Government compromise on Western Hwy project will minimise damage to Aboriginal cultural heritage

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Victorian government agencies acted in good faith when consulting with traditional custodians seeking to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage on Djab Wurrung Country near Ararat, the Victorian Ombudsman has found.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass said a modified alignment agreed last year - between the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation and Major Road Projects Victoria - will retain 16 out of 22 trees identified as culturally significant, including two large old trees claimed to be birthing trees.

Tabling her Investigation into the planning and delivery of the Western Highway project in the Victorian Parliament today, Ms Glass said it was not her role to determine the best route for the highway duplication. However, she was satisfied government agencies had made considerable efforts to minimise the damage to Aboriginal cultural heritage.

“I can now observe that the motivations and actions of all parties, no matter on which side of the fence they sit, appear to have been carried out in good faith,” Ms Glass said.

“This is a major achievement for those who mobilised to speak up for Country, inconceivable when the road was first built in the nineteenth century,” she said.

Despite agencies conducting relatively extensive cultural heritage assessments, information concerning two possible birthing trees along the chosen highway route was not reported until 2017. This was after the highway alignment had already been determined.

As a result of significant negotiations and advocacy by Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation (the Registered Aboriginal Party for the area), and representations by the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy and others, the government subsequently agreed to modify the route.

The modified alignment will preserve the two possible birthing trees and the majority of other potential culturally significant trees identified by traditional custodians.

“In light of these and other commitments, Eastern Maar has now indicated it is satisfied that Aboriginal cultural heritage impacted by the project will be adequately protected,” Ms Glass said. “This outcome also enjoys the support of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council. But it is not supported by everyone.”

Ms Glass said her investigation was prompted by complaints from people opposed to the project, who said the government did not consult traditional custodians, was not listening to people who wanted the area protected, and had ignored options that would have provided better cultural and environmental outcomes.

“While consultation with local residents and landholders was extensive, consultation with Aboriginal communities was limited to the officially recognised body,” Ms Glass said. “This complied with legislation and underlines the statutory importance given to Registered Aboriginal Parties. But given the history of dispossession of the Djab Wurrung, was this good enough?”

She said it was not surprising that some Djab Wurrung traditional custodians continue to distrust public authorities associated with the project.

“That distrust - and the resilience displayed by some Djab Wurrung traditional custodians in seeking to protect their traditional lands - is hardly surprising considering past and ongoing Aboriginal experiences of government,” Ms Glass said.

“I acknowledge it is not only the trees, but all the surrounding landscape that carries the weight of Aboriginal history,” she said.

“We cannot turn the clock back to undo the damage of the past, nor can we entirely avoid the damage of the present. But we can minimise the damage – and we can work together to better understand and celebrate that the land always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.”

Media contact: Ainslie Gowan | Mob 0409 936 235 ainslie.gowan@ombudsman.vic.gov.au