Peter Baines OAM

Peter Baines spent 22 years with the NSW Police, leading teams nationally and internationally in response to acts of terrorism and natural disasters. He led teams into Indonesia and Thailand, following acts of terrorism and some of the worst natural disasters the world has experienced. He has also worked with the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime and in Saudi Arabia and Japan after natural disasters.
Seconded to the National Institute of Forensic Science, he spearheaded national and international projects around counterterrorism and leadership working for Interpol in Lyon, France.

Then there was a huge change in his life...
Moved by the plight of children who had been left orphaned by the tsunami and ravages of HIV in Thailand, Baines founded Hands Across The Water. It’s one of Australia’s fastest growing charities, which cares and creates opportunities for those children in need in Thailand.
Through Hands Across the Water, Baines has overseen the building and operation of seven homes with a capacity ranging from 25 to more than100. The homes provide both medium and long term accommodation for children who have no other suitable alternatives. ‘Hands’ is also responsible for the purchase and running of a rubber plantation for a sustainable local income, as well as construction of a tsunami refuge and education centre.
Baines continues to engage and consult with businesses, corporations and governments on social responsibility and leadership. Most recently he addressed IEUA officers at a national union forum. His powerful, honest story telling inspired and engaged – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Peter Baines spoke with IE Journalist Bronwyn Ridgway about his school days, his teachers, his mentors and his mission.

I went to school at Bass Hill Primary and then Bass Hill High in Sydney’s western suburbs. My brother was a few years older than me, so I followed him through school – that created a network of people and support.

It’s a long time ago now, but I enjoyed those years and playing sport, it was a positive experience, all working class families in together. I had good relationships with teachers; there weren’t huge numbers of us in Years 10 to 12 so that made for a close knit group. I thought there was a fair bit of pressure on us to do well, but that was around 1984, nothing like the pressures on students today.

In terms of leadership, I was in the scouts and was a school prefect. Debating wasn’t pushed then so I wasn’t a public speaker.

I was a middle of the road student, not a top academic performer, but I appreciated the young teachers I had who were passionate about their subjects.

In particular there was Jeff Ray, my geography teacher, who was able to really interact and communicate well with students. Through his enthusiasm, he showed us a way to embrace that subject.

Another was my biology teacher, Wayne Northam. Wayne and Jeff shared a house before Wayne was married.

Both teachers seemed to enjoy their profession and as students it was easy to communicate with them.

Jeff Ray went on to be a principal, he was only 10 years older than me and we became friends – he came to my wedding and then to the christening of my daughter in 1995.

Passion for teaching all

I think a truly effective teacher is one who is passionate about what they do and is able to take all students along with them, regardless of whether they are the top performers or the least academic in the year group. It’s so important to be committed to all and make a subject appeal to the whole class – that makes each student feel worthwhile.

Mentors and people who make a difference

When I was in the NSW Police Force, I’d come up from Sydney to work in Tamworth with the Major Crime Squad. There was a Regional Commander, Peter Walsh, who had an extraordinary presence and such a caring nature. In that tough world, this man remembered simple things that made a difference to me; he’d remember my name and where I was from and would ask how I was going. He knew my wife’s name and would ask how she was – this was so rare on the job and I recognised how positive those inquiries were and how it made me feel.

I think school principals need to do that sort of thing too. They need to go into the classroom from time to time and not be an enigma in an administrative office. They need to drop in frequently, take the time to care, communicate caringly with the students and staff.

When I worked overseas in Thailand as an International Commander, I’d go into the mortuaries where there would be doctors, dentists and mortuary assistants working on bodies from the disaster. I would ask “how are you going?” One mortuary assistant said: “my handsaw is very blunt”. Given the huge task she had, you can imagine how difficult that would make her job, so as soon as I could I bought a handsaw for her. I’ll never forget her response.

It takes a lot of organisation and time to visit locations in Thailand but I remember from that and other responses that I must go to visit and I must be present.

