Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet has sided with VicRoads in a standoff with protesters along the Western Highway outside Ararat.
Despite Mr Andrews’ carefully cultivated image as a supporter of socially progressive issues, the Premier’s department has rejected claims that four trees between Ararat and Buangor have significant Aboriginal cultural heritage.
On Sunday afternoon, members of the Djabwurrung Aboriginal people started to form a camp in the path of works to duplicate the Western Highway from Buangor to Ararat.
The protesters, who were joined by supporters from Ballarat, Melbourne and New South Wales on Monday and Tuesday, said they would blockade the works to protect four trees they claim held Aboriginal cultural significance.
VicRoads had planned to remove 3000 trees along a 12.5 kilometre stretch as part of the two-year, $42 million duplication project.
On Tuesday evening, the Department of Premier and Cabinet, whose responsibilities include supporting the Mr Andrews and the Aboriginal Affairs Minister Natalie Hutchins, issued a statement about the protest.
“The Department of Premier and Cabinet is aware a group of local residents and Traditional Owners are currently protesting against a VicRoads highway duplication project at Buangor in Western Victoria,” a department spokesperson said.
“Traditional Owners have approved a cultural heritage management plan allowing construction of the Western Highway duplication project.
“Both Martang Incorporated (Martang) and the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation (EMAC), who are the formally recognised Traditional Owner organisations that represent the Djabwurrung people, have stated they do not believe the trees to be Birthing Trees or to otherwise have cultural significance.
“The protesters claim the project will harm trees they allege to be Birthing Trees or Sacred Trees. At all stages the department has actively sought advice from Martang and EMAC, who are the formally recognised Traditional Owner organisations that represent the Djabwurrung people, who did not confirm these assertions.”
The statement from a department that works closely with the premier was significant given Mr Andrews’ prior alignment with social justice causes.
Mr Andrews brought in a policy of flying the Aboriginal flag at Parliament House and has been working towards an treaty with Victoria’s Indigenous peoples.
VicRoads halted its tree clearing on Monday having previously announced that work would begin that day.
VicRoads north western project director Nigel Powers said the decision had been made in light of safety concerns for all involved.
“There has been a rigorous assessment of these trees by Aboriginal Victoria, which determined that VicRoads could proceed with the Western Highway duplication,” he said.
“The safety of our staff, contractors and protesters is our number one priority, and we'll continue to work toward commencing the duplication in a peaceful and respectful manner.”
On Monday, the protesters set up a ‘Djabwurrung Embassy’ across from Warrayatkin Road and the next to a tree thought to be 800 years old.
Later that morning, most protesters departed their camp to travel to a VicRoads work site off Hillside Road near Mount Langi Ghiran after they heard that tree removals had started at Buangor.
The protesters confronted VicRoads workers at a site access gate.
Damien Ferrari from Ararat Police said officers attended the scene to keep the peace.
“It was all very peaceful with no arrests. VicRoads called us and we attended as a matter of course,” he said.
“The parties exchanged words and then they left.”
On Sunday night, Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission chair Geoff Clark and other Aboriginal people drafted an ‘urgent’ application to federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984.
“These applications are a last resort request of the Commonwealth because the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (Vic) has failed to prevent the threats of injury and desecration,” the application stated.
“The Registered Aboriginal Party under the VAHA is Martang Pty Ltd and does not represent or act for all Djabwurrung Clans or People.
“It is there requested that the Minister make section 9, 10 and 12 Emergency and Permanent Declarations for the Area and Objects with respect to the culturally significant trees that are under threat of injury and desecration.”
On Tuesday evening, a spokesperson for the Department of the Environment and Energy told Fairfax Media that “the Department has not yet received a valid application under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act on this matter.”
On Tuesday, Mr Clark claimed that VicRoads had agreed to a conference call with protesters and Aboriginal Victoria, the agency that had assessed and rejected prior claims of cultural significance for the trees sat the centre of the protest.
“VicRoads has agreed to a phone conference of various Aboriginal groups including Aboriginal affairs to promote good Faith,” Mr Clark posted on social media.
In response, many protesters left the camp outside Ararat with the aim of returning if tree removal works resumed.
A VicRoads spokesperson would not confirm if this meeting had been agreed to.
On Tuesday evening, Mr Clark posted an image of vehicles entering the Hillside Road site where protesters had confronted VicRoads workers the day before.
“VicRoads roads say they have consent to carve out road corridor. This is despite an offer of Dalguk tree groups to negotiate a solution to impasse in phone conference today,” Mr Clark stated.
The official start of construction for the $42 million project was on Thursday, with a sod-turning ceremony kicking off the creation of 12.5 kilometres of new highway lanes from Buangor to Ararat.
The latest effort to halt the tree removal follows other in-person protests staged around the trees and lawsuits against the state government in previous years.
VicRoads has previously and repeatedly pointed to official decisions by Aboriginal Victoria that did not support heritage claims for the trees.
The Buangor to Ararat lane duplication is part of a joint federal and state government project to improve efficiency and safety along the Western Highway.
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