National | Private David Stewart

PM declines request to upgrade bravery award

A campaign to have a soldier who died saving others on Mount Ruapehu recognised with New Zealand’s highest award for bravery has been denied by the prime minister.

Retired colonel Bernard Isherwood had been pushing to have Private David Stewart recognised with the New Zealand Cross.

Stewart died trying to save others when a training exercise on Mount Ruapehu in August 1990 went wrong. Six people, including Stewart, died in the freezing conditions. He was awarded a posthumous New Zealand Bravery medal in 1999 and Isherwood had always believed the award should be upgraded to the highest honour.

But now Prime Minister Chris Hipkins had declined the request because he believed the decision was best made with the information available at the time.

Isherwood, who led the inquiry in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, last year met with then defence minister Peeni Henare to discuss upgrading the award, then submitted a nomination to the prime minister’s office.

But Isherwood recently received news from Defence Minister Andrew Little that Hipkins would not revisit the matter.

Little’s letter said there had been a compelling case for a higher award, but Hipkins believed it was important decisions about these awards “were best made while all the relevant information was readily available, recall of the events was clear and the actions concerned could be considered against the standards and values of the time and other contemporary examples”.

“So for that reason he did not support any further steps to reconsider the level of award to New Zealand Defence Force personnel in relation to the Mount Ruapehu tragedy,” Little wrote.

Isherwood believed the New Zealand Defence Force was reluctant to revisit the issue because it was embarrassing and this had been reflected in the advice provided to the Government.

He said the men were abandoned by their instructors and the Defence Force on the mountain, and now had been abandoned by the Government.

“The two instructors responsible for the group lacked the necessary knowledge and skills and for differing reasons left the group to their own devices.

“As a result of this duty of care failure, six servicemen died and any further publicity is likely to have a significantly adverse impact on NZDF’s corporate reputation.”

Isherwood always maintained Stewart met the criteria and should be awarded the New Zealand Cross. He would keep campaigning for the award.

Isherwood didn’t accept Hipkins’ statement that the decision was best made when the relevant information was at hand, because Isherwood’s report from the inquiry contained the most relevant information.

“The inquiry was done within days of it happening, [featuring] all the survivors on the ice. How more current can you get it? ... All the evidence is right there.”

But the Defence Force said it provided information to the minister of defence and the decision was for the minister and the prime minister.

A spokesperson said the Defence Force had put considerable effort into collecting information on the case, including searching for documents, recommendations and approaching surviving staff members who provided advice to those making recommendations to the Government.

The confidential army file, which held written advice to the army’s Major General Bruce Meldrum, had been destroyed. Meldrum died in 2006.

The spokesperson said the Defence Force provided comprehensive briefing notes to the then minister of defence.

“The NZDF was not asked to make a recommendation and would not normally do so in historical cases where decisions have already been made by the prime minister.”

“In this case, at the time the army and NZDF recommendation for a tier-three award (Queen’s Gallantry Medal) was changed to a tier-four award at the final Government approval stage.

“The minister made his intent clear after considering the information and other submissions, and the NZDF assisted in the drafting of the minister’s recommendation.

“Subsequent actions/decisions were matters for the minister and prime minister.”

Little told Stuff: “The government and New Zealanders recognise the heroism of these personnel and I am sympathetic to those who have called for a higher level of honours recognition than was conferred by the government of the day.

“There are a number of conventions around the award of honours. One of those is respecting the decisions made at the time when information will be fresh in the minds of decision makers of the day.

“Following consideration of a number of approaches the determination has been made to respect the decisions made at the time in accordance with the convention.”