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Monday, 4 June 2001
Page: 27120

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (1:30 PM) —I present the Defence Act Amendment (Victoria Cross) Bill 2001. I do so on behalf of many people. It is my attempt, along with colleagues in this House and in the Senate, from both sides of politics, to tackle what many believe are some glaring anomalies in the military honours system of this country. It is in no way intended to be a slight on or to cast aspersions on any member of our armed forces throughout the years, be they recipients of military honours or those who sat in adjudication of these; nor is it intended to reopen old wounds surrounding the awarding, non-awarding or even under-awarding of military honours.

It is intended to fully and formally recognise three Australian servicemen who performed outstanding feats of courage in the name of their country and for their fellow servicemen. I have, along with other politicians through the years, been accused by some of politicising the honours system by questioning what did and did not happen in terms of recognising the valour and courage of various service men and women. If by that people mean that I and others have sought to have decisions made to honour such acts, then so be it. If they mean I and others have sought to use the political process to do this, then so be it.

Political lobbying, legislation and regulation are the means to bring about such an end. They are also the means that people and groups use to achieve change. It is the democratic way of influencing decision making and taking things forward. It is the legitimate way of correcting anomalies. Indeed, how else does it happen, unless it is through more extreme means? The three men proposed in this bill are worthy of the award of the Victoria Cross in recognition of their most conspicuous bravery and valour. The actions of Gunner Albert Cleary of the 2/15 Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick, 3rd Field Ambulance, AIF, and Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean of HMAS Armidale were clearly:

... pre-eminent acts of valour ... or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.

There are numerous testimonies—contemporary and continuous—that each of these men fulfilled the requirement for a Victoria Cross. That their actions were conspicuously brave, pre-eminently acts of valour, acts of self-sacrifice and acts of extreme devotion have been argued for years. Each of them died because of these actions, and none of them had these deeds formally recognised, beyond Teddy Sheean being awarded a posthumous generic mention in dispatches.

Over the years, family, veteran associations, community lobby groups and parliamentarians of all political persuasions have sought to have the extraordinary deeds done by these ordinary servicemen properly recognised with the award of the Victoria Cross. Members of this House and the Senate have been part of the campaign. The members for Shortland and Franklin recently raised the case of Simpson Kirkpatrick; Senator Chris Schacht and the member for Corio have promoted the case of Albert Cleary; and I, along with the members for Cowan, New England and Indi, promoted the case of Teddy Sheean. I also particularly commend the past and present efforts of people such as Frank Walker and the National Corvettes Association, Gary Ivory, Max Sheean, Rex Pullen, Senator Don Devitt, a former federal member for Batman, Captain Sam Benson RAN, John Bradford, Michael Carlton, Mr Fred White and David Richards, amongst many, on behalf of Teddy Sheean.

The remarkable story of Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his donkey named `Murphy' is well known to every Australian. His deeds of valour at Gallipoli are legendary. For 24 days, Simpson tended and ferried the wounded and dying through the infamous `shrapnel valley', while exposed to enemy fire, grenades and artillery bombardment. It is recorded that in this time Simpson rescued as many as 300 soldiers. The story of Simpson's rescue missions was common knowledge among Anzac diggers, including the highest ranked officers. The commanding officer of his unit, Captain Lyle Buchanan, remarked that Simpson had earned the Victoria Cross 50 times over, and he was said by General Sir John Monash to have been worth more than 100 men. Simpson was on one such mission into no-man's-land when he was shot and killed in the afternoon of 19 May 1915. He was 22 years of age.

There is confusion surrounding the reason that Simpson was not awarded military honours, including the Victoria Cross. Some historians argue it may have been the case that a VC could be given only for acts of conspicuous gallantry which were materially conducive to the gaining of a victory. Whatever the case, Simpson's deeds were not formally recognised with a military honour but came to symbolise the Anzac tradition.

Albert Neil Cleary was imprisoned by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore, and was murdered while a prisoner of war in Borneo on 20 March 1945. Gunner Cleary, along with thousands of his fellow Australian and British prisoners of war, was forced to march on the infamous death marches through the jungles of Borneo. Having survived the first of these marches from Sandakan to Ranua, Cleary escaped but was captured four days later. Handed back to the Japanese, Cleary was subjected to a sustained and brutal regime of unimaginable torture and mistreatment. He endured this pain for 11 days until dumped by his captors in a gutter. His fellow POWs sought to comfort him in his last hours. He too died at the age of 22 years.

The enormous courage and fortitude displayed by Gunner Cleary in his attempt to escape and throughout the subsequent ordeal was an inspiration to those with whom he was incarcerated. Contemporary evidence would suggest that little was done at the administrative level to formally recognise the ordeal and actions of POWs, particularly those who lost their lives in trying to escape. Unfortunately, Gunner Cleary's courage was one such example. However, just as Simpson's and Sheean's actions grew to become symbols of courage for their respective services, so too the awarding of the VC to Albert Cleary would add honour to the memory of the 1,700 POWs who died in Borneo at the hands of the Japanese.

I have spoken in this House a number of times about the extraordinary valour of Ordinary Seaman Edward `Teddy' Sheean. Teddy was a junior sailor on HMAS Armidale when it was attacked and sunk by Japanese aircraft off the coast of Timor on 1 December 1942. Whilst his ship was quickly sinking and in the midst of the chaos of evacuation, Teddy strapped himself to his Oerlikon gun to repel the oncoming aircraft strafing his fellow crewmen in the water about him. Sheean was hit twice but kept firing his gun, even as HMAS Armidale disappeared beneath the surface. He was 18 years old.

