Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 March 2015


Short, Mr Peter

8:04 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to pay tribute to Peter Short, who died peacefully on 29 December 2014, while holding the hand of his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth is in the public gallery tonight and I want to publicly acknowledge her.

The irrepressible Peter Short was a successful businessman, and chief executive of Coles Express, a business turning over $7 billion a year and employing about 4,000 people. Nephew of Jim Short, a former Liberal senator and assistant Treasurer, Peter enjoyed fast cars, hitting the blackjack table, and wining and dining at the nation's best restaurants.

But that was not the Peter Short I knew. The Peter Short that I knew was the loving father and husband who in the last year of his life dedicated himself to changing the laws around physician-assisted dying. Peter was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2009 and, following treatment, he made a full recovery—or so he thought. Five years later, on 28 January 2014, on the day of his 57th birthday, Peter was told that his cancer had returned, that it was inoperable and that he only had months to live.

His response was typical of the man known as 'Shorty'. He would defy all expectations and live for almost a year, savouring every moment. And he would become a passionate and outspoken advocate for the right of terminally ill people to choose the manner and timing of their death. It would be this cause that would give Peter's life purpose in his final months and that would ultimately shape the debate around physician-assisted dying in Australia.

In April 2014, Peter, penned his first entry on a blog called 'Tic Toc, Tic Toc, Dying to a Killer Clock', which was, in Peter's words, an outlet for Peter 'to help others facing terminal illness, and to help ventilate and inform the struggle for the right to choose'. Peter's blog would range in topics from his chemotherapy through to successful jaunts to the casino and his cherished moments with his wife Elizabeth, son Mitchell and much-adored cocker spaniel, Missy. He would finish each blog by rating his pain, mental health, physical health and life enjoyment—none of which ever dipped below five but almost always exceeded 10 out of 10 for life enjoyment.

Peter's awakening came when he happened to hear of Victorian doctor Rodney Syme, a 'dying with dignity' campaigner, who spoke about his experience of offering a Victorian man, who, incidentally, was also suffering from oesophageal cancer, a drug to allow him to die. Peter posed the question to the readers of his blog: 'What do you think the right answer is; maybe we should become a voice for change?' And what a powerful voice he became. I first heard Peter Short being interviewed on morning radio on the ABC talking about his illness and his campaign to exercise choice over how he died. Peter was a natural performer and a wonderful advocate for dying with dignity, so I called him and arranged to meet. I liked him instantly. He was funny, he was direct and he was passionate. I told him about my plans to introduce federal 'dying with dignity' legislation and asked him whether he would consider working with me to change the law. Without a moment's hesitation he jumped on board.

In June 2014 he joined me, along with my parliamentary colleagues and several other 'dying with dignity' advocates also suffering from a terminal illness, for a parliamentary briefing in Canberra to launch our bill. Peter's speech to the parliamentarians and assembled media was powerful and more than a few tears were shed that day. Sadly, one of those advocates, Max Bromson, died a few weeks later. Peter expressed not just sadness but disgust at the treatment of his family, who had their phones and laptops confiscated whilst an investigation was conducted into whether they assisted his suicide.

In his final few months Peter fought relentlessly for the rights of people with a terminal illness to choose how they would die. His wife, Elizabeth, would say that she now found herself married to a different person—someone nicer, someone more caring and more generous. That was the Peter that I knew.

Secretly, I think Peter enjoyed the limelight. He revelled in his interviews with radio personalities like Jon Faine and Neil Mitchell. He enjoyed TV appearances on The Project and meeting with politicians like the then Premier, Dennis Napthine. When The Age newspaper ran a one-week right to die feature, Peter referred to it as a 'Berlin Wall moment,' and urged the growing readership of his blog to participate in the discussion. He continued to push his online Change petition, which has now attracted almost 25,000 signatures. He set records in crowdfunding the production of a documentary that documents his life and his journey and the need to legalise physician-assisted death in Australia. He was not one to do things by halves. He initiated a detailed politician survey, he engaged with academics to incorporate his campaign in their coursework and he employed his corporate experience and connections as the basis to approach the top 300 ASX-listed companies in his campaign.

The day before his presentation to a Senate hearing into our bill, he said:

… I am representing the thoughts, hopes and wishes of my 21,000 petition signers, my Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn supporters, The Dying with Dignity … groups, the politicians who have represented to me they support—

this cause—that is, dying with dignity—

and of course the 82% of Australians who want this draft bill turned into national legislation.

His performance at the hearing was outstanding. His impassioned speech was part of the reason that the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee recommended that all members of this parliament should have a conscience vote into federal 'dying with dignity' legislation.

Through a combination of interviews, letters and even rock songs, Peter would document his attempts to speak to the PM. That is right—he started a band and wrote a song that he directed straight at the Prime Minister. At one point he entitled a blog post: 'Christmas plea to Prime Minister for a meeting— it would be easier to meet Santa.' In one of his final letters to the Prime Minister, he wrote:

The embargo placed on all Liberal members by your … government … is simply no longer acceptable …

And further:

I have but weeks left to live quite possibly, and certainly Feb should see me out. I promise you it will be a respectful, honest discussion and though I am not a head of state, a corporate giant or a poll and media strategist I am very special and this is my highest end of life priority outside my family. I am sure we would both be richer for the experience of meeting.

Regards, Peter.

Remarkably, Peter's campaign to speak directly to the PM would not end in vain. On 19 December, 10 days before Peter's death, he would receive the eagerly anticipated call from the Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott. Peter reflected on that call as a turning point in bringing choice at end of life for the terminally ill, because the Prime Minister reassured him that if the 'dying with dignity' bill came to the House it would be under terms of a free vote.

When Peter's time finally came, he did not seek physician assistance to end his own life. Instead, he died in a palliative facility that offered him the care he needed at that moment. He died peacefully, surrounded by his family. The fact that Peter decided against physician-assisted dying when his time drew near makes his story even more powerful. Like many others, simply having the choice about how he would end his life was a great source of comfort for him, even though he never ultimately exercised that choice.

Peter's funeral was just what Peter wanted—it was a celebration of his life and a real insight into his larrikin spirit. I will never forget his Ferrari-red coffin, with an inscription on it. His wife Elizabeth and his son Mitch did him proud and they have vowed to continue Peter's fight to change our laws around dying with dignity. Peter said that his mission was to make Australia not just a great country to live in but a great country to die in. I have already committed to Peter that I will do whatever I can to honour that legacy. Vale Peter Short.