In Thailand there were over 3500 dead bodies laid out on the ground in the steaming heat that needed to be examined and if possible identified. The soldiers had to move each one of these bodies for us. We couldn’t do anything without the soldiers’ help, but it was so hard for them in that shocking situation to be there and do that day after day, week after week.

For a time, the soldiers lost their motivation, but every role was important and we could do nothing without them. When so much needs to be done it’s easy to forget the significance of what we’re doing. So we needed to stop and make sure everyone in the team knew how relevant and important his or her job was, no matter what that job might be.

When so much needs to be done it’s easy to forget the significance of what we’re doing. So we needed to stop and make sure everyone in the team knew how relevant and important his or her job was, no matter what that job might be.

Everyone has an important role to play

Schools are full of teams – teachers, support staff, students and parents. Teachers shape minds: so much so that over 30 years later I can still remember the passionate and caring ones. The education process wouldn’t be possible without the valuable contributions support and operational staff make every day. Everyone

has their role to play and each and everyone needs to feel part of this positive process.

Take one role out and see what that does, in the teaching teams or any of the support teams, whether it’s a role at the front desk or in maintenance – see how that impacts on the location and the culture of a school or centre. It’s hard to move forward if everyone’s not participating in his or her role.

With the people and communities I work with in Thailand, it’s easy for me to have drive and focus. Just looking at these people gives me motivation. My life’s changed very much in the last 10 years from a secure police position with structure and regular pay, to humanitarian work where sometimes we achieve in spite of everything.

With Hands Across the Water, we create meaningful shared experiences and we build on those. For example a teacher might come on a fundraising bike ride in Thailand in January, or an English teacher might give of their time and teach for three to six months in one of the homes we’ve built for orphaned children and children affected by HIV.

English language is so important, it allows some of the children to take advantage of ongoing educational opportunities. Teachers who come over to Thailand might be taking time out from current work or they might have retired. Either way they contribute greatly to the work that we do in Hands Across the Water.

Why it works for individuals is that by participating, they are getting a return for themselves. I know that if a person has a positive experience it makes him or her feel a lot better. So a trek or ride adds value to their lives. I call it ‘doing good by doing good’ – and that’s what I’ve written about in one of my books.

I talk with lots of corporations about social responsibility programs, but I talk about commitment and engagement... not about cash donation but the need for individuals to engage and be part of a program.

In Thailand all our children go to schools nearby and when they finish school we fund these children to go to university. This creates an opportunity for us to create an off shore experience.

We now have Methodist Ladies College Melbourne in Victoria, regularly participating in our Hands Across the Water Program. Each year, 12 senior students go across for a week and work with the children in our homes in Thailand. I’m hoping more schools might come to do this; the engagement creates a life change – well that’s certainly what happened for me.

Baines completed university studies in Law, Forensic Science and postgraduate studies in Management.

  • NSW Police Medal and Australian Federal Police Operations Medal for work in response to Bali bombings 2002 and 2004 South East Asian tsunami.
  • First police officer awarded the Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal and Australian National Medal.
  • First Australian awarded the international honour – Rotary Professional Excellence Award 2008.Australian of the Year NSW finalist 2010.
  • Order of Australia medal in the Australia Day honours 2014 for his international humanitarian work.
  • Most Admirable Order of Direkgunabhorn awarded by the King of Thailand for his devotional services to the Kingdom of Thailand in 2016.

  • References and links

    Hands Across The Water by Peter Baines

    Published 2011 by Macmillan Australia
    Doing Good by Doing Good by Peter Baines
    Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons Australia Ltd
    ABC Life Matters interview with Peter Baines http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/2011-08-29/2933720
    Peter Baines – a truly inspiring Australian https://www.bt.com.au/personal/your-goals/your-inspiration/lust-for-life/peter-baines-a-truly-inspiring-australian.html
    Australian of the Year: State finalist honour roll https://www.australianoftheyear.org.au/honour-roll/?view=fullView&recipientID=173