Former governor-general Bill Hayden at home northwest of Brisbane. Picture: Adam Head
Former governor-general Bill Hayden at home northwest of Brisbane. Picture: Adam Head

How our atheist former G-G found God

IN 1996 Bill Hayden was given a citation as Humanist of the Year, recognising his atheism and commitment to humanitarian causes.

In his last year as Australia's governor-general, the former Labor leader and Bob Hawke's foreign affairs minister was acknowledged for speaking out on issues which had a foundation in a rejection of religion.

"As governor-general, (Hayden) publicly declared himself an atheist and spoke, without fear despite criticism, in favour of voluntary euthanasia and other causes supported by Humanists," said the citation.

"Whether speaking in Australia or abroad, he advocated peace and human rights, and condemned injustice, intolerance and discrimination."

Bill Hayden (right) served as social security minister for prime minister Gough Whitlam in the ’70s.
Bill Hayden (right) served as social security minister for prime minister Gough Whitlam in the ’70s.

In a dramatic volte face, Hayden has now done something none of the other 34 Australians who have been nominated as "Humanist of the Year" - he's renounced atheism and returned to the Catholic Church after an absence that goes back to the 1940s.

Hayden has not just adopted the teachings, faith and beliefs of Christianity, he has marked this moral renewal with a baptism conducted on September 9 by Father Peter Dillon at St Mary's in Ipswich.

This is, by any measure, a remarkable even in the life of one of Queensland's most famous sons.

Born at the height of the Great Depression in 1933, Hayden started life in a way which was as controversial as much of what has happened in the 85 years since.

Hayden's father, George, originally from Oakland, California didn't marry for eight days after his first son was born - something that now causes Hayden to joke "one of the slights my opponents used against me was in fact true".

In his early life, Hayden was a keen sportsman, enjoying rugby and rowing, and served in the military - the Australian Navy - and what was then the Queensland Police Force.

Prime minister Bob Hawke is flanked by Bill Hayden and his wife Dallas at Hayden's federal election campaign launch at Ipswich in 1987.
Prime minister Bob Hawke is flanked by Bill Hayden and his wife Dallas at Hayden's federal election campaign launch at Ipswich in 1987.

These job gave him a living but not satisfaction. He continued his education privately and graduated with an economics degree after studying part-time at University of Queensland.

As he grew into his 20s, he became active in the Labor Party - a progressive who fought for civil and human rights from early on - and shocked many, including himself, by ousting a Liberal minister with a 9 per cent swing in 1961. A 27-year stint as the member for Oxley had begun.

Hayden was on the outside of Queensland Labor, which was run by a trade union dominated, right wing power bloc but he refused to blink, on issues or backing candidates who were out of favour.

In Canberra he built a reputation as an intelligent, highly motivated reformer who was highly regarded by leader Gough Whitlam.

Whitlam appointed him social security minister after Labor won in 1972 - a post which gave Hayden a historic win and led to an association that last to today and had a profound influence on his decision to go back to the church.

 

Governor-general Bill Hayden (right) after swearing in Paul Keating as prime minister after Bob Hawke was defeated in a Labor leadership ballot
Governor-general Bill Hayden (right) after swearing in Paul Keating as prime minister after Bob Hawke was defeated in a Labor leadership ballot

One of Hayden's allies in getting Medibank going as a policy and as the biggest social reform of the Whitlam era was Sister Angela Mary Doyle, a founder of the Mater Hospital in South Brisbane and a fervent supporter of universal health care.

The friendship between Hayden and Sister Angela Mary has endured for the past 40-plus years and both have looked out for each other in good health and poor.

The dedicated Sister was at Hayden's side after his recent serious stroke and he was with Angela Mary following a heart attack earlier this year.

It was the visit to the Mater with his wife Dallas and daughter Ingrid that made up Hayden's mind.

"I sat talking with Sister Mary Angela and was again delighted by her marvellous courage and conviction," Hayden said yesterday.

"I thought about her as I was going to bed that night, and when I woke the next morning I thought, what wonderful human being."

Hayden said he had a feeling of overall warmth which permeated him.

Former atheist Bill Hayden has had a religious experience. Picture: Adam Head
Former atheist Bill Hayden has had a religious experience. Picture: Adam Head

"I thought, 'She's wonderful. She's a holy person.' She had shown me the way a good person could live."

Just as remarkable was a point of awareness Hayden came to while considering what this return to the church would mean for him - something recounted in a letter he wrote to family and friends inviting them to his baptism at St Mary's.

"I suddenly realised something I had not considered in this way before, ironically by reading a book on Shia Islam by academic Malise Ruthven which pointed out that Christianity was a religion not of rules but of love," wrote Hayden.

"It is about love for your fellow humans, forgiveness, compassion and helpful support."

It is a truly astonishing, perhaps end point for a life's journey that saw a policemen become a champion of gay and other civil rights, a staunch republican become governor-general and now a one time humanitarian of the year take a holy baptism in the presence of his Lord at age 85.



'I want it built': Miller demands action on rail line

premium_icon 'I want it built': Miller demands action on rail line

Jo-Ann Miller urged the state to continue the line to save money

Rescue crews ready as Cyclone hits category three

Rescue crews ready as Cyclone hits category three

Qld is a tale of two states, from cyclone-born rain to droughts.

Local Partners