Damon Kitney, Columnist at The Australian.
Former NSW premier Mike Baird has launched a scathing attack on modern-day political leaders, accusing them of stoking division in society and failing to do “what they know is right or what they believe in”.
Mr Baird said he was “disappointed” by the lack of conviction and consensus-building in global and local political leadership, which – coupled with the rise of social media – was driving a “race to the bottom”.
“I think particular leaders globally have kind of taken approaches to politics that are divisive and ‘us and them’ on every single day, moment and media appearance,” Mr Baird told Future Generation Australia chief executive Caroline Gurney on a podcast being released on Monday.
“But the biggest thing to me is political leaders that don’t do what they know is right or what they believe in. That invariably means that people are managing to try and win elections. They’re stoking the division for that aim, because they’re either trying to drive support in their base or they’re trying to drive people away from opponents. I think we’ve lost something.
“I go back to people like Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and some of the significant economic reforms that were done when all types of stakeholders came together for the good of country.
“That to me is something that’s missing. Then you couple that with the rise of social media and the coalescing of those that are against various government decisions or policies, that creates a very angry, noisy place.
“Most of my time in politics, there were all types of people that were upset over all types of issues. The challenge becomes when they overwhelm you to the (point) that you can no longer focus on the policies that you think the government needs.
“It comes back down to a leader, or a group of leaders in a cabinet context, that are determined to do what is right and what is for the good of country and/or state.”
While he stressed it was “not just the leader’s fault or the reason we are here”, Mr Baird said Australians did not spend enough time, organisationally and individually, dreaming and aspiring.
“When I look at Australia, there’s often (in terms of media and the discourse) just constant reflections on what we’re not doing. You know what governments are doing wrong, what corporates are doing wrong. All true, likely. But where is the incredible celebration of who we are?
“We talk about (volunteering), we talk about mateship, there is so much good in community and country. I’ve connected into children’s hospices and (seen) what our nurses do there and what our volunteers do there.
“For me, that’s one of the privileges I’ve had, being in political life. I’ve seen it. It’s not often in the media. It’s not often on the radio or TV, but it is there.
“There are incredible people and Australia is made up of them. So, yes, there are things that are wrong. Yes, there are concerns in a geopolitical sense. But we will be OK because of who we are. When I look at those volunteers – all of them – it’s a privilege to meet them and to know them. That gives me hope.” Mr Baird is chairman of Future Generation Australia, a listed investment company that waives its management fees and donates 1 per cent of its assets to youth-focused charities.
He is also chief executive of HammondCare, an independent Christian charity in the aged-care sector, but last month revealed he intended to step down from the role during 2024.
The move stoked speculation that he will make a return to politics, although Mr Baird said he was not going to any other role following his departure from HammondCare.
He said at the time of his resignation announcement that some of his key achievements were supporting wage increases for aged care workers, contributing to the Aged Care Task Force and being a part of HammondCare as it grew by more than 50 per cent since 2019.
He took the role in 2020 after departing National Australia Bank, where he was in contention to become the company’s next CEO but withdrew for family reasons.
In the podcast he said HammondCare was dedicated to caring for “those that others won’t or can’t”.
“I’ll give you one example. There was a resident that we took in three months ago. He had a fungating cancer on his face, (which was) really confronting, and he had dementia. But he didn’t need to be in hospital, he was palliating.
“The sense was it was two or three months that he would probably be alive and an aged care home could take him. Aged care home after aged care home decided they wouldn’t take him. We passionately believe that we will try and care for those that others won’t or can’t. Here’s someone that needs and deserves (the same) amount of dignity and respect as anyone else,” he said.
“So the team took him in, cared for him. He had no family that was known to the hospital, but we ended up finding his sister and they were with him in his last hours. That’s living a Christian faith. Caring compassionately, living what you believe. So how should a Christian live in that context? That’s the way to do it. It’s deeds, not necessarily words.”
In addition to his role at NAB, Mr Baird previously worked as an investment banker for Deutsche Bank.
At the age of 27 he quit the German bank and moved to Canada to study at Regent College, a Christian theological graduate school, to become an Anglican minister.
In 2014, he was surprisingly elevated to the role of NSW premier after Barry O’Farrell resigned over his failure to declare a $3000 bottle of Grange as a gift.
In January 2017, after only three years as premier, Mr Baird resigned to care for his mother Judy, despite having confirmed his intention to stay for a second term.
She died in 2021 after a drawn-out illness that had left her unable to talk, feed herself or get out of bed.
Mr Baird has previously said palliative care was a better option than euthanasia and in October 2021 publicly opposed voluntary assisted dying (VAD) laws being proposed in NSW.
In the Future Generation podcast, he said HammondCare still held a deep belief that good palliative care could provide the best possible opportunity for those in the final stage of life.
“I know that’s not what everyone thinks, but we believe that and we’ll do everything possible. Many experts in the palliative care space believe that with that sort of care, you can overcome some of the resistance. Some of the best moments come in those last days and weeks. Certainly, you know, with my mum she was in a terrible position physically. It was really hard to watch, but she connected in personal and powerful ways in the last few weeks that will stay with us forever,” he said.
But he noted VAD was “still an option for people” and said HammondCare was prepared to “help and facilitate” it if it was the route chosen by an individual.
“We will do everything we can. Obviously, we’re not supportive, we wouldn’t undertake the activity ourselves. But for those in our care, if that’s what they choose, we’ll help and facilitate. If our staff want to be there with those residents or patients or clients, we’ll support that. I think that’s a balance,” he said.
“For us, it’s all about the individual. How can we just be compassionate? If they are within us and it doesn’t make sense to move them, we’ll try and facilitate it.”
Mr Baird was last year appointed the fifth chair in as many years at Cricket Australia, where he will serve a five-year term. He was previously a director of Surfing Australia and Cricket NSW.
“There are these amazing opportunities,” he says.
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