Of all the arguments against awarding the Victoria Cross retrospectively to Private John Simpson and others, one stands out in the 454-page report that gives a firm thumbs-down to the idea.

It would open the floodgates to endless claims for retrospective awards, the report points out.

Australians have been awarded 99 VCs since 1900.

Following a two-year inquiry, the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal considered the cases of 13 individuals - 11 sailors and two soldiers - nominated by organisations and individuals as deserving of the VC.

It also invited submissions on unrecognised acts of gallantry by other members of the defence force.

It received plenty - 134 individuals and six units - from the Boer War through to Afghanistan.

Most are little known but there's a few familiar names such as Albert Jacka and Tom Derrick, who were both awarded the VC but were also regarded as having acted bravely in other deeds deserving of additional recognition.

"Almost all submissions including some of those who were advocating a VC for Australia for an individual accepted that to award retrospective VCs could open the floodgates to further claims for retrospective awards ...," the tribunal said in its report.

This could lead to "a never-ending series of reviews by the tribunal".

The tribunal acknowledged community attitudes that had elevated, among others, Simpson and his donkey, Ned Kelly, Phar Lap and Don Bradman, to icon status.

There are now halls of fame for sportsmen, musicians, stockmen and shearers, long lists of "living treasures" and awards for Australians of the year in an expanding number of categories.

"There appears to be a greater desire for recognition than in previous generations - a trend reinforced by the growing number of sports medals, literary awards and awards for film stars and other celebrities," it said.

But military honours needed to be awarded according to the judgments and values of the time, not of 2013.

In practical terms, defence honours for gallantry were peer awards.

"Actions on the battlefield which might appear to warrant a medal for gallantry might to fellow soldiers be recognised as an everyday occurrence or one which is expected," the tribunal said.

If the civilian community wanted to recognise an iconic military figure, it should come up with something other than a medal.

Much of the tribunal's work was devoted to a forensic examination of the 13 individuals, their deeds and the handling of subsequent recommendations for gallantry awards. In 10 cases, it said the process was impeccable.

High on the list was Simpson. Despite claims over many years, he was not denied a VC at the time as it had never been recommended.

Further, his award of the Mentioned in Despatches (MID) was entirely appropriate, it concluded.

Simpson has been the subject of much recent scholarship.

A book by Canberra historian Graham Wilson concluded that Simpson was no braver than other stretcher-bearers on Gallipoli, that deeds attributed to him such as dashing into no-man's land to rescue wounded soldiers never happened and that most everything written about him was false.

The tribunal concluded that the process was flawed in the case of three three sailors from HMAS Yarra which was lost in 1942 in a courageous and one-sided fight against vastly superior Japanese warships.

That manifest injustice has been remedied with award of a Unit Citation for Gallantry.

Parliamentary secretary for defence Senator David Feeney, who commissioned the inquiry, acknowledged that families and others who pressed for VC awards would be disappointed.

And that's how it's turned out, especially in the case of Ordinary Seeman Edward Sheean, a sailor aboard HMAS Armidale who continued firing on attacking Japanese aircraft as his ship sank beneath him.

His nephew Garry Ivory, former Liberal senator Guy Barnett and Tasmanian Liberal candidate Andrew Nikolic all expressed disappointment at the outcome.

"We feel let down by bureaucracy and we also feel for the navy which has been let down by this," Ivory told the Advocate newspaper in Tasmania.

"Most certainly it's not over."

The tribunal specifically considered why not one of the 99 VCs awarded to Australians had gone to a sailor. It acknowledged that this appeared an anomaly, but said there were a number of possible explanations.

Overall, fewer sailors receive VCs, fundamentally because of the nature of war at sea. Out of 1356 imperial VCs awarded since 1856, 108 went to members of Britain's Royal Navy, with only 53 for actions at sea. The tribunal found no British bias against Australian colonials.

It concluded that the door was now firmly closed on awards under the imperial system which applied up to 1991. It remained theoretically possible under the Australian system.

But a recommendation relating to events years ago should only be made in clear cases of maladministration or if compelling new evidence emerged and only if it met strict conditions. In practical terms, that requires three witness statements, a virtually insurmountable problem for an event years ago.

The tribunal accepted arguments from a number of submissions that retrospective VCs risked undermining the integrity of the awards system.

Historian Les Carlyon noted it would create a two-tier system with some VCs awarded through conventional military processes.

"And there would be those awarded for political processes and in response to well-intentioned lobbying. In other words there would be a VC and a VC with an asterisk," he said.

Australian Defence Force Academy historian Peter Stanley said the tribunal got it exactly right, although many would now likely accuse them of being bloodless bureaucrats.

"The committee has accepted the advice of a large body of professional military historians. It is the right decisions for the right reasons," he told AAP.

Professor Stanley said the tribunal faced special pleadings from those who thought decorations should be awarded long after the event, which would have been unfair to those who didn't lobby.

"A hundred years on it's impossible to make those kind of adjudications and it's wrong to try. The committee saw sense. I am very impressed that the committee had the courage to accept that they had to say no," Prof Stanley said.

 

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