In the company of giants: a tribute to veterans who defended Melbourne’s most revered sacred site

By Eamon Hale

For the average person in an Australian city, there aren’t many places that are seen as being sacred. There are only a few places that can give you goosebumps and make you feel a lump rise in your throat when you see them.


Sacred sites around Australia are places that have special meaning. In Aboriginal culture, they could be defined as places within the landscape that have a special significance in their traditions. In cities, this can also be true. Sacred sites are places that transcend differences, that unite and inspire people, and which have a special significance in our shared history.


The Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne is one of those places.


It is a very special place; full of spirits and meaning. Whatever direction you approach it from, it seems to loom out of the ground; a giant, imposing granodiorite tomb for the fallen. It is silent, sombre, and it casts a heavy shadow over the immaculate grass that surrounds it.


For those who know it, the long walk up the ceremonial avenue bordered by memorial trees to the forecourt can be a humbling experience.


This memorial is Victoria’s tribute to those who have served and a place that is revered by all Australians. Or at least, it should be.


In Melbourne, we have seen widespread protesting since Monday. On Wednesday, we saw them gather at the Shrine of Remembrance to occupy the forecourt and the steps leading to the sacred sanctuary.


Protesters have crowded the streets for days, some in high-vis jackets and work boots, others in black with balaclavas and face coverings. Their numbers are composed of a varied mass. Notionally, the protests are led by members of the construction unions, protesting about vaccination mandates and the construction industry being shut down. Others are protesting lockdown more generally and some are there because they just want to riot and fight the police.


By Wednesday afternoon, they had massed on the Shrine steps, climbing the plinths and flying the national flag upside down. They unfurled banners criticising Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, the unions and the lockdown. They chanted and sang. And as they did so, the police began to close in around them.


The protesters massed at the Shrine were almost universally condemned. They were condemned by the government, politicians, the RSL, the media, the public and even the Shrine itself. From all, statements flew thick and fast, the overarching theme being that this is a sacred place that should never be used for protest.


A minority defended the protesters’ actions. They stated that they were standing for freedom and that the Shrine, as a memorial to those who fought for freedom, was the perfect place to express that.


Their arguments were not supported by the majority.


Australians across the country watched the footage on TV and social media. Melburnians, still stuck in lockdown, watched in disbelief as hundreds climbed all over this sacred memorial to the fallen.


A man named Wade was one of those watching. He was deeply moved by what he saw. A proud Indigenous Australian, he is Dja Dja Warrung, Yorta Yorta, Taungurung and others through his bloodline. He is also a veteran, having served as an artilleryman and deploying on operations. Wade understands the importance of service and honour, having been taught it by his family, a family with a long history of serving Australia in war and conflict.


Wade was so moved by these images that he put on a suit, pinned his own medals and those of his grandfather to his jacket, and marched down to the Shrine.


He didn’t do it to join the protest. He didn’t pick a side. He did it to ensure that those who had assembled there understood the significance of the sacred place where they were waving their flags and chanting their slogans.


He stood alone among hundreds of protesters, distancing himself and wearing a sombre dark mask to match the sombre feeling of the Shrine.


Wade asked to speak on an organiser’s megaphone and waited patiently for his turn to do so. When he did get the opportunity to address the massed crowd, he was hit by his own emotions and it became a simple message:


“I’m here by myself. The only thing I’m asking you is can you just respect the Shrine?”


He spoke to those standing on the plinths carved with the names of theatres where Australians have fought, “Can you stand down from there please? Can you get off there?”


“Everyone is entitled to their own peace… I stand here alone, with no one behind me. All I