Senate debates

Wednesday, 17 June 2020


Sheean, Ordinary Seaman Edward (Teddy); Order for the Production of Documents

5:59 pm

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and Financial Technology) Share this | | Hansard source

I table documents relating to two orders for the production of documents concerning the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal.

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I rise to speak on the order for the production of documents, particularly in relation general business notice of motion No. 595. I want to speak on the display of utter arrogance by the Prime Minister, who has defied an order of the Senate to produce documents in accordance with that order, and that was regarding advice received on the decision to deny a Victoria Cross to Ordinary Seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean.

On 1 December 1942, 18-year-old Teddy Sheean made several profoundly courageous decisions when ordered to abandon his ship, HMAS Armidale, after it came under aerial bombardment and torpedo attack from the Japanese, decisions that would protect, defend and ultimately save the lives of his crewmates. Sheean did not abandon ship. He turned back, returned to his gun, strapped himself to it and fired on the enemy aircraft that were strafing and killing his mates. Wounded, he persisted and shot down at least one of them, remaining at his weapon until he was killed and the Armidale disappeared beneath the waves.

Teddy Sheean is a hero. He was posthumously mentioned in dispatches—a great honour. But it has been consistently asserted by his many supporters that an MID does not adequately reflect Teddy's gallantry. Those supporters straddle all political divides. Chief amongst them are his tireless family, supported by former senator Guy Barnett, now the Tasmanian Minister for Veterans' Affairs. For decades, they have worked towards a comprehensive review of his case to prove just how valiant this young lad was and that he deserves to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

In 2013 they were sorely disappointed when a valour inquiry by the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal found Sheean's actions did not meet the criteria for that award. Determined that a full merits based review was the only way to achieve justice, they pushed on. In 2018 the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Noonan, wrote to Mr Barnett, saying that he had considered the matter and formed the view that there was no new evidence to support a review of Sheean's actions. In October that year, Mr Barnett applied to the tribunal, seeking a review of this decision by Vice Admiral Noonan. The review went ahead. It examined the story and the witness accounts in detail—process and precedent. It was the full merits based review that they had hoped for.

Finally, on 23 July last year, the tribunal recommended to the Minister for Defence Personnel, Darren Chester, that the minister recommend to the sovereign that Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. I'll repeat that: the tribunal recommended to the Minister for Defence Personnel, Darren Chester—a member of this government, the Morrison government—that he recommend to the sovereign that Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Shortly after, Minister Chester advised the tribunal that he was comfortable with the recommendations and would be communicating with senior ministers, including the Prime Minister, Mr Scott Morrison.

All the way through this, Teddy's supporters have been most respectful of process, procedure and the reverence in which the VC is held. After all those years of work, it looked like Teddy was finally going to get the medal that he so well deserved. Then things went absolutely awry. The Prime Minister, Mr Scott Morrison, intervened. That's when things went bad. He rejected the recommendations of the tribunal and his own minister out of hand and refused to recommend to the Queen that the VC be awarded.

I guess one of the disappointing things from my point of view is that the Tasmanian senators on the other side of this chamber, as I understand, have also supported the position that Teddy Sheean be awarded the Victoria Cross. They're not silent in this; I understand they've pressed the Prime Minister to uphold that decision. But they have been silent in this chamber, so they should be speaking out and they should be supporting this decision. Defending this decision, the Prime Minister claimed that he had taken advice from Australia's military chiefs—not chief but chiefs, past and present. This is the very advice that the Senate demanded be tabled in this place by noon today—12 noon; that was six hours ago, actually. But Mr Morrison could not be bothered to meet that deadline and the documents have been received now, over six hours later—4½ hours late, defying a Senate motion. The only advice was one letter from General Angus Campbell that was already publicly available. There were no other letters. We wind back to the radio interview where the Prime Minister made a statement on ABC Tasmania on 26 May 2020. He said: 'We have not taken this decision lightly. I have taken advice from Australia's military chiefs'—that's plural, past and present. But all we've seen today is a letter that was already tabled in the other place a couple of days ago.