Almost the same type of incident occurred off the south coast of England in July 1940. Just as in the Sheean example, the courage and valour of Leading Seaman Jack Mantle aboard HMS Foylebank at Portland helped save many of his colleagues battling to survive in the sea around him. Fittingly, Jack Mantle RN was posthumously awarded the VC. Teddy Sheean RAN on the other hand posthumously received a mention in dispatches. There has been a campaign ever since to right what many have regarded as a bureaucratic oversight. Mr John Bradford of Adelaide, author of In the Highest Traditions (RAN Heroism, Darwin 19 February 1942) in correspondence with me on this issue pointed out that much of the confusion surrounding Sheean's case stemmed from the fact that mention in dispatches was the lowest grade of award for gallantry that could be awarded posthumously. The only other award was the Victoria Cross—there was no in between.

Sheean's case relied heavily on the report of proceedings provided by his commanding officer to the board of inquiry following HMAS Armidale's loss. Unfortunately, Sheean's conspicuous gallantry was only briefly recorded by his CO. The process of recommending awards for gallantry in the Royal Australian Navy, as opposed to the Royal Navy, was a story of comparative discrimination—discrimination, it should be pointed out, which did not exist for the AIF or the RAAF.

In his search for justice for Teddy Sheean, Frank Walker, author of HMAS Armidale—the Ship That Had To Die, has pointed to the inadequacy of the awards system as related to the RAN. Unlike the AIF and the RAAF, where awards were recommended and decided by Australians in Australia, RAN awards were not. The Australian Commonwealth Naval Board, headed by a seconded Royal Navy officer, had to send recommendations to the Admiralty in London, where the awards and honours committee made the decision. Furthermore, Walker points out that commanding officers of Royal Navy ships were entitled to recommend sailors for certain awards but the captains of Royal Australian Navy ships were instructed that `the nature of the award is not to be suggested'.

Clearly, for a variety of reasons, there was little enthusiasm to seriously advance the case of Teddy Sheean by the ACNB or other authorities in Australia upon receipt of the final report of proceedings for HMAS Armidale. According to historian John Bradford, the Australian government of the day did not appear to be well informed about the sequence of events which drove Sheean to display such heroism, nor did it avail itself of its newly established powers, issued as a royal warrant on 31 December 1942, to recommend the Victoria Cross. Surprisingly, there is nothing to suggest the Australian government ever exercised these powers throughout the rest of the war.

To this day, no member of the Royal Australian Navy has been awarded the Victoria Cross. Why is this? This is the reason so many people have campaigned for Teddy Sheean to be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. It is a VC not just for the extraordinary valour and courage of Teddy Sheean but for every act of courage performed by members of the Royal Australian Navy since its inception at the beginning of the 20th century. The failure or refusal to act on behalf of the calls for proper recognition of the valour and gallantry of the three servicemen mentioned in this bill is best summed up in the following chronicle related to Teddy Sheean.

In a letter full of bureaucratic speak dated 25 October 1999, a senior defence adviser to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs pointed out that the End of War List for World War II has been completed, and because Teddy Sheean was not recommended prior to this, he therefore stands ineligible. The adviser wrote:

It is not practical for better judgements about individual actions or merit to be made at this time than were made by contemporary authorities who had direct access to eye witness reports and could test evidence when it was fresh.

The adviser recognises in the correspondence the fact that Sheean should have been awarded `a gallantry award of a higher stature', but not now in hindsight. The danger:

... creating a precedent for unwanted and perhaps divisive comparisons between these `hindsight awards' and those recommended and granted at the time.

In a condescending paragraph, the adviser—again stressing the great courage of Sheean—writes:

... the reality of military life under operational conditions is that men and women enter life threatening situations as an integral part of their duty. That some of those individuals are singled out for gallantry awards is fitting; but again, the reality is that many who do perform acts of great courage are never recognised.

The point is that where glaring omissions occur or the evidence clearly indicates that recognition should take place, it should. The whole point of the honours system is to honour the deed, not to avoid it. I find the question of retrospectivity an interesting one when dealing with government's willingness or unwillingness to act on issues. Generally it is frowned upon and every argument is thrown up to avoid it—until, that is, it is politically expedient to justify it. One only needs to investigate numerous areas related to veterans' affairs to see this at work. Take, for example, issues related to Vietnam vets, the Malay campaign, Korea and POWs—all causes which hit the proverbial bureaucratic brick wall, only to be dealt with retrospectively when politically necessary or expedient.

I have read the correspondence, for example, related to attempts by the National Servicemen's Association to get formal recognition of their service. `Impossible,' warned various ministers' letters; `In no way different from normal peacetime duties,' it was claimed; `A divisive comparison of recognition,' said others. So, after years of lobbying and with an election in the air, there is an announcement that a special medal would be struck for the thousands of men who were conscripted as national servicemen in peacetime. What changed in all these cases? Were they wrong then and gradually became right? No, they were right then and nothing has changed except the political will to do something about them. It is the political will that determines what happens, and we are calling for this to happen in this case. If the fear of precedent is the danger, then that danger is being dealt with all the time.

Albert Cleary, John Simpson Kirkpatrick and Teddy Sheean died in the service of their country. Each performed extraordinary acts of valour and served as a great example for their fellow servicemen at the time and subsequently. Each is remembered and honoured in a variety of ways by family, friends and supporters. Indeed, the nation honours them, but none is honoured with our highest award for gallantry—the Victoria Cross. In this year of the Centenary of Federation, we have the occasion, the way and the means to make this happen. What we need is the political will.

I commend to the House the valour and deeds of these remarkable young men who died defending their country, and the spirit and intention of this bill to formally recognise their self-sacrifice. Lest we forget. I seek leave to table a paper.

Leave granted.

Bill read a first time.

Mr SPEAKER —In accordance with sessional order 104A, the second reading will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.