Bruce Baird’s sweetest victory

Jeremy Halcrow

He may have played a key role in Sydney's Olympics win by flying to the elegant palaces of Europe, but one of Bruce Baird's proudest moment happened here, in his now half-empty electoral office in suburban Caringbah.

Where packing boxes now lie waiting to be filled, Mr Baird presented a young Iranian refugee with his Australian citizenship certificate, a moment the retiring Liberal politician now describes as "immensely satisfying'.

Adnan* was the first of 50 asylum cases that Mr Baird became personally involved with, and the politician paid tribute to the young man in his final speech to Federal parliament in September (see box). A member of an evangelical house church, Adnan had fled Iran after a militia had shot up the church, killing many in the congregation, including the minister.

When Mr Baird first heard about his case, Adnan was languishing in Australia's immigration detention. What Mr Baird didn't tell parliament was the reason the Refugee Review Tribunal refused to recognise the legitimacy of Adnan's claim - they had never heard of "house churches' and therefore did not believe his story.

Realising what had happened, Mr Baird took the case to then immigration minister Phillip Ruddock who exercised his ministerial discretion to grant Adnan refugee status. The young Iranian is now studying engineering and is a translator for his Farsi-speaking congregation at Guildford Anglican Church.

"This for me illustrates why a compassionate approach is so important," Mr Baird told his parliamentary colleagues.

Why the left is wrong

Left-wing critics, such as Marion Maddox, have made much of links between conservative Christianity and the right-wing policies of the Howard government.

Yet the way freedom was won for the young Iranian refugee tells a different story. Bruce Baird's extraordinary political career, and especially his key part in rolling back mandatory detention, speak of an alternative thesis: there is a far more complex relationship between evangelical Christianity and progressive politics in Australia. After all, as Bruce Baird points out, it's hard for Christians to ignore the Bible's concern for the voiceless and powerless.

Mr Baird, who is described as a "much-loved' member of St Luke's, Miranda, by his parish minister, says his Christian faith is integral to the way he saw the immigration issue.

"My Christian faith is a determinant in the way I approached it," he says "I believe a society is judged by the way it treats the most vulnerable."

And in an admission that must shock the left-wing conspiracy theorists, Bruce Baird adds that at the height of the pressure on him last year to back the Prime Minister's bill to move all refugee processing offshore, when all but three of his Liberal party colleagues stood against him, when radio shock-jock Ray Hadley was encouraging people from Sutherland Shire to ring up to complain that he wasn't representing their views, Bruce was able to find strength in a series of private phone calls.

"It was [Archbishop] Peter Jensen who encouraged me in the middle of it all."

Brethren background

Bruce Baird was raised in a very strict Brethren family between beach and bay on the Cronulla peninsula.

"We didn't enter the world," Mr Baird recalls of his early family life. His wife, Judy, was raised in the same circle.

"Even from a young age a lot of it didn't seem to make a lot of sense to me: not being able to go to movies, not being able to go to dances. Christianity was more about what you didn't do, rather than what you did do."
Much of Bruce Baird's public political journey seems to mirror an inner spiritual journey as he exorcised what he describes as a "fundamentalist' past to discover what it means to do what Christ wants.

His parents came to Cronulla from inner city Sydney in 1946, buying two acres of land at Gunnamatta Bay.
"In those days, Cronulla was little more than a country town and the Sutherland shire was very sparsely populated, quite different from the modern community it now is."

His parents were the proprietors of a local shoe store, and it is understandable that Bruce, growing up with intimate understanding of the struggles of small business, was later attracted to the Liberal Party. But his formative years included close encounters with the other side of politics as well. In fact, somewhat ironically, the Bairds would move next door to a future Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam, and Bruce befriended young Nicholas Whitlam.

The Labor godfather would later contact Bruce after he won preselection to say that, if they had to have a conservative in Cook, he was very glad that Bruce Baird was the candidate.

Yet Bruce's first real break from his Brethren upbringing came in 1959 when he went to Sydney University and discovered the vibrant evangelical Anglican student ministry.

Bruce and Judy started attending Anglican chaplain Dudley Foord's church.

"When Dudley was in his prime there was no one better," says Bruce. "Services were large and lively, terrific teaching, great singing, lots of young people, it was like night and day."

"It was a very big step," Bruce says of the decision to "become an Anglican'.

"My father didn't approve of it," adds Bruce sadly. It caused a rift between father and son that would not be healed until the late 1970s.

American influences

In 1977, Bruce, who had been Australia's assistant trade commissioner in Germany, was appointed to head the Trade Commission in New York. This move introduced Bruce to the breadth of American Christianity, and a number of impressive ministers who successfully balanced faith and politics. One of them was Jim Wallis, the US leader of Sojourners, who has most recently garnered international attention through his book God's Politics.

Later he would hear a talk by another of these US ministers, Terry Fulham, at St Philip's Anglican Church in Sydney.

"That was a life-changing talk," says Bruce. "He said, "You have unique skills that God wants to use for his purpose'. That was very much a turning point in my thinking."

Bruce Baird realised the skills God had given him suited politics. And just a few months later he was seeking preselection for the State seat of Northcott. It would be a meteoric rise. In four years Bruce would be made Minister for Transport, a post he would hold until he stepped down from State parliament in 1995 to become head of the Tourism Council of Australia.