So where is all this advice that he sought? Was it actually official advice or was it just a few matey chats with the old boys? It's not good enough, Prime Minister—not good enough at all. Now, in a desperate attempt to save face, we have yet another review and not one provided for by any kind of prescribed process. It's a process that the Prime Minister just made up that is now going to determine whether or not that independent tribunal's position will be upheld.

We are baffled and we are angry that the Prime Minister would reject the recommendations of the independent tribunal. That's why the awards tribunal is set up; it's why it's independent—for the express purpose of providing him with expert, independent advice. But he didn't like that advice, so he goes off and develops another review committee. It's outrageous. It is incredibly unfair that an open and proper process could be ditched by the Prime Minister in favour of private advice—advice that we, the Australian people, have not been privy to because he has not provided that to this chamber today. In the end, this is about trust—the trust of the Australian people—that proper process is followed. Right now, people are seeing nothing but an arrogant Prime Minister who has made the worst kind of captain's call—the worst—and still we wait for justice for Ordinary Seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean.

6:08 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to associate myself with my colleague Senator Urquhart and her comments. As she said, Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean was only 18 years of age when he committed an act of extraordinary bravery. On 1 December 1942, when the HMAS Armidale was struck by torpedoes its personnel were ordered to abandon ship. Sheean, although severely wounded by attacking Japanese aircraft, returned and strapped himself to one of the ship's guns to engage enemy aircraft. He shot down at least one of the aircraft and, in so doing, was defending his fellow personnel, knowing that he would go down with that ship. It's possible that Mr Sheean's actions, in drawing away the fire of enemy aircraft, saved the lives of his fellow crew members.

The Victoria Cross is awarded to a person who 'in the presence of the enemy' displays the:

… most conspicuous gallantry, or daring or pre-eminent acts of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty …

For those who know of Teddy Sheean's deeds and have followed the various inquiries into them—I've been here for 12 years and we've been debating this issue for longer than that—the Prime Minister's decision not to posthumously award him a VC is more than baffling. My Labor colleague Senator Urquhart moved for the documents relating to this decision to be produced, because this issue warrants public scrutiny.

On the face of it, the decision and explanations of those opposite make absolutely no sense. We had the Minister for Defence claim in this place that the 2019 review by the Defence Honours and Awards Appeal Tribunal did not present any new evidence. Senator Reynolds also claimed that their inquiry was a review of the 2013 decision, not a full merits based inquiry. Guess what? She was wrong on both counts, and that's according to the chair of the DHAAT. Chair Mark Sullivan's decision to write to the minister regarding her misleading the Senate is not something I think he would have taken lightly. Yet he did it. Given Senator Reynolds' explanation was comprehensively torn apart by Mr Sullivan, the reasons for the Prime Minister's decision not to accept the independent tribunal's unanimous recommendation of 11 members remain a mystery. That's why the Senate ordered the production of these documents—to get to the bottom of the mystery, because there's nothing yet in the government's public statements or statements to this place that excuses or justifies the decision.

I was also very surprised at comments in the media about this issue by the Liberal member for Braddon, Mr Pearce. Mr Pearce, I've got to say, is a fence-sitter and here's a classic example. I do recognise that Mr Pearce acknowledged that Mr Sheean's actions were worthy of a Victoria Cross, but he also stated that he thought the PM made the correct decision to have another review. Seriously, how long can you sit on the fence? That is the most ridiculous double standard you could come across. It's a particularly curious intervention given that Mr Pearce joined his Liberal colleagues in advocating for a VC to be posthumously awarded to Mr Sheean only a month earlier, saying he was satisfied with the process but not satisfied with the decision. I'm pretty disgusted that Mr Pearce would characterise Labor's advocacy as using this as a political football or conducting a chook raffle. Given that Mr Sheean was born on the north-west coast of Tasmania, I doubt Mr Pearce's constituents would appreciate his comments.

