Prime Minister Scott Morrison in reply to questions from Australian Community Media about Teddy Sheean:
Australia will remain eternally grateful for the service, dedication and sacrifice of Ordinary Seaman Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean.
I can understand the frustration, commitment and passion of those petitioning for Teddy Sheehan to be recognised through the posthumous awarding of the VC. His bravery and sacrifice was exemplary.
Like previous Governments we have not taken this decision lightly and appreciate it would also be popular to take the contrary view. I have taken advice from Australia’s military chiefs past and present in making this decision. It in no way lessens or seeks to detract from Teddy Sheehan’s service. To the contrary it is
to preserve and protect the system of honours in our defence forces, in which he so admirably served, from political involvement and second guessing years after the fact.
No doubt there are many cases deserving of recognition from times long since past or even more recently, but these are matters, in the absence of compelling new evidence, that should be left to the decision makers of the time, and not second guessed by the decision of politicians many years later in a different context.
Overturning a decision like this nearly 80 years later would need compelling reasons but risks creating a two-tier system between the Victoria Cross for Australia and the Imperial Victoria Cross.
The Victoria Cross for Australia is our most pre-eminent Australian decoration and should be held in the same standing and value as the Imperial VC. There are extreme practical difficulties, like the amount of time that has passed, that make retrospective recognition difficult and could damage the integrity of the Australian honours and awards system.
That is why it is the Government’s view and clear policy, as well as the previous Government’s, is that consideration of the awarding of a retrospective Victoria Cross would only be considered in light of compelling new evidence or if there was evidence of manifest injustice. This policy was outlined in the 2013 Report of the Inquiry into Unresolved Recognition for Past Acts of Naval and Military Gallantry and Valour, which was accepted by the then Government in March 2013, and in the Guidance to applicants on preparing a submission for Defence to review honours and awardsissued by the Department of Defence.
Unlike the most recent review, the 2013 Valour Inquiry was more comprehensive because it considered both the process and the merits of the decision to award Sheean a Mention in Dispatches. The Government of the day also accepted the 2013 Inquiry’s findings.
As the 2013 Valour Inquiry concluded, no system is perfect and for every VC recipient there are many others who could have received the honour. But those honours are discretionary and today’s standards cannot be applied to events and actions that took place in a completely different era. The evidentiary standards for recommending the award of the Victoria Cross were and are the highest of standards and those recommendations rely on a nomination raised by the commanding officer in the field supported by contemporary eyewitness accounts. Through the passage of time, it is no longer possible to be sure, without indisputable evidence, exactly what happened in the action in which Sheean was involved.
· The Tribunal has not outlined what compelling new evidence has informed their decision as compared to the 2013 Inquiry
· The 2019 Inquiry itself states that it was ‘concerned to establish if the findings of the Valour Tribunal represented the best evaluation of the available evidence.” – para 20. That is that the 2019 Inquiry re-evaluated evidence known to the 2013 Valour Inquiry.
· As reported in the 2013 Valour Inquiry, it is understood that the matter of a retrospective Victoria Cross was raised by the New Zealand Government with Her Majesty the Queen (as Queen of New Zealand) who affirmed her previous decisions not to reopen the question of Second World War Awards – see section 7-8.
· Some examples of other expert commentary from the 2013 Valour Inquiry that considered these matters in great detail.
o Mr Les Carlyon, author of two highly regarded histories of Australia in the First World War, a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History, and a recent member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial, put the case for preserving the integrity of the Australian honours and awards system most clearly: What is now being proposed by some is a break with these patterns and traditions. If Australia were to grant VCs as the result of a government acting on recommendations to this inquiry, we would have introduced a two-tiered system. There would be the VCs awarded the conventional way, as a result of military processes, eye witness accounts and prompt decisions. And there would be those awarded by political process, and in response to well-intentioned lobbying. In other words there would be a VC and a VC with an asterisk …
o Emeritus Professor Peter Dennis of the Australian Defence Force Academy said that retrospectivity ‘would invite far more abuses than it would redress’
o Retired Brigadier Chris Roberts, also a respected military historian, was adamant that retrospective awards would have ‘the potential to cheapen the VC’ and would ‘have the potential to bring a degree of ridicule on the retrospective awards’
o Major General Paul Stevens (Retd), a former services member of the Repatriation Commission, Director of the Office of Australian War Graves, and member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial, wrote: In any conflict there are those whose bravery and valour might be conspicuous who are unrewarded. The system is not perfect because it is based on the judgement of individuals at the time. To my mind, a process that allowed retrospective awards based on the views of those not involved in the conflict would be even more flawed. It would lead to cherry-picking of candidates by vocal champions whose views were informed by a different era, and constant calls for consideration by decision makers no better placed to judge retrospective merit than those originally involved. Awards made in these circumstances would progressively serve to weaken the recognition originally intended, not to mention place Australia at odds with its Commonwealth partners who, until recently, shared the use of these awards.