TOPICS: Discussion on the defence honours and awards appeals tribunal will inquire into the possible awarding of posthumous victoria cross medals; women in combat positions in the armed forces; inquiries into sexual misconduct allegations in the defence forces.
STEVE PRICE: Anzac Day next Monday, a week away from today, it falls on Easter Monday. I just hope that around the country people still turn up at dawn services like they would normally do on an Anzac Day. Just because it's Easter Monday doesn't give you the reas… the excuse to ignore it or sleep in or to not be there, and I would hope that the parade crowds stay up, although I have a doubt about that in that people have changed their habits and may not be in their home town. But in most country towns there is a service, so go along and support the memory of Anzacs.
On that, the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, Senator David Feeney, has announced that the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal is going to inquire into unresolved recognition for past acts of naval and military gallantry. Now, I'll talk to the senator in a moment. There's a list of 13 Australians who apparently have been involved in some quite extraordinary action since World War I. One of those is described as Robert Davies, who fired at an enemy aircraft as he and his gun mount slowly submerged; Francis Emms [sic], who manned a machine gun while severely wounded; Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean, who bravely shot down a bomber and kept aircraft away from his mates in the water. He actually went down with his ship.
These men are for various - from various parts of the country. Senator Feeney's on the line.
Good to talk to you. Thanks for your time.
DAVID FEENEY: G'day Steve. How are you?
STEVE PRICE: Well thanks. How do you distil down all of the things that have happened in all of the conflicts since World War I and come up with that 13?
DAVID FEENEY: Yeah, it wasn't easy. Listen, I guess these are former servicemen whose acts of valour and gallantry have been the subject of comment for many, many years, and military historians and the various services people in the Defence community have long understood and recognised the valour of these men. And there has been an argument circulating for many years that their acts of heroism were under-recognised.
This tribunal and its proceedings are really about getting to the bottom of whether that's true or not.
STEVE PRICE: And this could result in some of these men at least being awarded posthumously the Victoria Cross?
DAVID FEENEY: That is theoretically one of the possible - that's one of the things the tribunal will look at. It's also possible that there'll be - that there are other medals for gallantry that might be appropriate.
And I guess the examples that you touched on of course all have one thing in common, and that is that they were from the Royal Australian Navy, and the majority of these guys that the tribunal will be looking into are from the Royal Australian Navy.
And there has been a feeling in some quarters for some time that the British Admiralty did not properly recognise the valour of people from the Royal Australian Navy. There is a feeling of suspicion in some quarters that there was a bias against colonials in World War I in particular, and that's something that the tribunal will look at.
So there are particular challenges about recognising valour on vessels, particularly when ships go down and there are not witnesses or not sufficient witnesses.
STEVE PRICE: That's something I'd actually never thought of, Senator. When you think about it, you know, if you're on a battlefield, the chances are that there will be a surviving eyewitness. In naval incidents there's often not.
DAVID FEENEY: Yes, spot on. I mean, I guess if a ship goes down and if much of the crew is lost, you do have that sort of fundamental challenge of much of the heroism and gallantry is either unseen or seen by very few.
STEVE PRICE: And some of these stories, I spent a couple of Anzac Days ago, in the lead-up to Anzac Day, I spent about a month on air every week going through citations of VC winners. And when you do that - and you know what it's like when you go through the Australian War Memorial - you're just amazed at the - what these Australians have done.
When you read those stories and you explain them then to the public, it's just incredible what some of these guys have done.
DAVID FEENEY: And they're still doing it, Steve. That's something we've got to remember too. It wasn't - it was only a few months ago that we awarded a Victoria Cross to one of our SAS guys…
STEVE PRICE: Yeah, Ben Roberts-Smith.
DAVID FEENEY: Exactly right. And his story reads just as incredibly as those stories from World War I and World War II.
STEVE PRICE: Yeah, Trooper Donaldson, same thing. I mean, what he went through to pick up that interpreter and save his life.
So how - you have obviously a committee that sits down and goes through - this is a - the inquiry's going to be headed by the chair of the tribunal, Professor Dennis Pearce…
DAVID FEENEY: That's right.
STEVE PRICE: …and then you have a selection of former chief of navy, former senior army and the air force. That's a very hard…
DAVID FEENEY: And [indistinct - interrupts] historian there as well.
STEVE PRICE: …and it's a hard job, I mean because if you give it, you know, if you give it to one, someone else is going to say, well, what about my relative.
DAVID FEENEY: It is a tough job because they'll have to go through the various criteria that exists for medals and how someone earns them. They'll have to go through what evidence is available, and that will be quite an exacting research task and will involve the War Memorial and others. And they obviously have to preserve the integrity of the awards and honours system. We are determined that when a medal is awarded, it is and it is seen to be awarded for the proper reasons, for just reasons.
These guys have to manage all of that and it'll take them a little while to do that, I think. I'm not expecting them to report back for perhaps something in the order of 12 months.
STEVE PRICE: Does the awarding of a VC, does that need - does that need the imprimatur of the British Defence at all?
DAVID FEENEY: Well, this is one of the things the tribunal has to look at. It certainly did during World War I and World War II. In more recent times, it has changed so that it is advice from the Australian Governor-General rather than British authorities that awards the VC, and we now have an Australian Victoria Cross.
But certainly in bygone days, Australian servicemen relied on a recommendation from British command, and certainly in the case of navy, a recommendation from the British Admiralty.
STEVE PRICE: Just before you go, Defence was in the news last week for a couple of reasons that you probably rather it wasn't.
DAVID FEENEY: Yes.
STEVE PRICE: But can I ask your view on the debate about women in areas like the SAS and clearance diving? Do you have a personal view on that?
DAVID FEENEY: Yeah, I do. It's been my privilege to meet with a lot of men and women in our armed forces, and I guess it's clear to me that while most women are not suitable for armed - for our armed services, neither of course are most of, most men. It is a rare set of qualities that make someone a good soldier, a good serviceman or servicewoman in the Australian Defence Forces.
I think recognising that and also recognising the fact that in the modern battle space, not every frontline job involves attacking the enemy with a rifle. There are important jobs in communications, in weapons systems, in surveillance, in managing the connections between helicopters, aircraft, artillery. So in the modern battle space there are an awful lot of jobs where it's not simply about a warrior's capacity for physical might but also technical skill, professional leadership skills.
I think when you put all of that together and imagine the modern battlefield, it's easy to imagine women in it, and I think we can see that in armies around the world, and I see no reason why that's not possible in our army.
As I say, I've met a lot of women in the Australian Defence Forces and they are strong and capable people who make a great contribution. And I'm sure as the years go on, we can't afford to not have them there.
STEVE PRICE: Just finally, do you think you're going to need a broader inquiry into what is now a growing list of allegations about sexual misconduct and bastardisation in Defence?
DAVID FEENEY: Listen, Stephen Smith is my boss and is obviously managing that issue, I think, with great care and with great consideration for everyone involved. I think there are something like six inquiries at the moment, whether they be police or departmental inquiries. I'm confident that the issue will be thoroughly examined and that the minister will continue to manage it with the consideration and the skill that he has managed it so far.
STEVE PRICE: Okay, Senator, thanks for your time.
DAVID FEENEY: Cheers, thanks Steve.
STEVE PRICE: Senator David Feeney there.
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