A federal parliamentary committee is discussing a petition that seeks a pardon from the Queen for Harry “Breaker” Morant.
Breaker Morant and another man were executed by British Courts Martial in 1902 for murdering 12 Boer prisoners of war.
The former Navy lawyer who prepared the petition, Commander James Unkles, says his execution is an unjust stain on Australia’s history.
Commander Unkles told the parliamentary committee the legal process was unfair, even by the standards of the time. He says an official pardon will make an enormous difference to the men’s surviving relatives and to all Australians.
“There are a lot of relatives here today and it makes a lot of difference to them personally,” he said.
“They have carried this burden throughout their family histories for many decades and it’s been handed from one generation to the next.
“What is it to the nation? It’s got everything to do with demonstrating to the public that due process and fairness are hallmarks of our democratic system.”
The House of Representatives Petitions Committee will decide on what action to take on the matter.
The Attorney-General has already forwarded the petition to the British secretary of state for defence.
Breaker Morant joined the army in 1899. He had a reputation as a horseman, drinker and womaniser and wrote poetry for the Bulletin under the name The Breaker.
Breaker Morant was immortalised in the 1980s film bearing his name. In one of the film’s best known lines, Morant describes the justice meted out during the Boer War.
“We applied rule .303. We caught them and we shot them under rule .303,” the character says, referring to the calibre of the standard issue army rifle of the time.
Historian Craig Wilcox, who has written extensively about Morant, says an attempt to have him pardoned is a futile exercise.
He says it would represent an injustice for the people they killed.
“We’re talking about people who were not battlefield prisoners, they’re generally civilians, in effect,” he said.
“For some reason that we still haven’t unearthed, Morant and colleagues started randomly killing these people.
“We really don’t know why, but it’s incontrovertible that that’s what they did. And then they started killing others to stop the story getting out.”