OPINION | Lessons from Sheean Victoria Cross case


Crispin Hull

Guest Columnist

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Painting of Teddy Sheean still firing at the enemy when his ship sank. Image: Australian War Memorial.

In the new environment of political leaders being more willing to accept expert advice, it seemed a little perplexing that the Government would reject the unanimous recommendation of the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal to award Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean the Victoria Cross.

The tribunal’s membership is sprinkled with Admirals, Generals, Air Marshals and administrative-law heavyweights.

18-year-old Sheean was aboard HMAS Armidale during a Japanese aerial attack in the Timor Sea on 1 December 1942. Rather than abandon ship he took to a gun and shot at the Japanese aircraft saving many lives. He went down with the ship.

There has never been an Australian naval VC. Sheean’s actions on their face seemed to merit one. Various people have taken up his case over the years, resulting in a 2013 Valour Inquiry which knocked it back. That decision was endorsed by the Gillard Government. But that did not end the matter.

Sheean was from Tasmania and his case was taken up by Tasmanian Veterans’ Affairs Minister Guy Bennett who asked the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Michael Noonan, to look at the case. He did and rejected it the petition, relying on the 2013 decision, so Bennett asked for a review of Noonan’s decision by the tribunal.

Tasmanian Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie, who has a highly tuned antenna for causes that might resonate with the populous, also took up the cause.

On 12 May Lambie went for Defence Minister Linda Reynolds in Question Time. She asked: “Our question from Tasmania is this: what more could Teddy Sheean have possibly done to earn a Victoria Cross?

“The government has had the Teddy Sheean report before the awards and honours tribunal since July 2019; we are nearly 12 months on. Your government has blocked every effort to get it released because, you say, you are preparing a response. How long does it take to say 'accept' or 'does not accept' on a document? What is the holdup?”

Reynolds took the question on notice and came back with the answer the next day (unwittingly answering Lambie’s query of “how long does it take” – one day, apparently). Reynolds told the Senate that the Government would reject the tribunal’s recommendation. And that was before notifying the tribunal. 

Unfortunately, in the words of the tribunal chair, Mark Sullivan, she “misrepresented the statutory function of the tribunal . . . and misstated the standing of a purportedly clear government policy that a retrospective award of the Victoria Cross for Australia will only be allowed in the case of compelling new evidence or manifest injustice. These two statements, in my view, make your answer to the Senate misleading and in need of correction.”

Equally unfortunate, was her failure to give full reasons for the decision. It seemed more like a quick attempt to shoo Lambie away.

Decision-making in Australia has degenerated over the years. No longer is it a deliberative process of issue-resolving, problem-solving, spending or revenue assessment and so on. Rather everything seems to be measured against a pub-test, a talk-back-radio test, or containment of cross-bench fury.

Not only does every member of the Government have to sing from the same page of the song-book and stick to the message, but the message must be very short. Senator Reynolds’s first public mention of the Government’s VC decision was just 311 words.

It was perplexing. So I asked the Minister’s office whether she had had any advice leading to the decision and could I get a copy. I learned that the Prime Minister’s office was handling the matter, after all, it was a story that had generated much public excitement.

The Prime Minister’s Office gave a long and considered answer, setting out the source and nature of the advice received. It gave some very solid reasons for the rejection of the VC recommendation. The full answer is available here.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also hosed down the shock-jockery by explaining his position to Alan Jones.

The pity is that the Government did not do what good decision-makers should do in the first place: lay out the evidence; lay out the advice; cite at length the reasons for the decision. And do it promptly.

Prompt attention in this case was imperative given the Sheean family might have taken some solace from the Tribunal’s detailed public reasons which included the fact that it had accepted new evidence that showed that the evidence provided to the British Admiralty in 1943 was inaccurate and had understated Sheean's actions resulting in the British Admiralty recommending that he be posthumously awarded the Mention in Despatches, and not the Victoria Cross.

Also, it is a pity that the Government first made its decision not to accept the VC recommendation public in an answer to a Question in the Senate – a hose-down-the-crossbench exercise. It should have done it in a more formal way and released all the details of its decision-making process.

If it had done so people would not have jumped on the “VC for Sheean” bandwagon so readily. More importantly, if governments in general were freer with the information that leads to their decisions, more people would see how difficult decision-making is and would have greater sympathy for the politicians who have to make them.

Short choreographed song-sheets, on the other hand, invite suspicion.

One of the silliest precepts behind some of the vast array of exemptions for disclosure in the Freedom of Information Act is the idea that publication could jeopardise Cabinet and other governmental processes. To the contrary, the sure knowledge that a public servant’s (or these days a consultant’s) advice to a Minister or the Cabinet might very soon be public would be a virtual guarantee that the advice would not be tainted by secretive, irrelevant factors.

In this instance, I am persuaded by historian Les Carlyon’s view (included in the PM’s response) that VCs awarded by a political process years after the event would create a two-tier award – a VC with an asterisk. And also the view of Emeritus Professor Peter Dennis of the Australian Defence Force Academy that retrospectivity “would invite far more abuses than it would redress”. So even if Sheean probably deserved a VC, it is too late.

That said, however, despite the belated more expansive response by Morrison, one might still be excused for thinking that some remnant, imperialist, forelock-tugging attitude haunts this decision. We should not question the British Admiralty. We should respect the wishes of the Queen’s father, George VI. who said in 1949 that a line should be drawn under World War II awards and honours.

That seems like a sound idea. But if so, it should be one Australians should make. It is out of character for this government not to grab a seemingly popular idea that would have been laced with photo opportunities. That it did not might suggest some other hidden considerations.

Crispin Hull is a current columnist and the former Editor of the Canberra Times.

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