The Victorian Labor government has embarked on a $672 million project to duplicate the Western Highway between Ballarat and Stawell. The 12.5 km section of road between Buangor and Ararat cuts through the songline country of the Djab Wurrung.
To build the three-stage highway project the government proposes to chop down 3000 mature trees. 1000 large old-growth trees are planned to be cut down in the short term, of which 250 have been deemed sacred or culturally significant.
One of the trees is an 800-year-old traditional birthing tree, where thousands of Djab Wurrung people have been born. VicRoads has already admitted that it destroyed 900 old-growth trees while doing the first stage of the duplication between Beaufort and Buangor, despite initially claiming it would only destroy 221.
A Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy camp was set up in June 2018. Meriki Onus, who is staying at the embassy, described the consultation process for the road as flawed.
An extensive report revealing the damage set to be done to the sacred trees was not even considered by the federal Environment Minister Susan Ley when she approved the road project in July.
The report argues that Aboriginal sites at risk of destruction were excluded from the project’s impact assessment methodology. As Djab Wurrung spokesperson D.T. Zellanach said, “Cutting our songlines is like cutting our arteries”.
An appeal against the decision has been lodged, but an eviction order for the Djab Wurrung Heritage Embassy was issued on August 8. Despite the order the embassy has remained in place.
State government minister Jacinta Allan has said that, “…we have followed every requirement and regulation when it comes to progressing this project”.
Allan claims that the government has secured the consent of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council. It’s true that this organisation has supported the project but they are not representative of the communities’ views. The Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council is essentially handpicked by the government itself.
The Eastern Maar Corporation also supports the project but they didn’t even bother to consult the Djab Wurrung people. At a rally of 500 protesters outside the Victorian parliament on September 10, Lidia Thorpe said the agreement was a “dodgy deal”.
Former VicRoads adviser David Clarke put forward an alternative route for the highway and explained that he did not understand why the government was refusing to consider this “northern option”, which uses the existing easement rather than carving a new road through hilly terrain and wiping out the sacred trees.
As elder Aunty Onus said, “…the alternative route would not destroy the trees she was fighting to save… and it could be $20 million cheaper”.
The Victorian Trades Hall Council has come out against the duplication between Buangor and Ararat, with Secretary Luke Hilikari saying of the process, “Right now, this is a complete failure”.
Despite all this, in early September Jacinta Allan said, “…I remain steadfast in my support of the Western Highway upgrade”. Two days later, workers began lopping branches from numerous trees in order to establish a site camp to complete surveying work.
An injunction was sought to stop the work. At the Federal Court on September 11 the government agreed to delay major works until mediation on September 18, but before this happened Djab Wurrung supporters had to block contractors from doing work.
Since then a partial compromise has been reached to save at least 15 trees. The government has agreed to reroute part of the project and the protesters have agreed to allow work to resume on a 3.8 kilometre stretch of the road.
The rest of the project however is still in limbo as the Federal Court case continues.
Irrespective of the compromise, the government has been belligerent. The government claims that it is “committed to working with Aboriginal Victorians towards Australia’s first treaty”, but its attitude towards the Djab Wurrung people shows otherwise.
It is blatantly disingenuous for Labor to maintain that it wants a treaty, and to then refuse to undertake meaningful engagement with the Djab Wurrung people, who have legitimate spiritual, cultural and environmental objections to the project.
In the light of this, it has to be asked exactly what type of treaty does Labor have in mind.
The Djab Wurrung people have made clear that they will not just be pushed aside. As D.T. Zellanach said, “… at the end of the day we’re not going to put up with it, we’re not going to tolerate it. We’re not moving until our sacred lands are protected. Sovereignty was never ceded”.
By Michael Naismith