House debates

Monday, 15 June 2020


Sheean, Ordinary Seaman Edward (Teddy)

11:06 am

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) in 2019 the independent 11-member Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal did unanimously recommend that the extraordinary bravery of Ordinary Seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean should be recognised with the posthumous awarding of the Victoria Cross; and

(b) the Government rejected the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal's unanimous recommendation; and

(2) calls on the Prime Minister to take immediate action to reverse the Government's rejection of the tribunal's recommendation, and take the actions necessary to progress the tribunal's recommendation.

The matter of whether Teddy Sheean deserves a Victoria Cross is settled. The 2019 report of the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal outlines in comprehensive and compelling detail why the Tasmanian 18-year-old should be awarded the Commonwealth's most distinguished military honour. I urge every member to read it.

The issue bedevilling the government is not whether Sheean deserves the Victoria Cross; it's about the paperwork. Defence has an internal policy that compelling new evidence or evidence of maladministration must be provided in order to consider a retrospective application for the Victoria Cross. It's a policy. The High Court has considered the matter of policy and what weight should be placed on it. It has held that, while a general policy may be taken into account, a decision-maker must not preclude themselves from considering a matter on its merits. More recently, the Federal Court also discussed the issue:

The boundary is clear: policy is not to become a rule of law. The statute is the expression of the rule of law. Executive policy cannot, in form or more importantly in substance, be perceived by decision-makers as, or operate as, a rule …

And yet it is this policy that the Prime Minister is treating as holy writ—as a rule. He has commissioned a new panel to examine the sole question of whether the tribunal's recommendation abides by the policy. In commissioning the Nelson review, this Prime Minister has elevated an internal bureaucratic mechanism which has no legislated authority behind it above eligibility criteria which is laid out in statutes.

Let us be clear: if the Nelson review returns with a verdict that the policy has not been met then, irrespective of whether legislated eligibility criteria have been, the government will continue to block Teddy Sheean's nomination. In effect, Prime Minister Morrison is prepared to deny Teddy Sheean the Victoria Cross not because he is unworthy but because someone didn't do the paperwork. It is, frankly, inconceivable to me that any serviceman or servicewoman should ever be denied consideration for combat decoration because of bureaucratic inconvenience. The only consideration should be to assess whether action in the face of the enemy meets the eligibility criteria for the decoration in question.

And there is no doubt—none—that Teddy Sheean exceeds the requirements for the awarding of a Victoria Cross. Conspicuous gallantry in the face of the enemy: Sheean made the conscious decision to man the aft cannon rather than obey the order to abandon ship. He decided upon this action himself; he required no order. Furthermore, Sheean was ordinarily the cannon's loader, not its gunner. In strapping himself to that weapon and firing that gun, bringing down at least one enemy aircraft, he went above and beyond what was expected both of his station and of his training. Self-sacrifice: Sheean did not hesitate to place himself in mortal danger to save his shipmates from being machine-gunned in the water. Badly wounded and unable to stand, he continued firing until the Armidale sank with him below the waves.

I urge all in this place to read the stories of the 181 men who earned the Victoria Cross in World War II, and I defy anyone to say that Sheean does not deserve to be in their company. This boy who, in the last minutes of his life, personified the values of this nation—courage, mateship, a larrikin spirit and self-sacrifice—deserves better than to have his legacy held hostage by bureaucracy. It find it extraordinary that there can be such unity on the merits of Sheean's actions but such deep division over how those actions should be recognised.

In short, according to this Prime Minister and the mandarins at Defence, merit is not enough: the paperwork has to be right because, if the paperwork isn't right, it may upset the British Admiralty or perhaps the Queen herself. If we are to have a fight with the British over the awarding of the Victoria Cross for Sheean, then let's stop wasting time and have at it. The Prime Minister must abandon the folly of this panel he has announced and, instead, come into this parliament to declare that he will now advance Teddy Sheean's deserved nomination for the Victoria Cross. This entire parliament and, indeed, every man, woman and child in Australia will be behind him. Let the British, if they dare, seek to deny our Australian son the award that he earned with his last breath and his last drop of blood. Let the British admirals sweat and worry at the thought that the Australians are coming and will not be denied.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

An opposition member: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

11:11 am

Photo of Bridget ArcherBridget Archer (Bass, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Edward 'Teddy' Sheean was born in Lower Barrington on Tasmania's north-west on 28 December 1923, the youngest of the 14 children of labourer James Sheean and his wife, Mary Jane. He was educated in Latrobe before gaining casual employment on local farms—an ordinary life and not uncommon for many young men of his age at this time. Like many, Teddy heeded the call to serve his country, enlisting in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve in April 1941.