On this side, we take this issue very seriously. All we're asking for is the due process and transparency that Mr Sheean, his relatives and advocates deserve. I can't really see how awarding Mr Sheean a VC would upset the Queen, as has been suggested by a certain high-ranking military official. The VC is about courage and gallantry. It's not about whether someone else, no matter who it is, might be upset by a person—in this case, Mr Sheean—receiving the VC. Labor's advocacy is simply for the Prime Minister to accept the advice provided by independent experts. The excuses this government continue to provide, including those by the minister, are wearing pretty thin—certainly on the north-west coast of Tasmania.

I believe the Prime Minister's decision to announce yet another review of this matter is really worthy of a Yes Minister sketch. I can already hear the voice of Yes Minister's Bernard asking the Prime Minister if he's suggesting a review of the review of the review. Refusing Teddy Sheean a posthumous VC, in the face of all the evidence and the DHAAT's findings, is a gross injustice to this young Tasmanian war hero. It is a slap in the face to his family, his supporters and the veteran community.

6:14 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to associate myself with the remarks of my Tasmanian Labor Senate colleagues Senators Urquhart and Bilyk and to demand that the decision of the independent Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal be upheld so that Teddy Sheean can finally be recognised for his brave and gallant service with the awarding of the Victoria Cross. Given that the Prime Minister has steadfastly refused to provide any real insight at all into his decision to unilaterally quash the findings of the tribunal, it is essential that the authority of this place be respected and that documents pertaining to this decision be tabled for every Australian to see.

I don't need to retell the incredible story of bravery and courage that underpins the legacy of Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean. It is a story known so well, particularly to Tasmanians and particularly to Tasmanians on the north-west coast—and so it ought to be—and it has spurred so many supporters to fight so long to see that Teddy is given the respect and recognition he deserves. The Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal has determined that no less than a Victoria Cross should be awarded to Teddy—an honour awarded for the most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour, self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy, and an honour justly deserved. For a Prime Minister to intervene after a pre-eminent tribunal has made such an emphatic decision, based on the weight of overwhelming evidence, is extraordinary. It is precisely in circumstances such as this that the Australian people should be entitled to see the advice the Prime Minister relied upon to make such an extraordinary decision to set aside the decision of a tribunal set up specifically to deal with such matters.

Quite extraordinarily, the member for Braddon, Mr Gavin Pearce, stood up in the other place and said:

In my opinion, the Prime Minister has taken the right decision …

Let's just let that sink in. The member for Braddon is on record in the parliament backing the Prime Minister's mishandling of this process. It is a mishandling that effectively amounts to a bizarre intervention to overrule the findings, recommendations and decisions of the Defence Honours and Awards Appeal Tribunal—simply extraordinary. And for what? We have not been given a reason why the Prime Minister would seek to intervene to overturn the decision of an expert tribunal specifically tasked with considering the merits or otherwise of awarding of a military honour. Its decision should be upheld and respected, not cast aside without explanation. Teddy Sheean and his family and supporters deserve so much better. Tasmanians deserve better. Indeed, all of our serving military personnel and our veterans deserve better.

The member for Braddon, though, went further. He went on to say:

It is not this place's job to kick this around like a football or like a can down the road.

I actually agree with the member for Braddon, Mr Pearce. I couldn't agree more. That's why the decision of the independent umpire should be respected. The only person kicking this matter around like a football is the person who refuses to respect the decision of the umpire who has called time on this matter, and that person is the Prime Minister, a Prime Minister who refuses to provide a proper explanation for doing so. And his actions are backed 100 per cent by the member for Braddon, Mr Gavin Pearce. I'm astonished—absolutely astonished. I would have thought that the local member for Braddon would be going in to bat for Teddy Sheean, his family and his supporters at every opportunity, not backing in a recalcitrant Prime Minister who has unquestionably done the wrong thing by failing to accept the decision of an independent tribunal. All Tasmanian members and senators should call on the Prime Minister to set aside his hastily formed review of a review, get on with upholding the appellate tribunal's decision and allow the awarding of the Victoria Cross to Teddy Sheean.