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Port, Leo Weiser (1922–1978)

by Shirley Fitzgerald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Leo Weiser Port (1922-1978), businessman and lord mayor, was born on 7 September 1922 at Cracow, Poland, son of Aron Rappaport, poulterer, and his wife Leia, née Amsterdamer. In 1928 the family moved to Berlin, where Leo attended the Adass Yisroel Realgymnasium. They fled to Prague in 1939, and reached Sydney on 24 March in the Viminale. Leo attended Sydney Boys' High and Parramatta High schools, won a Commonwealth scholarship, and studied electrical and mechanical engineering at the University of Sydney (B.E., 1946). Like his father and brother, he adopted the surname, Port, and was naturalized in 1945. He joined Donoghue & Carter, consulting engineers, in 1947, and became a partner in 1953. His lift-control system received a merit award for Australian design in 1969.

At the Temple Emanuel, Woollahra, on 25 October 1950 Port had married Edith Bertha Lucas, a Berlin-born pharmacy student. They attended the North Shore Synagogue and became involved in the cultural life of Sydney's Jewish community. After moving to Elizabeth Bay in 1972, Leo walked to the Great Synagogue to attend Sabbath services. He was the Temple Emanuel's delegate (1951-66) to the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, and was active in the Jewish National Fund, a Zionist organization dedicated to raising funds for Israel. For relaxation, he cycled, played golf, swam and skied.

Representing the Civic Reform Association of Sydney, Port was elected to the Sydney City Council in 1969 for Fitzroy Ward. He also served as a member (1969-74) of the State Planning Authority. The new Civic Reform majority was committed to raising the quality of city planning. Port's skill lay in his ability to listen, and to seize upon the expertise of some of the best urban theorists in the country. The City of Sydney Strategic Plan of 1971, produced by Port and fellow alderman Andrew Briger, gave expression to a broad philosophical framework for revitalizing inner Sydney and generated much-needed public debate in a city experiencing large-scale commercial development. Port received good publicity, as did the urban-design projects in which he delighted—the creation of Martin Place as a pedestrian mall, the greening of the streets and the opening up of Sydney Square. In 1974 he was appointed M.B.E.

Port accepted an invitation in 1970 to join the Australian Broadcasting Commission's popular television programme, 'The Inventors'; as a panellist he was genial, intelligent and urbane. A passion for excellence in design drove his enthusiasms within and beyond the council. His list of his life's achievements included not only the establishment of a broad strategic plan for city development, but also the design of some golf clubs that impressed the comedian Bob Hope when he visited Sydney.

In 1975 and 1976 Port was elected lord mayor by his fellow aldermen. Neville Wran's Labor government altered the electoral regulations in 1977 to favour a Labor vote, but Civic Reform was again returned, albeit with a reduced majority. The people elected Port lord mayor for a term of three years. After the Labor government failed to oust Civic Reform, elements of the press began to report less kindly on Port's activities and increasingly portrayed him as arrogant. Resident action groups, involved in the 'green bans' that the Australian Builders' Labourers' Federation was placing on high-rise developments, pointed to his firm's involvement in some of those projects. On the council he was under constant pressure from aldermen who accused him of being too closely associated with developers. Although he had resigned from some boards, he remained a director of Manufacturing Investments Ltd and W. G. Watson & Co. Pty Ltd.

On 26 August 1978 a lengthy article by Max Suich and Anne Summers was published in the National Times, detailing Port's pecuniary involvement with two finance companies. (The companies were linked to Citibank N.A., which had acquired a large parcel of urban land when developers mortgaged to it had failed in the property crash of 1974). Survived by his wife, and their daughter and three sons, Port died that day of myocardial infarction and bacterial endocarditis in St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. He had seen in 'one drab corner of Sydney after another' the possibility of something better. His estate was sworn for probate at $442,615. The Leo Port Park in Tel Aviv, Israel, is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Oct 1969, 2 Jan 1974, 4 Mar, 28 Aug 1978, 9, 27 June 1979
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 25 Aug 1974, 27 Aug 1978
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Nov 1976
  • National Times, 26 Oct 1977, 2 Sept 1978
  • naturalisation file A435, item 1944/4/5536 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Sydney City Council, Proceedings, 1969-78
  • Leo Port file, and items 2649/70, 983/77 (Sydney City Council Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Shirley Fitzgerald, 'Port, Leo Weiser (1922–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/port-leo-weiser-11444/text20397, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 15 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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