In 1942, Teddy began his service as an Oerlikon anti-aircraft gunner on the newly commissioned corvette HMAS Armidale. This led to an act of extraordinary courage by this young, unassuming man from rural Tasmania. Teddy Sheean's actions are well worth repeating, and the following description comes from the Australian War Memorial collection:

In October 1942 Armidale's captain, Lieutenant Commander David Richards, was ordered to Darwin and, on 29 November, the corvette began her last operation. Along with two other vessels, she was to undertake a resupply and evacuation mission to Japanese-occupied Timor.

Having been seen by Japanese reconnaissance pilots shortly after leaving the port, Armidale was destined for a dangerous journey. She and the other corvette on the operation, HMAS Castlemaine, missed the rendezvous with the third ship, in Timor's Betano Bay, but met her later some 100 kilometres off-shore. The plan having gone awry, Armidale was ordered to return to Betano the following night. Facing a long day in enemy waters and the certainty of attack, the crew waited.

When in the mid-afternoon she was hit by two aircraft-launched torpedoes, Armidale began to sink fast. Sheean was wounded and, rather than abandon ship, he strapped himself to his Oerlikon and began to engage the attacking aircraft even as the ship sunk beneath him. He shot down two planes, and crewmates recall seeing tracer rising from beneath the surface as Sheean was dragged under the water, firing until the end. He died on 1 December 1942 aged just 18. Only 49 of the 149 men on board survived the attack and subsequent ordeal on rafts and in life boats.

Many of the survivors attributed their lives to Sheean's actions, and his story of incredible bravery and valour has become legendary in Tasmania. Sheean's actions were recognised with a posthumous mention in dispatches, awarded on the recommendations of Armidale's commanding officer. However, at the time his actions were not recommended for receipt of the Victoria Cross.

Let me be absolutely clear: there is no-one here—not my colleagues, nor I and certainly not the Prime Minister—who has ever disputed his valour. The Victoria Cross for Australia is our most pre-eminent Australian gallantry decoration. We must always uphold the integrity of the Victoria Cross and everything that it stands for. Today, we see a shameful display by Labor and others, playing politics for their own gain. What has transpired over the past few weeks has been nothing short of appalling. It's important to note that in January 2013, after a two-year inquiry into 13 cases of unresolved recognition for past acts of gallantry, which covered over 166 submissions from 125 individuals and organisations, the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal found that there was no manifest injustice with the award of the mention in dispatches and that there was no new evidence to support the consideration of Sheean for the Victoria Cross for Australia.

There are, clearly, different views on whether there is compelling new evidence about Sheean's actions in 1942. As the Prime Minister stated last week, overturning a decision relating to a Victoria Cross nearly 80 years after Sheean's heroic actions in 1942 would need compelling reasons. Consideration of the awarding of a retrospective Victoria Cross should only occur in light of compelling new evidence, or if there was evidence of significant maladministration. Given the differing views, the expert panel put together last week will examine all available evidence and provide advice. My colleague the member for Braddon, Gavin Pearce, an esteemed veteran himself, my Liberal Senate colleagues and I have consistently advocated for Teddy's actions to be recognised. This panel will provide rigorous examination of the evidence while also upholding the sanctity of the Victoria Cross. It provides a pathway forward that is above politics, as it should be. How terribly sad that the actions of one incredibly brave Tasmanian have so quickly become a quest for political gain by a desperate opposition grasping for relevance.

11:16 am

Photo of Julie CollinsJulie Collins (Franklin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Ageing and Seniors) Share this | | Hansard source

Those of us on this side of the House are just stunned by the speech from the member for Bass, who is essentially saying, 'We think that Teddy Sheean deserves some recognition but maybe not the Victoria Cross.' Let's be very clear about this: Teddy Sheean and his family have fought for this recognition for a long time, supported by the majority of Tasmanians. This led to the Defence Honours And Awards Appeals Tribunal unanimously recommending that a Victoria Cross be awarded to Teddy, following a merits based review and hearings held in Tasmania last year. That is what has happened. And it has been the Prime Minister and the people on that side who have made a political decision not to recommend the awarding of a Victoria Cross to Teddy Sheean. That's what's happened here. They are the ones that made this political. It is outrageous of them to come in here and accuse us, when we are standing up for a Tasmanian and his family who have been fighting for a very long time for his actions to be recognised, and recognised in a way that has happened in the past.

