Nationals MP George Christensen has called for an independent inquiry into the historic ‘Breaker’ Morant case. Lieutenants Harry Morant and Peter Handcock were executed and Lieutenant George Witton was sentenced to life imprisonment after being found guilty by a British courts martial of murdering Boer prisoners.
During his address to the House of Representatives Mr Christensen gave a stinging assessment of the way Australian military justice during its short but eventful history. He lamented the “trial by media” and assumption of guilt that has blighted the good names of many men and women who served this country. He pressed the government to give the descendants “….the courtesy of proper due process and properly investigate the circumstances that led to the execution of Morant and Handcock.”
‘I welcome and endorse Mr Christensen’s comments,’ said Jim Unkles who has been campaigning for a. judicial review of the case since 2009.
‘Australia entered the Boer War as a colony and became a nation while still under arms. The 1902 courts martial and execution of Lieutenants Harry Morant and Peter Handclck and the life imprisonment of Lieutenant George Wilton during the Boer War was the first great test of Australian nationhood.’
‘Our first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, failed to hold the British to account, even when there was clear disparities between the story the British Commander-in-Chief Lord Kitchener told him and the reports from returning Australian servicemen. Unfortunately, it set a depressing precedent for the way subsequent military legal issues have been handled.’
Unkles maintains that an independent inquiry by a retired judge is 120 years overdue, as there is clear and compelling evidence that they did not receive a fair trial. Of the many points of contention three stand out.
They were denied legal representation between their arrest and the day before their trial began in January 1902 when the luckless Major John Francis Thomas, a country solicitor from Tenterfield with no trial experience, answered a plea for assistance.
After having refused to appear when called as a witness by Morant, Kitchener denied Morant’s controversial claim that he was only following orders when shooting Boer prisoners. It was a valid defence in 1902. However, the unpunished actions of other British officers and a note in the casebook of British Judge Advocate- General, Colonel James St Clair reads: “….I agree with the Court of Inquiry. The idea that no prisoners were to be taken in the Spelonken appears to have been started by the late Capt. Hunt and after his death continued by orders given personally by Capt. Taylor.” The orders did indeed exist.
The Courts Martial members recommended that the three accused be spared the death sentence. However, after confirming the death sentences on Morant and Hancock, Lord Kitchener left Pretoria leaving his staff to tell a distraught Thomas that he was “uncontactable,” thereby denying the Australians their legal right to appeal to King Edward VII and seek assistance of their government.
“We have road tested our claims with some of the most eminent jurists and parliamentarians in this land and they have stood up to scrutiny,” noted Mr Unkles.
“We intend to enlist the support of the many parliamentarians, from both sides of the House, and to pursue Mr Christensen’s call in 2022, which will mark the 120th anniversary of the executions.”
Those who have backed a call for an inquiry include: Alex Hawke, MP, Greg Hunt, MP, Tony Smith MP, former Att Gen, Robert McClelland, MP, Scott Buchholz, MP, Sir Laurence Street, AC, KCMG, QC,(former Chief Justice of NSWs), Judge Alexander Street, SC, Gerry Nash QC, David Denton RFD, QC, Andrew Kirkham, AM, RFD, QC, Tim Fischer, AC, former Deputy PM, Geoffrey Robertson AO,QC. Their united chorus is this case must be reviewed by an inquiry independent of Government.
“It should also be noted that a motion was tabled in the House of Representatives in 2018 that acknowledged the injustice and contained an expression of sincere regret and apology to the descendants of these men for the manner in which they were treated“….The process used to try these men was fundamentally flawed. They were not afforded the rights of an accused person facing serious criminal charges enshrined in military law in 1902.” Surely an inquiry must be the next step.”
During his speech Mr Christensen noted that “….If justice were a meal, it would be better served cold than not served at all, and in a country where belief in a fair go is in our DNA the quest for justice should never fade.”