Nicholas Pappas: The polymath lawyer redefining leadership in Australia’s Greek Diaspora

Nicholas Pappas – a meld of intellect and cultural knowledge, steers pivotal roles from law to rugby league, with a mission to bridge cultures and rewrite the narrative of the modern Hellenic Diaspora

Nicholas (Nick) Pappas AM, the Sydney-based lawyer, is infuriatingly youthful at 63. If that’s not enough, he’s an elegant thinker, a polymath whose breadth of knowledge extends over history, culture, law, sport, and Hellenism.

“I have this unending curiosity; I once read a great quote , ‘I’m mildly disapproving of anyone knowing something that I don’t.’”

The Chair of the South Sydney Rabbitohs is a conduit between Greek Australian identity-(ies) and the mainstream. You can’t get more mainstream in NSW than Rugby League. Pappas chairs The Hellenic Initiative Australia (THI), is the Secretary of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Council and a Trustee of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia Consolidated Trust and is the non-executive chair of the Bank of Sydney.

He has sat on various mainstream boards, such as the Powerhouse Museum, and other boards of a more Hellenic character, such as the Hellenic Museum, Sydney’s Hellenic Club and more. If that’s not intimidating enough, he sunk himself into completing a doctorate in economic history in 1998 at the University of Sydney.

Nick Pappas AM with PM Anthony Albanese and NSW Attorney-General Michael Daley at a Rabbitohs match in Sydney. Photo: Supplied

Pappas has written books on the island of his people, Kastellorizo, as well as essays and articles on Asia Minor, its music, or Smyrneika, and the unique culture of Kastellorizo, an island that also creates for him sense of “otherness” . The historian narrates his peoples’ journey from Asia Minor to Kastellorizo and the world of Diaspora. He’s also mates with some of Australia’s most influential people, including our prime minister, Anthony Albanese.


His true love

Pappas has a visceral love of the South Sydney Rabbitohs. This club catapulted a young lawyer in the mid-1990s to national prominence. Pappas slew the News Limited dragon during the grubby Rugby League War in the 1990s.

“Rupert [Murdoch] wanted to buy the sport,” says Pappas.

The younger son, Lachlan Murdoch, was tasked with creating a professional Super League with reduced teams, so the Rabbitohs were kicked out to rationalise the competition.

Pappas’s beloved Rabbitohs celebrate a try that is later disallowed during the NRL Round 10 match between the St. George Illawarra Dragons and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium in Sydney, Saturday, May 11, 2024. Photo: AAP/Steven Markham

In the mid-1990s, when Optus and Foxtel were competing to “get products for their infant cables”, he says and adds, “the best product in Australia in terms of audience was sport.”

The club Pappas had revered since he was a child “was on its knees,” and it turned to him and his young legal firm for support.

“I was a Rabbitohs’ supporter, but I wouldn’t expect to be given the job taking on News Limited.”

Hundreds of thousands of fans and others against the Murdoch gambit marched the streets to save their beloved NRL team.

“I was like Dennis Denuto”, he says, the hapless suburban lawyer in The Castle who rose to slay the ogre of money, privilege, and power.

“It was a turning point in my life – it dominated my life from 1999 to when we were readmitted in the middle of 2001.”

“At one end of the bar table with my pile of documents in a mess, and the other end of the table were Allens, Minter Ellison and Henry Davis York”.

“At one end of the bar table with my pile of documents in a mess, and the other end of the table were Allens, Minter Ellison and Henry Davis York”.

“Lawyers and trolleys full of documents and me at the other gibbering away”.

In the main trial, with support from leading barristers and the full bench of the Federal Court, it was “revealed that the law sometimes does deliver”, says the lawyer.

“The South case was finite; it would either be reinstated and survive, or the club would die. It wasn’t about money –there was a clarity, an end of the road.

News Limited lost $560m, and Lachlan Murdoch returned to the US defeated and embarrassed. The locals had defeated the global, pervasive power because Murdoch had failed to understand Souths’ deep tribal roots in the community.

