EMPA alumni Chris Sarra’s journey from school principal to Queensland’s Indigenous partnerships chief

Chris Sarra
  • Published Date: 28 June 2018

Dr Chris Sarra is currently enjoying what he would regard as ‘a break’. Having stepped away from his ‘Stronger Smarter’ Indigenous educational institute, he is enjoying some downtime, which in Chris Sarra-speak means he is only lecturing at the University of Canberra, acting as a Commissioner for the National Rugby League and Co-Chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. Oh, and trying to finish writing a manifesto explaining the Stronger Smarter learning and leadership philosophy. 

Like we said, taking it easy.

In August, thisIndigenous leader will step into his most challenging role yet, as Director-General of the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships (DATSIP) in the Queensland Government. After years of talking about leadership, as he did at Stronger Smarter, Chris sees this as a chance to demonstrate his philosophies of truly engaging and activating Indigenous communities and, perhaps, set a blueprint for other government agencies to follow.

“I’ve watched other people just talk about leadership, and what leadership is, without ever really doing it and I didn’t want to be that kind of person,’ he said.

“This opportunity came up and I thought I’ve still got the mojo, plenty of energy and after having been in a role where I was able to get the Prime Minister to embrace the language of “I’m doing things with people, not to people” as the basis of successful Aboriginal policy, I wanted to be able to take a department and show the rest of the country, this is what it looks like when you do things with people, not to people.”

Education the key 

That line is central to Chris Sarra’s philosophy; a belief that first came to light when he took over as the principal of a small, struggling Queensland school in Cherbourg during the 1990s, and achieved eye-catching results with what he labelled High Expectation Relationships with the students, and an emphasis on Aboriginal culture as a positive force that could inspire students and improve results. That led to the Stronger Smarter Institute and is now powering its way into underpinning an entire state government department. 

This vision began to take shape from the example of his parents, an immigrant from Italy and an Aboriginal woman from Queensland, but Chris also credits his experience in ANZSOG’s Executive Master of Public Administration with giving him the self-belief and intellectual tools to pursue such a vision all the way to a director-general’s role.

“I was a part of the very first ANZSOG cohort in 2003 and I think that really opened my eyes and allowed me to imagine myself doing policy beyond education,” he recalled. ‘It was a significant point in my career and I’ve always been really mindful and thankful of that.” 

At that stage, Chris was still principal of a small Queensland school and winner of a scholarship into the course, surrounded by a cohort of the “brightest and the best” – many of whom are now senior leaders across all levels of the public service. “It was an exciting time, ambitious and new,” he said. “The course was a bold step and they rolled out the best people. While we were studying in New Zealand, (then NZ Prime Minister) Helen Clark turned up and talked to us about policy and I remember asking her questions about why she chose not to go to war in Iraq and being impressed by that.”

“It was the best quality people coming into the room to talk to us and we were sitting among the best quality people as well.”

Always a fan of leading by example, he reasoned the best way to convince other potential Indigenous leaders about the importance of education was by walking the walk, and so he completed the EMPA while also writing his PhD, running the school and raising young children. “I took my own education seriously,” he says.

Learning from the past

Chris credits his parents with his underlying philosophies that advocate authenticity, working with people and not cutting any corners when it comes to creating and executing policy. “I guess my philosophy can be traced back to the lessons from my parents about how to negotiate the world, how to conduct yourself and what to expect from others around you,” he said. “My father didn’t speak good English, he was an Italian migrant, but he worked really hard, and my mother taught us that, even though we lived in a society bombarded by the message that being Aboriginal was supposed to mean somehow that we were inferior, she taught us to be fiercely proud of that.”

Chris was also the youngest of 10 kids and says achieving his aims by bullying was never an option with five older brothers and four older sisters. “It taught me that you’ve got to negotiate, you’ve got to appreciate where other people are coming from, what they’re moved by and that kind of thing,” he said. “It also goes right back to the very things that we learnt in the Masters at ANZSOG about pure policy design and execution.”

“I’ve always said the solutions or the way forward in Indigenous policy is through pure policy process, not personality contests.

“It’s about policy execution in which we understand the authorising environment, we understand where we create public value, we understand these kinds of theoretical policy aspects and contemplate them in the context of Aboriginal policy and with authenticity. That’s the only way we can go forward.”

“That’s the great challenge that lies ahead of me. There’s no certainty about how it will go but what I am certain about is I’m going to work my arse off for the next five years and give it everything I’ve got and more.I’m determined to succeed and change how the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Partnerships does its business, while at the same time influencing how other government departments do policy across the rest of the country. 

“Like a lot of people, I have been frustrated at where the public service was at and I thought if I took this role, I’m in a better place to say ok, this department is for all of us now. I’ve stepped in from the margins and if you step towards me and you’re prepared to work hard, then we can make this department work for all of us.”

Chris believes success will largely rest on remaining true to himself. “I’m determined to not lose myself in the role and be able to give a sense of authenticity about who I am as Chris Sarra, with a sense of fun, passion and pride, and still be able to execute that role, but not have to surrender to anything, you know,’ he said.

“I want to still have that sense of authenticity and passion for what we do and becoming something different. I’m determined to do that so I can give licence to others to do that.” 

Applications for the Executive Master of Public Administration are now open. Register your interest here.