Peter Baines OAM

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Visiting Armidale this month is Peter Baines OAM, who will be one of the keynote speakers for the New England North West Leadership Conference – an event centred about Workplace Culture and fundraiser for the local organisation BackTrack. 

Peter developed his unique leadership style by leading international identification teams into Indonesia and Thailand following acts of terrorism and the 2004 South East Asian Tsunami. He would go on to work in the counter terrorism area of Interpol, spent time with the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime and also worked in Saudi Arabia and Japan after natural disasters hit those countries. 

But, it was his work in Thailand that brought the biggest change. After meeting the children left orphaned by the Tsunami, Peter felt compelled to act and founded an Australian charity called Hands Across the Water, which has gone on to create opportunities for hundreds of children across Thailand. 

Peter, for those who don’t know you, can you tell us a little bit about your career as a NSW Police Forensic Investigator?

I started in Sydney in uniform in Cabramatta. I joined in 1986; I moved into the Forensic area in 1990. I spent 18 months in Sydney working out of Sydney Police Centre, servicing the main part of Sydney as a Crime Scene Investigator. Then in 1991 I went to Tamworth. I moved up there with my wife; we had 10 years in Tamworth, where I was a Forensic Investigator. 

As part of your career, you were pulled to all parts of the globe for natural disasters and investigations … tell us about that.

Yes, that’s right. I went to Bali after the bombings in 2002, and that pretty much set us up so that if something happened regionally, the Australians would be called upon to assist. I went to Thailand after the Tsunami, then I went on to work in Saudi Arabia in the city of Jedda after floods over there. 

I went to Japan after the Tsunami and following that I worked for Interpol on a counter terrorism project in France. I also worked for the United Nations and on Drug and Crimes in South East Asia in a capacity building role around leadership and counter terrorism.

And with those international travels, obviously a pivotal moment came to you when you were called to Thailand after the Boxing Day Tsunami. What was it about that event that effected you so personally?

There was no singular significant defining moment where I went, “I’ve found these children; I’ve got to support them”. My career had always been dealing with victims of crime and so forth. And I guess what I saw in Thailand was a group of kids who had all lost their parents, had all lost their homes, and they were living in a tent. It just made sense to do something for them. 

The way I looked at it was that I couldn’t change what had happened, but it was within my capacity to change what happened next. So the idea of setting up Hands [Hands Across the Water] was initially just to build them a home. I set up Hands at the end of 2005, and I thought I’d give myself 12 months to raise the money to build their first home. And that was the general consensus behind it all and how it got started.

In 12 years it’s grown probably more than you ever imagined. Can you tell us roughly how many orphanages and children the charity now caters for?

We have seven centres we’re responsible for, that we either own, have built or we fund, and they’re all across Thailand. There are kids in those homes who come from varied different needs – we have the original Tsunami projects and then the second generation of the Tsunami victims, where children may have had a grandparent or someone who could look after them, but as that grandparent ages and their ability to earn income is diminishing, these kids still need to be looked after – and that’s what we’ve been able to do there.

We run two homes for kids who have HIV or who have lost their parent to HIV, and then we have a number of other centres throughout Thailand that cater for kids who have other needs. I guess the important thing for us is it’s not just necessarily around the number of kids and the number of homes, because as a charity our success should be if we have addressed the problems that cause the kids to find themselves without homes. Any charity really should be aiming to make themselves redundant, but obviously that’s not going to happen in the short term – not in my lifetime.

So, we don’t measure success necessarily around the number of kids and the number of homes. As a charity, our success is measured by creating a life of choice for the kids, as opposed to a life of chance, so what we do is invest in their long-term future, their long-term education, and opportunities for them when it comes time to leave their home. 

If we can look at them and say have we equipped them through education, it might be university or whatever it is – do they have a choice in what they do once they leave? So if the education has been so limited that their choice is restricted to working in a rubber plantation or working in a bar, have we been successful? And the answer is no. 

If we have created meaningful opportunities for these kids, we then say that’s the measure of our success. Not the numbers. We’ve got 47 kids who are currently in university and we’ve got an increasing number who have graduated and are now alumni and working in different areas in different countries.

Speaking about opportunities, for people here in our own region, the New England North West Regional Leadership Summit is coming up in Armidale, where you’ll be a keynote speaker. What are you looking forward to most about visiting the New England region?

Getting back to a place that was so significant for me – there’s nowhere like country Australia. The communities that exist are diverse, the nature of the people and the relationships … I think it’s a very grounding place, the country. It’s a different lifestyle, and it’s something I love and miss. Returning to Armidale is something that’s pretty exciting; I used to spend a lot of time there in my forensic days.

Your keynote speech will have a component in it about corporate and social responsibility. Can you talk us through just briefly what a corporate and social responsibility is?

CSR (abbreviation for Corporate Social Responsibility) I think can be very misleading, because the very nature of the term suggests you have to be corporate to be involved in this. And, I think when people look at corporate they think big, and that’s not the case at all. CSR, the work I do, is more about building relationships between business and the not for profit sector or the charity sector and turning that relationship into a profit centre for the business. Why I do this is because any business should know they don’t have to be large to have a relationship with a charity of their choice. 

It is irrelevant whom you support; for many people, it’s just a case of either donating time, money or resources or expertise and they don’t really expect a return. The charity will continue to use those donations, while you’ve got the time, resources and money, but if things go bad, the first thing businesses do is cut the charity. 

My focus is on helping business and charity have a relationship where profits occur for both, and that might be through staff engagement, brand differentiation, staff attraction, new business … When the business can do well commercially, what it means is the pie they’ve got to carve up and give away grows. 

As a leader of a charity, it’s in my interest for the business to do well out of the relationship. The businesses may say, “That’s not why we do it; we don’t do it for the return … but I respond, “Why not? When it becomes a profit centre, then you’ll contribute more”. 

A lot of relationships between business and charity are a heart decision; we don’t understand the true measure, the true opportunity, and what I do is help commercialise that relationship – so there is a profit centre and a business outcome for both.

Thanks Peter.



Limited tickets are left for the NENW Leadership Summit. 13th September, Armidale.

NENW Regional Leadership Summits are a collaborative and immersive experience focused on the unique and sometimes tricky facets of creating a sustainable workplace culture – a culture that is attuned to every aspect of your business, including your systems and people.

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