Pappas was elevated to the weighty position as the club’s saviour, and after George Piggins, the incumbent chairman, stood aside once the Souths were reinstated in 2002, Pappas was asked to chair the club.

The Rabbitohs are from “the red belt inner city suburbs where the Greeks first settled”, Pappas says.

“Greeks supported the Rabbitohs because they lived in Paddington, Darlinghurst and Surry Hills –our traditional heartland.

His father’s lot arrived in Australia after the war in 1947. He lived in Randwick and “latched on to the club”.

They moved to Maroubra, “you can’t get more Souths than that”.

“My grandmother, who used to wear black and was four foot four tall, would ask every weekend, ‘Did South win?’

“She never watched a game, but she wanted to know that South won because if they had won, we were happy”.

Four of the rugby league’s powerbrokers, including Pappas, are NSW Greeks – Nick Politis, George Peponis, and Peter V’landys –Australian Rugby League Commission chairperson.

Politis, knighted 55th richest man in Australia according to the AFR in 2023, “set a precedent by having major sponsors’ names appear on his club’s jersey”. Entering the world of Rugby League was a way of “showing that you had integrated”, says Pappas.

Greek-Australian NRL Chairs. (L-R) Dr George Peponis (Canterbury Bulldogs), Nick Politis (Sydney Roosters), Nick Pappas (South Sydney Rabbitohs) with Phil (‘Gus’) Gould after the Rabbitohs 2014 premiership victory. Photo: Supplied


An intergenerational quest

George Papanastasiou, Pappas’s father, was the president of Pan-Hellenic, the forerunner of Sydney Olympic.

“We all loved football, but whenever Pan-Hellenic played, I’d dash across to Redfern Oval to also watch Souths play.”

His father landed in Australia in 1947 as a refugee.

His predecessors were forced out of Asia Minor, by the Great Catastrophe of 1922, along with over 1.2 million Greeks, during the bloody Greco-Turkish nation-building wars. Many refugees from Anatolia ended up in the Eastern Mediterranean Island of Megisti (Μεγίστη) or, Kastellorizo; they say you can hear the cock crow in Turkey.

“Many Kastellorizians were in refugee camps in Gaza for three years,” says Pappas.

His father spoke Italian and sang Italian songs till old age; “they went to the Italian school, they had no choice,” Pappas says, reflecting on the Kastellorizo’s Italian colonial masters. Pappas’s mother was born in Australia of Kastellorizian parents, “an Aussie”.

Nick Pappas’s parents, George and Marina at their wedding in 1959. Photo: Supplied

The core values that guide Pappas are his father’s. “My father served as a lay member on the Immigration Review Panel and the Refugee Review Tribunal – someone who didn’t have an education forced himself to learn English.

Pappas talks about his father “studying under a light at night, reading the judgments”. He’d say, “‘Dad get someone to help you with this?’”, his father would refuse.

“‘I’ve got to do it, I’ve got to read the judgement, and I’ve got to understand it’,” says Pappas,

His father was also a pioneer in multicultural affairs and was part of the founding body that set up SBS.

“He worked with Professor Zubrzycki and all those who were some of the pioneers and founders of multicultural policy,” Pappas says.

The late Prof Jerzy Zubrzycki, the Chair of the Australian Ethnic Affairs Council, 1977-81, is considered one of the leading architects of multicultural policy.

By contributing to the mainstream, “you’ll do better for your Hellenism”, Pappas’s father would advise his son, adding, “You’ll also be truer to Hellenism”.

“Those who ignore the mainstream become instead kings of their little castles.”

His mother Marina– one of five sisters –was born in Australia. Her parents, George and Panagiota Georgouras, settled here like many Kazzies in the late 1920s after the Great Catastrophe – the burning of Smyrna, then the slaughter and expulsion of Greeks from what was to become Turkey.


Lucky and loved

After Randwick Public School, Pappas did “just well enough” to enter Sydney Grammar School.

“I went to Sydney Grammar School and had terrific people above me, like Malcolm Turnbull, who were inspirational.

“You couldn’t compartmentalize them as left or right; they were scholars – intelligent, inspirational people,” Pappas says.

