Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Strasser, Sir Paul (1911–1989)

by Caroline Butler-Bowdon and Charles Pickett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Paul Strasser (1911–1989), property developer, was born on 22 September 1911 at Szekesfehervar, Hungary, son of Jewish parents Eugene Strasser, lawyer, and his wife Elisabeth, née Klein.  After studying law at the Pazmany Peter University, Budapest, Paulus worked in commercial law.  On 19 May 1945 in Budapest he married Veronica Gerö.  Hungary, as a result of its alliance with Germany, was at war with the Soviet Union from 1941; Strasser spent three years in a Soviet labour camp.  He endured many hardships but avoided the 1944 Nazi occupation of Hungary that led to deportations to the death camps.  Returning to Budapest after World War II, he attempted to resume his legal career but, under pressure from the new communist government to join the party, left Hungary in 1948 with his wife and their son.

Aged 37, Strasser arrived in Australia with about $10,000.  He was naturalised on 26 March 1954.  Advised that his heavy accent would disadvantage him in Sydney’s legal profession, he started business ventures, including a trucking company.  In 1956 he established Finance Facilities Pty Ltd with John Boyer.  Soon afterwards, with Robert Ryko, Strasser subdivided and sold some land at Parkes Road, Dee Why; Parkes Developments Pty Ltd was born.  The breakthrough year for Parkes and Strasser was 1961, when the company purchased the disused Rosebery racecourse from the Sydney Turf Club.  Parkes Developments filled most of this site with low-rise flats, creating part of the suburb of Eastlakes.  By 1970 it was one of Australia’s largest private companies, with Sydney’s largest land holdings.

Like other European migrants—for example, Ervin Graf, Frank Lowy and Henry Pollack—Strasser saw great opportunities in Sydney’s expanding population and moribund, small-scale building industry.  Although his interests expanded into oil and mineral exploration, cattle stations and meatworks, motels, and printing and publishing, property and construction remained at the centre of his activities.

During 1972 Strasser’s association with the State government of Liberal Premier Sir Robert Askin began to attract the attention of the media and the Australian Labor Party.  Two issues were especially controversial:  one was Parkes Developments’ financing of construction projects—notably a new police headquarters—with loans from State superannuation funds (the building was then leased to the police); the other was the government’s siding with Parkes in a dispute with Sutherland Shire Council over the resumption of part of the company’s considerable land holdings at Menai.

Strasser claimed that 'we have the same association with the Government as any other development company—no more, no less', but controversy was fuelled by his knighthood in 1973 for services to the property industry.  The Opposition leader, Neville Wran, called for an inquiry to 'clear the odium' surrounding Parkes Developments.  Other Labor parliamentarians were less restrained; Cliff Mallam referred to 'Askin’s knights, or the Hungarian Mafia'.

The Parkes company’s modus operandi boosted the speculative cycle.  Although it built several notable buildings as well as thousands of homes and apartments, its focus was land acquisition and subdivision financed by sales and loans.  Strasser observed that 'at the end of every decade the land values were higher than at the start of the decade. I do not see any reason why this trend would change'.  The company’s dependence on continuing price inflation and low interest rates left it vulnerable to the mid-1970s property crash.  Conservation 'green bans' also resulted in delays to projects in Woolloomooloo and Kings Cross.  The largest victim of the crash, Parkes went into liquidation in 1977.  Strasser’s fall from grace was public and painful, ameliorated by the loyalty of Henry Pollack who made him a member of the management committee of his property company, Mirvac Pty Ltd.  Strasser still held some directorships.

Although Strasser’s name evokes the excesses of the Askin era, he is also remembered as a generous and gregarious character.  Lawyerly erudition and command of several languages made him stand out in the hard-nosed property business.  His companies built the Cosmopolitan restaurant at Double Bay, which became the social centre of Eastern Suburbs Jewish society; he was a regular customer there.  He was also a keen bridge player.  Although not actively religious, he was a liberal benefactor to Sydney’s Jewish community and helped to establish Shalom College at the University of New South Wales.  He supported many charities, notably the Children’s Surgical Research Fund.  In assisting the efforts of Traudl Junge, Adolf Hitler’s personal secretary, to gain Australian residence, Strasser displayed exemplary humanity.  Survived by his wife and their son, Sir Paul died on 15 March 1989 at Darlinghurst and was buried in the Jewish section of Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • M. T. Daley, Sydney Boom Sydney Bust (1982)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 24 March 1977, p 5702
  • National Times, 11-16 December 1972, p 39
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 July 1974, p 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June 1976, p 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 March 1977, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 June 1981, 'Good Weekend', p 37
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 March 1989, p 6
  • Weekend Australian, 6-7 August 2005, p 1
  • R. Thompson, Sydney’s Flats (PhD thesis, Macquarie University, 1986)
  • A435, item 1949/4/4809 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Caroline Butler-Bowdon and Charles Pickett, 'Strasser, Sir Paul (1911–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/strasser-sir-paul-15741/text26929, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 July 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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