BRUCE CAMERON: The Politicisation of Gallantry – will Teddy Sheean get his VC?

Jun 26, 2020

Public opinion (aka votes) means that a face-saving new enquiry is now to be held into potentially awarding a VC to Seaman Teddy Sheean for his extraordinary bravery during World War II.

On 29 May 2020, on the Alan Jones radio program, the Prime Minister said:

“Well, Alan, there’s no doubt that the bravery and the story of Teddy Sheean is truly remarkable, like so many stories that were remarkable of that time. And you point rightly to the valour- there was a Valour Inquiry that was held back in 2016 [sic], the ‘19 Inquiry followed that it didn’t identify additional evidence as I’m advised. The VC is the most important of all awards. Actually, not that long ago it was the New Zealand Government that made such a recommendation to the Queen and it was rejected. Les Carlyon, who I know you are a great fan of, said doing this sort of thing for a reconsideration of a VC says it creates two classes of VCs. And Keith Payne VC, who I know you greatly respect, and other VC holders have always taken a very strong view about these issues and they don’t want to see a two class system of VCs.

Keith Payne’s actual view is that the VC should be awarded to Sheean.

Less than two weeks after his radio interview, the Prime Minister said:

“I have today commissioned an expert panel [to be led by former director of the AWM, Dr Brendan Nelson AO, to provide me with advice as to whether the 2019 review by the Defence Honours and Awards Appeal Tribunal had any significant new evidence, not available to the previous reviews and otherwise available, that is compelling enough to support a recommendation by the Government that Sheean’s Mention in Despatches be replaced by a Victoria Cross.”  

The panel is to report by 31 July 2020.

In the same article quoted above, it was reported that Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell has previously:

“strongly advised” both Mr Morrison and Defence Personnel Minister Darren Chester not to seek the honour for Sheean. In a letter to them both, General Campbell acknowledged the young sailor’s bravery but warned a request to grant him a VC could open the floodgates to a “swath of additional claims for retrospective military honours” from “all past conflicts”.

The latter consequence is a newly published one as far as the CDF is concerned. He had been reported previously as objecting to the award because, if it was made, the Queen would be put in a difficult position (because HM had previously rejected a similar request for a retrospective award from NZ). If this was to have been the real obstacle, one would imagine that the ‘right thing to do’ would have been to put the matter to the GG and request that he either (i) make a recommendation to the Queen, or (ii) seek her advice.

If Dr Nelson’s panel was to recommend that the VC be awarded to ‘Teddy’ Sheean, in the opinion of the PM and CDF, it would entrench two classes of VC and open the floodgates to a swath of claims for retrospective awards. What would these ‘two classes of award’ comprise? Presumably, they would be: (i) awards recommended on the battlefield; and (ii) awards made retrospectively. Even if compelling new evidence was to come to light, a retrospective award would always be classed differently … possibly a VC (R)?

The PM has previously accepted these reasons and rejected the recommendation of the independent Tribunal that the award be made. But public opinion (aka votes) means that a face-saving new enquiry is now to be held. What odds the political acceptance or rejection of the outcome?

Bruce Cameron is a former career soldier, public servant, and author; maintaining a keen interest in defence matters in retirement

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