Let's be very clear about this. Tasmanians joined the defence forces in numbers disproportionate to our population—way above. We have a long history of disproportionate service to our nation through the defence forces. For a very small island state, we also have a disproportionate number of Victoria Cross awardees. I have quite a few in my own electorate. Tasmania has 14 Victoria Cross recipients at the moment. We should have 15, let's be clear about that. Teddy Sheean would be the 15th if the Prime Minister hadn't made a decision not to recommend the awarding of this Victoria Cross. That is the bottom line, and those on the other side need to accept that that is the bottom line.

Instead, the Prime Minister has concocted this new process, one that nobody's ever heard of before and that's never been done before. Why has he done it? That is the question. Has he done it because he can't admit he made a mistake and he wants to overturn the decision? Or has he made it because he's hoping the issue will go away and nobody will notice if, a few weeks down the track, the VC is not awarded? What is the point of this, seriously? The Prime Minister could make a decision today to overturn his previous decision and recommend the awarding of a Victoria Cross for Teddy Sheean. The Prime Minister could do that today, in line with the unanimous decision of the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal. He could do that today, but instead we've got this process. And nobody can really tell us why the Prime Minister won't just come in, admit he was wrong and change his position. That is what he should do, that is what he could do, and, indeed, that's what those of us on this side of the House and the majority of Tasmanians want him to do. We want him to come into this place and say, 'Look, I'm sorry. It should be recommended; we're going to fix it.' And then the decision is up to the British monarch once that recommendation is made. If the Queen wants to make a different decision, that is up to her, but the Australian Prime Minister has the unanimous decision of the process that has already occurred to recommend the awarding of this Victoria Cross, and the only thing stopping it is the Prime Minister proceeding with that recommendation. That is the only thing stopping this award.

Now, yes, those of us on this side of the House and particularly the member for Lyons and our senator from the north-west coast, Anne Urquhart, have been fighting very hard for Teddy Sheean for quite some time. And, yes, Anthony Albanese, as Leader the Labor Party, has written an opinion piece because he understands that a unanimous decision was made to recommend this award. Those people on that side of the House seem to pretend that that never happened. It did happen, and your government and your Prime Minister have the power in their hands to fix this today. Instead we're having this new process and we may or may not hear about the decision sometime in late July. That's not good enough, and this House should say that's not good enough. It's not good enough for the proud history of Tasmanians who have served in the Defence Force. It's not good enough for Teddy Sheean and his family, who have been fighting for this recognition. And it's not good enough to uphold the integrity of the Victoria Cross and the processes that have passed before. That is what should happen. (Time expired)

11:21 am

Photo of Gavin PearceGavin Pearce (Braddon, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The award that is the Victoria Cross is our pre-eminent award for valour. It is the highest award in the Australian honours and awards system and recognises:

… persons who, in the presence of the enemy, perform acts of the most conspicuous gallantry, or daring or pre-eminent acts of valour or self-sacrifice or display extreme devotion to duty …

That is clearly written in the procedure for awarding such an award, and I would urge all in this place to take note of procedure and the protocols that surround this sacred award. From somebody who has served more than half their life defending the nation, we look at this through a different lens. We're the ones who have had the rifle in our hands and we understand full well what the VC means. This is not a chook raffle and it shouldn't be denigrated to this place. It is not this place's role. It is indeed written in the protocol for awarding the Victoria Cross, and I would urge all to return to that.

The second thing that I would like to make very clear is the fact that I have always, along with my state colleagues, advocated for higher recognition for seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean. This was a young bloke who on 1 December 1942 had a way out. Contrary to some reports, he was not injured at the time that he was at the lifeboat station. This young bloke made the conscious decision to leave the sanctity and the safety of those lifeboats, return to a 20-millimetre antiaircraft weapon and shoot down a number of enemy aircraft, saving a number of his friends and his mates on that ship. He made a conscious decision to leave safety and return to danger just like so many of our young service men and women do.

I applaud the Prime Minister and cabinet's decision to have this looked at for a final time. We have conflicting reports. In fact, the first report, the Valour report of 2013, recommends that no Victoria Cross or any other valour award be awarded to Teddy Sheean. It recommends further to that that the ships HMAS Perth, Rankin, Sheean, Waller and Yarra be perpetuated in the Royal Australian Navy after their present named ships are decommissioned. This report was differed with by the final report and, as a consequence, cabinet was faced with conflicting reports.

In my opinion, the Prime Minister has taken the right decision in the formulation of the final expert panel, which will be chaired by former Minister for Defence and Director of the Australian War Memorial the Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO. It will also comprise former Solicitor-General Mr David Bennett AC, QC; former Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Dr Peter Shergold AC; and senior curator and historian at the New South Wales Anzac Memorial, Mr Brad Manera. The panel will report to the Prime Minister with its findings by 31 July this year, and I look forward to those recommendations.

