-1980s, both John and Patricia studied for Master of Laws degrees at Monash University in Melbourne, graduating in 1988.
In 1989, John returned to Canberra and worked as a law lecturer in the ANU Faculty of Law from 1989 to 1997.
In 1992, while John was working for the ANU, he and Patricia went on sabbatical to Lyon, France, where he studied and wrote a paper on the French tax system. He was already able to speak French fluently.
In 1997 and 1998, John was an adviser to the ACT Tenants’ Union. I recall John speaking with vigour at a tenants’ rally outside the ACT Legislative Assembly about the problems tenants faced under Kate Carnell’s Liberal ACT government.
In 1999, John rejoined the ATO. From 2002, he was Assistant Commissioner of Taxation, in charge of the ATO’s input into international tax reform, which included input into 10 international tax reform acts. He said he was most proud of that work.
In 2006, still employed by the ATO, John was posted to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. There, he also conducted intensive courses for government tax staff in Budapest, Hungary, and Cairo, Egypt. John retired from the ATO in 2008, aged 55.
Over 2010–11, John was a senior lecturer in the School of Law at the University of Canberra.
From 2014, he tutored at the ANU and the University of Wollongong, in various political subjects.
John’s prolific posting on his blogsite caught the eye of Independent Australia and, in 2015, he was engaged as a columnist, later to become their second Parliamentary Press Gallery representative.
By 2016, John was working towards a PhD at the ANU on political economy and tax. His articles on neoliberalism, the Henry Tax Review, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax and the nature of the Labor Party, tax and dialectics, Marx and economic rent in Australia, and a thematic approach to the history of income tax in Australia were to be its basis. Unfortunately, he could not finish it.
Some of John’s articles from this time include: “A better minerals resource rent tax?” (2015); “Some Basic Marxist Concepts to Help us Understand Income Tax in Australia’ Autumn Term 2015” (September 2015; “Historical Note: The History of Taxation is Written in Letters of Blood and Fire” 2016; “Cleaning the Muck of Ages from the Windows into the Soul of Tax” (2016); and “Taxation and the American Revolution” (2017).
By 2016, John had 37 years’ experience as a tax law academic and as a tax administrator. Despite that, his advance in the legal academic fraternity was stymied by others’ conservative views.
At this time, he also turned his hand to artistic expression with several books of poems, that included Songs for the Band Unformed (2016) and Whose Broken is this and Other Poems (2018,) both published by Ginninderra Press.
John also teamed up with singer-songwriter Milena Cifali, who set his poems to music, and produced a CD. Together with bass player and percussionist Jim Horvath, and with Milena on guitar and vocals, the duo, known as The Awesome, played several gigs including the National Folk Festival in Canberra in April 2017, the Love, Art, Ideas and Politics festival in Wollongong in April, 2017 and in March and April of 2019 in Canberra, Narooma, on the NSW South Coast, and Mallacoota, on the Victorian Gippsland Coast.
Milena describes John as having been a principled, caring, kind and compassionate man, despite his bad “dad jokes”. Following Cifali and Horvath losing their Mallacoota home to the New Year bushfires, John setup a Go Fund Me page, which helped them find accommodation in Canberra.
John had a “socialism-from-below perspective”.
Patricia said: “John was passionate, radiating energy which shined through when he spoke at rallies and political meetings, when teaching, and even when just having a coffee
“He was a radical activist, a prolific writer of letters to the papers, articles and on his blog, a poet, an academic and a senior officer in the ATO.
“He railed against injustices and took action against them — organising and marching against Apartheid, arguing for and participating in an occupation against library cuts at Monash University, speaking against the Gulf War with his two-year-old son in his arms and saying: ‘What about the fathers with children in Iraq?’, to mention just a few.”
John was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in July 2018. Patricia said “targeted therapy” knocked it back for a while, but it came back again in 2019, leading to a spinal fracture in July 2019.
“John returned home in a wheelchair last November where he sat at his computer, cup of tea at hand, writing and keeping in touch with friends, watching the news or the rugby league (did I mention he was a tragic St George supporter?) and being part of family life. Despite more targeted therapy, the cancer continued.”
Despite this, John continued posting to his Facebook page until March 30, when he posted about Coles and other workers taking strike action. He died on April 5.
A real fighter for working people has passed.
[The family will be organising a private funeral and Patricia has advised she intends to put together a memorial of John’s life with photos and a longer story to share.]