By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
The cancellation of Melbourne’s Anzac Day march comes as a blow not just to the veteran community but to all Victorians.
The decision by RSL Victoria – leaked rather than formally announced – has taken many by surprise, which is saying something for a state which has come to expect the unexpected.
Victoria has taken the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether measured by the devastating loss of life, the severity of lockdown restrictions or the crushing blow to the state’s economy. No state has a more desperate desire for a return to some semblance of normality.
The Anzac Day march, quite apart from being a cornerstone commemorative event for many Australians, not just Victorians, would have taken on additional symbolic meaning this year – a collective gesture of defiance, resilience and community.
But it is not to be. For the second successive year, the Anzac Day march in Melbourne has been cancelled due to COVID-19.
News of the march’s cancellation broke on Thursday [11 February] when a caller tipped off 3AW’s Neil Mitchell. Mitchell then contacted RSL Victoria CEO Jamie Twidale who confirmed that the march would not be going ahead.
“With COVID the way it is, and the restrictions, and the difficulty in organising such a large public event, we just didn’t feel it was in the public’s best interest,” Twidale told Mitchell on air.
“We understand though that a lot of veterans will be very disappointed with that and commemoration will still happen; we will still be having a dawn service [and] local sub-branches across the state will still be running services, they’ll just be a little bit more modest than in previous years.”
One of the extraordinary revelations from that interview came when Mitchell asked Twidale if the decision had been made with the concurrence of the Victorian government. Had RSL Victoria specifically talked to the government about whether the Anzac Day march in the city should go ahead, even without crowds, Mitchell asked. Twidale said the RSL had.
“And they said no?” Mitchell probed.
“No they didn’t say no, it’s more of a collaborative decision. Of course, the RSL doesn’t own Anzac Day, we consider ourselves the custodian of it. So it’s a collective decision.”
Not so collaborative or collective given that the Victorian government was blindsided by the decision.
Twidale is right when he says the RSL does not own Anzac Day. The Anzac Day march is not merely an RSL event; it is an annual observance that belongs to the community and the community is entitled to understand how the RSL came to summarily and unilaterally cancel the event.
A decision more panicked than considered
When the decision was taken to cancel the march in 2020 it was at the height of the pandemic and, however disappointing, was more clear-cut. This year’s decision seems more panicked than considered.
A decision based on government mandate or health advice would have been easier to accept.
But this was not a decision based on health advice, despite Twidale citing health concerns for veterans, volunteers and the general public, nor was it a decision reflecting the concerns of the Andrews government, which is well known to err on the side of caution.
This was the call of the “custodian” alone.
The decision is all the more jarring given that Melbourne is currently hosting the Australian Open, the Moomba festival is going ahead in March and the Anzac Day AFL game is still scheduled to go ahead at the MCG.
COVID-19 is still a reality and of course adjustments have to be made.
The Moomba festival normally attracts 1.3 million people so it’s not unreasonable that organisers stress that the event will go ahead with modifications.
"We will continue to monitor the latest health advice from the Victorian government to continue our discussions to try and make sure this much-loved community event can proceed safely,” says Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp.
Another confounding aspect of the decision to cancel the Melbourne march is that Anzac Day is more than two months away.
It would have been entirely appropriate for the RSL to flag concerns about the event going ahead or to float the possibility that the event could only happen with certain restrictions in place.
But why a binding decision in the middle of February? In fact, the decision was made earlier than that. Twidale admits that decisions about the march were made in “late January”.
If it’s a single ability that has been honed in the pandemic it’s the ability to turn on a sixpence. We have all become used to situations changing overnight and the responses of governments and health authorities adjusting their responses accordingly.
Indeed, at the time of writing, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced that the state, which has 19 active COVID-19 community cases, will enter a five-day stage-four lockdown. Noting that the UK strain of the virus is "moving at a velocity that has not been seen" in Australia so far, the Australian Open will continue without spectators.
Marches will be going ahead in other capitals
While there are enormous logistical challenges in organising the Anzac Day march at the best of times, the RSL has been premature in calling off the march so soon. Like everyone else, RSL Victoria should have been planning, monitoring, consulting and preparing for any eventuality as march-day approached. Cancelling so well in advance was chicken-hearted.
Veterans in Victoria have every right to be disappointed, especially in the knowledge that Anzac Day marches will be going ahead in other state and territory capitals, albeit with COVID-19 protocols in place subject to public health advice.
While acknowledging the challenges ahead, South Australia Anzac Day committee chair Ian Smith told The Australian that he would be trying his “level best” to hold a scaled-back march in Adelaide on April 25.
“We made an early decision to do it if we possibly could … we will march four abreast; normally it is six. It will be spaced out to meet COVID requirements,” he said.
RSL NSW has said the Sydney CBD march would go ahead with a limit of 500 people.
It will come as some consolation to Victorian veterans that a dawn service at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance will go ahead with “a limited number of attendees”, which will be streamed live online. And from last year’s experience we know that commemorating fallen diggers at dawn vigils in people’s driveways was very moving.
But none of this lessens the disappointment of cancelling the Anzac Day march in Melbourne. The fillip to the community of such a march, no matter what it might look like in the end, would have been incalculable.
It may turn out that the decision to cancel the Melbourne march, however premature, proves to be prescient. But that would just be the luck of the draw.
Nobody knows what the COVID future holds. A decision made today for events more than two months away cannot be based on sound reasoning.
We can’t be entirely sure why RSL Victoria has reached the decision it has, why it made it when it did, or why it took a radio talkback caller to spill the beans, but it is not too late for the leadership of RSL Victoria to step back and reconsider the finality of its decision.
RSL Victoria’s leadership role is not just restricted to the veteran community; it also extends to the wider community. Closer to 25 April, COVID-19 may well have the last word, but until then, it would gladden the heart of all Victorians if RSL Victoria committed itself to ensuring that a march, whatever form it may take, will go ahead.
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.