He did law, even though his great love is history, then married and wanted “to make a buck”. NSW University offered an arts/law combined degree “which was novel for 1979”, says Pappas.

Every Greek immigrant wants their kids to be lawyers or doctors. “It was the perfect degree as it kept Mum and Dad happy, on the one hand, with the law, and I could continue with my love of history.”


Spies and underground resistance

Recently Pappas found out that his paternal grandfather (after whom he was named) was a war hero who carried out undercover operations for the British against the occupying Germans and Italians.

“My grandfather died a long time ago, so no one talked to him about it; all he did was press some documents into my father’s hands as he was dying.”

Pappas fell on the information through the archives of Sir Nicholas Hammond, the British scholar and classicist and Special Operations Executive (SOE), who conducted espionage, sabotage, and surveillance in German-occupied Greece. Hammond worked with Christopher Woodhouse, sent by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to aid the Greek Resistance against the Germans.

“Hammond has a whole archive on my grandfather, and my grandfather hadn’t revealed anything; we had all these coded documents but didn’t know what they meant.

“Letters from Nicholas Hammond giving my grandfather instructions, they pretended to fish go next to a German vessel and they would then blow it up,” says Pappas.

“Letters from Nicholas Hammond giving my grandfather instructions, they pretended to fish go next to a German vessel and they would then blow it up.”

Given that the grandfather barely spoke English but understood some Classical Greek, he used the language to communicate through letters with Hammond, a classist versed in Ancient Greek. Ancient Greek was the codex for running operations against the Axis forces.

The Kazzies
There’s something unique about the Kastellorizians – or Kazzies. A mercantile, eastern, and worldly lot –which spread across North America, Latin America, Australia, Africa, and the Middle East after the 1922 Greco-Turkish War.

“Yeah, we’ve got something, but we also have a certain parochialism,” says Pappas adding,“It’s a function of the isolation and the island’s tragic history.”

Kastellorizo was at the crossroads of trade between Asia, Greece, the Levant and Middle East, and North Africa. Conduits to trade across Asia Minor and the Levant – adept seafarers. Equally western and eastern.

Ottoman, French, Italian, and British modern colonial masters. Before them, in medieval times, it was by Knights Hospitaller, headed by Foulques de Villaret, Crusaders, and in ancient times, Hellenes, Dorians, and Phoenicians.


Nick Pappas’s later parents, George and Marina, in 1986 outside the house his father was born in on Kastellorizo. Photo: Supplied

“They were merchants, mercantile in character, and that influenced Kazzies here; this mercantilism drove families like Paspaley; we’re very similar to the Jews in a way,” he says.

The Paspaley family settled in the Northern Territory in the early 20th century and remains one of the wealthiest and preeminent pearlers in the world.

Kastellorizo has always been “strategic” just two kilometres off the coast of Turkey, a jump from the Middle East, after the Ottomans, the French in World War I, Italians from the 1920s, and then the British during World War II.

“It had a French governor in the First World War. My grandmother grew up singing the Marseillaise, then my father grew up singing Italian songs,” says Pappas.

Nick Pappas in Kastellorizo at the boys school, Santrapeia Astiki Scholi. Photo: Supplied

“They were fiercely Greek”, he adds, “but they didn’t grow up in a Greek environment but rather in occupied territory.

“The island only became Greek in 1948 as part of the Dodecanese, which made them a bit parochial. I recently wrote a piece about this ‘otherness’, the otherness of the Kazzies. We’re a little bit a world apart from the rest of Greece, both in mind and space.”

Pappas says Kastellorizo was  a “mystery” for him, “a place that we’d only heard about”.

“Every Kazzie home has this letterbox photo of the harbour full of ships in the 19th century but it wasn’t what we were seeing when we went there.”

“The island was a lonely, abandoned place of 400 people, but we were told about gold in the streets. Where did that go?” he asks.

Pappas was fascinated by the incongruence between reality and memory. What he had heard from his grandmother and father “just didn’t make sense”.

“I wanted to explore a kind of memory that we’ve never had, and how it became part of the narrative of our existence.”