There is no doubt that the actions of Ordinary Seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean are worthy of such an award. However, it's not my place to say that; it is the findings of the tribunal. Ultimately, the Minister for Defence makes that recommendation to the Prime Minister and cabinet, and then the sovereign approves that award, which is awarded through decree by the Governor-General of Australia.

It is not this place's job to determine the merits nor the procedure. It is not this place's job to kick this around like a football or like a can down the road. It is this place's job to implore respect and honour for not only the award but the individual involved. The historic and extraordinary selfless actions of Ordinary Seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean cannot be denied. As an ex-serviceman, I welcome the degree of rigorous examination that this panel will no doubt give. There is not one person in this space— (Time expired)

11:26 am

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fenner, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

'What more can you ask of a man or a boy than to give his life for his country and to save his mates.' These are the words of Garth Sheean, the brother of Ordinary Seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean. This is Teddy Sheean's story—a story of bravery, of sacrifice and of underacknowledged valour.

Almost 80 years ago, at just 17 years of age, Teddy Sheean followed in his brother's footsteps and joined the Royal Australian Navy. It was there he met his mate, Able Seaman Jack Bird. The now 96-year-old Jack says Teddy Sheean 'could fight like a thrashing machine'. It was both combat and comradery that he'd be remembered for.

Less than two years after enlisting and just shy of his 19th birthday, Teddy Sheean was on board the HMAS Armidale when it was sent to the waters north of Australia. He and his crewmates were tasked with helping evacuate exhausted troops and civilians from occupied Timor. On 1 December, en route from Timor, they came under repeated attack from Japanese aircraft. For hours, they fought back.

Almost three hours later, nine bombers, three fighters and a float plane attacked the Armidale. Hit by two torpedoes and possibly a bomb, it began to sink. As men took to the life rafts, the Japanese Zeros stopped attacking the sinking ship and begin strafing those in the water. Teddy Sheean was shot twice. For reasons we'll never know, he returned to his Oerlikon cannon, strapped himself in and began shooting back. As enemy aircraft fired on his friends and fellow sailors in the water, he shot down one plane and damaged two others. Crew mates recall seeing him dragged under the water, firing as he vanished under the waves.

Ordinary Seaman Russel Caro afterwards reported, 'None of us will ever know what made him do it, but he went back to his gun and strapped himself in.' Teddy died strapped to a sinking ship, hundreds of kilometres from his home in Tasmania. This is a teenager who gave his life for his friends and for his country. Forty-nine of the 149 men on board the Armidale survived the sinking and lived to be rescued—many survivors credited Teddy Sheean's actions.

Teddy Sheean's sacrifice is a reminder of all that his family lost. Speaking about Teddy Sheean, I can't help but think of my own great-grandfather Roland Stebbins who also enlisted in the Navy at age 17. In war, we ask teenagers to do extraordinary things. I'm here only because my great-grandfather came home from World War I. Many of Teddy Sheean's mates survived World War II because he did not. Just last year, when marking the anniversary of the sinking of the HMAS Armidale, the Defence Force noted:

Ordinary Seaman Sheean's bravery has become synonymous with the Navy's values of courage and loyalty.

In his funeral oration, after the first battle of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles spoke of those whose test of worth was to be found in their closing scene—soldiers who 'reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, joyfully determined to accept the risk'. Such warriors, said Pericles, received that 'renown that never grows old', the glory 'to be eternally remembered'. Heroes, he said, 'have the whole earth for their tomb'.

Many have told Teddy Sheean's story to their children. In 1999 a submarine was named after him. The war memorial holds a painting depicting his final moments, but he never received a Victoria Cross.

Victoria Crosses are forged from bronze taken from captured 19th century cannons and inscribed with 'For Valour'. Teddy Sheean's extraordinary valour merits the award, and there's something particularly apt about a man who took to the guns to defend his mates now posthumously receiving an award cast from the barrel of a cannon.

Garry Ivory has led the family campaign to see his uncle get a VC for more than 25 years. He said:

There's a lot of tributes been paid to Teddy, but the VC is what he deserved …

Last year the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal unanimously recommended it. And it's not just Labor; Liberal Guy Barnett has backed the campaign too. It should have happened when Teddy Sheean's parents were alive to see it, but it's time now we acknowledge Teddy Sheean's heroism in the greatest way our country knows. It's time his valour was recognised with a Victoria Cross.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allocated for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.