As Minister for the Olympic bid, Bruce Baird says the highlight of his time in State politics was "undoubtedly' winning the bid to host the 2000 Olympics.

Yet the euphoria didn't come without hellish struggles. At one point there was a torrent of media coverage inferring Mr Baird had engaged in corruption, by setting up an RTA job interview for a relative of the Romanian Olympic delegate. Bruce found solace in the Psalms.

"I am flawed," he says. "There have been times when I have struggled to maintain my faith."

Turning point

The real spiritual turning point had come on a Christian retreat in the US, similar in style to Cursillo.

The huge impact that this retreat had on Bruce is reflected in his ongoing commitment to this style of ministry in Sydney. In fact the one hands-on ministry he commits to retaining an ongoing involvement in during his upcoming retirement is the retreat-style prison ministry Kairos.

"It was shifting from my head to the heart in terms of my Christian life," he says. On the retreat, Bruce became convicted that he should improve his life with his father, and wrote him a letter.

There had been a change in Bruce's father as well. He had been invited to be in charge of counselling at a Billy Graham Crusade. It had changed the older man's perspective.

"He realised that other Christians were just as keen to see people saved as he was."

It had been a long process, but eventually Bruce's parents had joined a Baptist church.

Back and forth over about two months, Bruce and his father exchanged letters from Australia to America.
"He had become a lot more mellow," says Bruce. "The letters got longer and longer. Until I suddenly got a phone call in the middle of the night to say my father had died."

Bruce thanks God he had the opportunity to heal his relationship with his father in the weeks before his death, saying that writing that first letter to his father was "the best thing he ever did'.

"It freed me up in my attitude to fundamentalism and understanding that God was not defined by the [Brethren] way but that God is a God of love, forgiveness and reconciliation."

Immigration battle

A massive stack of emails, standing as tall as a small child, is stored behind Bruce Baird's desk. They are from over 1800 people living all over Australia encouraging him for the stand he took for the asylum seekers.

Asked who inspired him to stand up for the asylum seekers, Mr Baird answers: "I love to be able to say [British anti-slavery campaigner] William Wilberforce. But that is more a retrospective influence."

The truth is that Bruce Baird had high ambitions when he entered Federal Parliament in 1998.

"I thought I would automatically walk in as a minister very quickly and then that would be my preoccupation. But it didn't work out that way," he says, admitting he was very disappointed to be overlooked for a ministry at the time.

"But the more I got involved in this issue, the more I was convinced it was what God had called me to do."
Bruce says he was an unlikely choice for the role of a maverick standing against the full weight of his party leadership.

"But I had to learn things in terms of humility, in terms of being a servant, to be prepared to walk a different path. About not being part of the mob."

He had had little interest in the issue when he was appointed to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration. After some time away from this committee chairing another review into the retail industry, he returned to discover they hadn't actually interviewed anyone held in a detention centre.

"They said they had been advised not to by the Immigration Department."

This answer raised Bruce's hackles and he encouraged them to press ahead with the interviews. In the end, they visited every detention centre in Australia and produced a report with 20 recommendations.

"We were called naive by the minister," says Bruce. "We were attacked within our own party."

But by that stage Bruce couldn't let go.

"I was shocked by what I saw; I was shocked by the medical state of the detainees, the physical conditions in which some of them were held; the substandard housing in remote locations, even prisons within prisons where people who had "played up' were put there by guards as was their whim; people being woken up in the middle of the night by torches shining in their eyes; people called by numbers rather than names."

Bruce spent his study leave investigating the treatment of asylum seekers in Europe and then later in North America.

"The line was that we were following the European model," but that wasn't true, says Bruce. "We were the toughest in the world."

This work finally paid off in 2005, when Mr Baird helped secure concessions on the detention arrangements, joining a revolt with three other Liberal backbenchers.

"I feel some of the best speeches I gave in the House were those related to immigration. They were times when I felt anointed [by God]."

Then in 2006 Mr Baird abstained from voting on a government bill to have all refugees processed offshore which led to the bill's demise. Forcing the Prime Minister to back down on his plans to excise most of Australia was a "moment of great victory", he says and a broad grin spreads across his face.

Mr Baird believes the push to toughen refugee laws was all about political expediency, not principled policy.
"It's electorally popular," he says. "The election in 2001 was [won on] Tampa and September 11. So that proved very successful. If it proves successful then we'll try it again. The impact of Pauline [Hanson] was there. There is a xenophobia that exists in Australia."

So it is not surprising that Bruce Baird is "not a fan' of the Christian Democrats' policy that they are taking to the federal election, which seeks to place a moratorium on Muslim immigration.

"I thought the literature at the last [State] election was racist and very anti-Muslim," he says. "I think it is very unfortunate that they have gone down that route. What does it say about Christians?"

Pointing to Jesus' teaching "when I was in prison you visited me', Mr Baird believes that it is those believers who visited asylum seekers in detention, including Muslims, who best represent Christ's interests.

"Christians need to use our power for those who have no power. We should use our influence for those who have no influence, a voice for those who have no voice."