Canberra Citizen of the Year
Christoper Peters (1949-2013)
SOURCE: Canberra Times, 5 December 1997. Photographer Peter Wells.
Chris was the eldest of three children of an Adelaide general practitioner. His father first worked in a group practice with an uncle in well-to-do Henley, then took over the branch practice in a working class area in the western suburbs, finally retiring in 2011 aged 88. His mother, daughter of a Methodist minister, worked as an air hostess with TAA, and after her marriage became very involved with community work. She died about 2006.
His paternal grandfather was appointed Secretary of a State government department at the extraordinarily young age of 42 (the usual was at 60, just before retirement), and having retired at 65 went on to be chairman of a public company until his early 80s. His great-grandfather, having retired from running a shoe business, looked after Chris until about the age of six.
Chris and his brother and sister attended the local primary school together with children whose parents worked in the nearby Holden and Phillips factories or in the railway workshops. Chris was not studious but did well in maths and science, which he liked. One of his primary school teachers introduced him to Scouts and, like Chris’s mother, pushed him to overcome his shyness and achieve above his own expectations. A later teacher, also a Scout leader, fostered his leadership potential to the point where Chris was Assistant Commissioner at 20, responsible for hundreds of boys across South Australia. Environmentally conscious even then, he set up Scouts Recycling long before such ideas were fashionable.
Secondary schooling was at prestigious St Peter’s College; Chris moved fairly easily from one social environment to the other despite being teased in each for his life in the other. His father discouraged the children from studying medicine because he could foresee it becoming “more and more clerical”; Chris’s sister ignored the advice and became a heart specialist before returning to general practice.
While still at school Chris started his first business, importing waterbeds from America and selling by mail order. In 1972 he established another business importing upmarket homewares, including Wedgwood china and Stuart crystal. In 1978 he founded the South Australian branch of the Company Directors Association, becoming national vice-president and then president. Having served the maximum three years as president he “fell off the perch”, as he put it, and was casting about for something else when the Association asked him to go to Sydney to be their chief executive.
In the mid 1970s Chris married Josephine. In typical Adelaide fashion, their parents knew each other and the young people were more or less thrown together, but it was a happy marriage. Chris and Jo had several times decided against moving to Sydney but this time, in 1987, they agreed.
The 1980s were a time of dramatic change in corporate law, highlighted by the Alan Bond and Christopher Skase affairs. The Attorney-General, Lionel Bowen, saw the need to reform such corporate excesses, in part by changing the state-based law to federal law. He gathered a group of experts, including Chris, to write the Corporations Act, and then establish a corporate regulator, now the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. At about the same time the Company Directors Association merged with the Australian Institute of Company Directors, with Chris becoming executive director of the combined Institute in 1990.
In 1991 he accepted a position in Canberra as CEO of the Australian Institute of Architects, the first non-architect in the position. Architecture was then facing problems similar to those that had confronted business in the 1980s, 40% of qualified architects were not employed in the industry, and the construction economy was in a bad state. His next position was as CEO of the Printing Industry Association; while still living in Canberra he commuted weekly to Sydney. Several others followed.
Chris was appointed as Chief Executive of the ACT & Region Chamber of Commerce & Industry in 1997 and held the position until his death, becoming the longest serving CEO of the Chamber of Commerce movement in Australia. He not only had a clear understanding of the nature of business, but also extraordinary insight into its relationship with government. He was a trusted adviser to the ACT government and represented private sector business on more than 20 advisory boards, statutory authorities and committees. His business card listed over 30 organisations he was associated with, and his website identified about a dozen more.
After the 2003 bushfires the contribution of the Chamber of Commerce was a source of immense pride for Chris. Unlike many in leadership roles in Canberra, he and a friend had been involved after the 1980 Ash Wednesday fires in South Australia and were able to offer solutions based on first hand experience. In an interview in 2012 he gave an example not only of an appropriate solution but of how the Chamber members pulled together to bring it off. People were willing to wear secondhand clothes but not second hand underwear. He spoke to Kate Lundy who arranged a donation of 11,000 items of underwear from a Brisbane company. The Chamber of Commerce members coordinated a succession of donated transport and storage services from Brisbane to Canberra, and then further donations of mobile phones and other support for volunteer packers and distributors to get the clothing to those who needed it.
Chris was also committed to teaching people how to run a business properly, no matter its size. He conducted seminars on how to be a good company director, and in 2000 founded the Indigenous Business Chamber of Australia, the peak body for Indigenous business people and others wishing to support them. Believing strongly in education and skills development, he helped establish the Canberra Institute of Technology Vocational College and served on the ACT Board of Senior Secondary Studies. His contribution to education was recognised with an honorary doctorate from the University of Canberra.
Chris loved music, particularly classical music of the 16th to 19th centuries as well as jazz and modern non-classical music. He supported the Canberra Symphony Orchestra and served on the board of the ANU School of Music Foundation for five years but resigned in protest over the handling of the financial crisis in 2012, then continued to work through the Canberra community in hopes of achieving a resolution.
In July 2011 he had a routine medical scan that resulted in a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, for which there is no cure. Given a few months to live, Chris defied the odds. He was fortunate in having no pain and few side-effects of the treatment, which he arranged for Friday afternoon so he could recover over the weekend and pick up his normal workload on Monday. It was an extraordinary achievement.
Chris died on 22 February 2013, remembered for his extensive knowledge of business, his skills in communication and problem solving, and most of all for his kindness and generosity and an unshakeable belief in his adopted city: "What's fabulous about Canberra is that we are small enough that we can make things happen, but we are large enough to make it worthwhile happening."
Awards and Distinctions
2004 Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service to the business sector as an administrator of a range of private, public and professional authorities and organisations, and to the community
2008 Order of Isabella Catolica (OI) for services to the Spanish Diplomatic Corps
2009 Honorary doctorate, University of Canberra
2012 Canberra Citizen of the Year for personal efforts and significant contributions to the ACT community, particularly as the Chief Executive of the ACT and Region Chamber of Commerce
2012 ACT Honour Walk
1989 Peters, Christopher & Business Law Education Centre (Australia), Company directors : what you need to know to be a director in 1989 : papers delivered at a workshop held in September 1989, Business Law Education Centre, Melbourne
2012 ‘Canberra Close Up: Chris Peters’, interview with Alex Sloan 20 June, heard 3 March 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/local/audio/2012/06/20/3529526.htm
2013 ‘Honouring Dr Christopher Peters AM OI JP - Motion of condolence in the ACT Legislative Assembly’, viewed 1 March 2016, http://www.katygallagher.net/honouring_dr_christopher_peters_am_oi_jp_motion_of_condolence_in_the_act_legislative_assembly
2013 ‘In memory of Dr Christopher Peters AM OI JP’, B2B Magazine, April 01, viewed 1 March 2016, http://www.b2bmagazine.com.au/in-memory-of-dr-christopher-peters-am-oi-jp/