“I wanted to explore a kind of memory that we’ve never had, and how it became part of the narrative of our existence.”

Pappas is now writing another book about Asia Minor and his elders’ island during the 19th Century, “a fascinating period”.

“I spent much time with the Ottoman archives last year in Istanbul. It still fascinates me, the whole Asia Minor experience.”

You can see the Kastellorizo from Anatolia, he says.

“Kastellorizo became severed from the mainland by its union with Greece and became instead just an inset on a map of Greece. It became somewhat lost because it sits under the belly of Turkey and yet is defiantly Greek in character.”

What of the Church

The Secretary of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Council reflects on the Schism between the Archdiocese and secular communities across Australia, which erupted in the mid-1950s and continued in many states until the 1980s tearing apart families.

Pappas was a conduit, a peacemaker between the Church and the secular Greek Community of NSW.

“There was a growing maturity in the community of the churches about the secular functions the community organisations should retain.

He points to the Sydney Greek Festival and the Film Festival, “I think the Church came to understand that it couldn’t do those things as well.”

Pappas says that community groups “do certain things better”, particularly in the cultural sector, “because they’re from that world.”

He adds that the Church has a critical role to play and has much to do, “running churches, schools, aged care facilities, respite centres, language and religious classes.”

“It is my view and that of His Eminence Archbishop Makarios, that the Archdiocese should focus what it’s good at. That said, there can only ever be one canonical Church – and that is the Church administered by the Archdiocese.”


The new Diaspora platform

THI Australia – an extension of THI America, the brainchild of Andrew Liveris AO, has, since the Greek economic collapse of 2010-2017, brought together some of the most influential and wealthiest Greek Americans, then Greek Australians, to pool resources and skills in revamping Greece’s economy, social and health infrastructure and assist in digitization.

Programs include delivering expensive medical equipment to far-flung islands and regions, assisting the many homeless in the crisis, and youth skills development and employment programs.

THI became a formal and structured way for the Diaspora to give back.

“We have a platform that we’ve never had before,” says Pappas.

There have been many failed examples; he says, “absolute disasters, with every man and his dog turning up in Greece claiming they represent some group of people – in contrast, we have the trust of the Greek Government.”

THI has gathered across a cross-section of very influential Greeks from the Diaspora, “some are from the world of big business”, others are experts with specific skills.

“THI is a springboard born out of the economic crisis, but with an opportunity to become an international voice for Greece.”

He posits THI’s success partly due to Greece’s Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s “cultural affinity” with the Anglosphere’s Greek Diaspora.

The Harvard-educated Mitsotakis “understands the psyche of the Hellenic Diaspora.”

“He can see the way Greece is sometimes perceived from outside, which Greeks often  see; he recognises we are hybrids.”


The grass is always greener
Pappas’s resume is daunting, yet in a bout of humility, he says, “I haven’t done very much at all”.

“I’ve gone to a lot of meetings. I’ve sat on a lot of committees. But what have I really achieved?”

He confesses that just as he was heading to the Delphi Economic Forum to speak on Diaspora, diaspora politics, “Ecumenical Hellenism, as they call it now.”

After that he would be visiting his island, “fixing up some of our family property.”

A tinge of existential angst is evident. “I was talking to my partner, who’s an architect in Athens, and I was telling her last night, I envy you because you leave behind a monument, something tangible.”

Pappas enjoys how his new partner opened Greece to him.

“I’m seeing another Greece, a new Greece. Sprouts are coming up all over, especially in Athens and I wouldn’t have seen it if I didn’t have a Greek partner.”

He says he is “blessed”, with a “beautiful family of children and grandchildren.”

Pappas with one foot in the mainstream, the other in community, believes that Greek Australian community “has so much talent” and wants to harness that talent to and make an impact in Greece and Australia – as his father advised once.

Nicholas Pappas is like many of us, is a hybrid –and is at the juncture of heritage, legacy, and possibility. Ever the ‘Kazzie’, he navigates the seas of law, culture, and identity with intellect and elegance as his lot have done from time immemorial.