Hepburn Shire’s Christian Zahra was made a member of the Order of Australia in this year’s Queen’s Birthday honours.
Mr Zahra was honoured for his “significant service to rural and regional development, to the advancement of Indigenous welfare and to the Parliament of Australia”.
Mr Zahra and his family moved to Trentham eight years ago.
He said his family enjoys the town as it is “one of the most beautiful country towns in Victoria”.
“And I can say that with some authority, having been to many parts of country Australia. It is a really beautiful and special part of our country,” he said.
Parliament of Australia
Mr Zahra served in the House of Representatives as the Member for McMillan for six years, from 1998 until 2004.
He also served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Minister for Communications and as Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development.
Mr Zahra said it was his experiences in Parliament, as well as some of his other positions, that led him to thinking about a better way to focus on regional Australia.
“I have had other roles that have been about trying to advance the interest of country Australia like being the chairman of the Regional Development Advisory Fund and member of the Federal Government’s Senior Advisory Panel on Regional Australia,” he said.
“It was the through that work and as an initiative of the Federal government, as it then was, we brought together this idea of the Regional Australia Institute, which the government provided funding for and we have driven as directors these last seven years.”
Regional Australia Institute
Mr Zahra said he had been involved with work to do with regional Australia for some time before the idea for the Regional Australia Institute was developed.
He said it was established as a means towards a more sophisticated approach to the way the government works with rural and regional communities.
“For many years government, at a state and federal level, has been guilty of making the mistake of treating all country areas as though they’re the same, but of course they’re not the same.
“So myself, and others, have championed this cause of sophisticated approach in terms of the way in which government thinks about country Australia and having an approach which tries to devolve more responsibility to the region so that they can lead their own development and govern themselves increasingly,” he said.
As such, seven years ago, the Regional Australia Institute, “Australia’s leading think tank on issues to do with country Australia” was developed by Mr Zahra and other leaders.
“It’s formed by people across the political divide. I serve the institute with a great fellow named Ian Sinclair, who used to be Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and the leader of the National Party back in the day.
“We’ve got leaders from business, the farming sector, experts in policy and academia.
“Between us all, we have been championing this cause, through the Regional Australia Institute, that the governments think less about policy and philosophy when it comes to country Australia and more about what outcomes are being achieved and how to better engage and work in partnership with country areas,” Mr Zahra said.
Another issue which Mr Zahra has championed is Indigenous welfare. He said there is a similarity between his work, in terms of empowering people to be able to make really good decisions for themselves.
“We call it ‘leading their own development’ so whether it’s regions or indigenous communities, I think the work that I’ve been involved in has really been about trying to give people the tools and skills to be able to make good decisions in their own best interests,” he said.
“I’ve twice served as the Chief Executive Officer of Indigenous organisations. Once in Gippsland and more recently in the Kimberly region in far North Western Australia.
“In addition to that, I’ve also been a non-executive director of many indigenous organisations over the years, contributing to economic development for indigenous areas, trying to improve job opportunities for the people living there and helping them to acquire new skills.”
Mr Zahra said he felt both humbled and honoured to have been given the recognition of his work and being made a member of the Order of Australia.
“When you do this work, you never expect to receive an award or recognition of this nature. In my case, my motivation in having been involved in this work for 25 years now has been to try to increase the opportunities for people living at the margins of our society.
“Having grown up in a working-class family in country Australia myself, I’ve always been very mindful that I’ve been fortunate to have been able to, through education, participate in some of the opportunities that perhaps other people from backgrounds like mine would not have usually been able to have.
“I’ve always been mindful that there are other people whose journey that I want to support so they are able to participate fully in our society too,” he said.
Mr Zahra continues to work as company director with the Regional Australia Institute. Currently, he is working on an initiative to get more migrants to country areas. He also runs his own consulting business as well as continuing to work with a traditional owner group on economic and social development initiatives up in the Kimberly. He said he had no plans to return to parliament in future.