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Traditional Owners reject Victorian Opposition claims linking heritage laws and housing costs

Dechlan Brennan -

Traditional Owners in Victoria have expressed concern at comments from property developers and the Nationals leader Peter Walsh linking heritage laws and the rising cost of housing in the state.

On Thursday, the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation said they were concerned by statements blaming Traditional Owners for costs, with one industry figure, for example, claiming the state government "has awarded the land councils unfettered power".

Wurundjeri Elder and Board Chair Allan Wandin said the corporation was meeting all its statutory obligations, requiring Cultural Heritage Management Plans (CHMPs) to be evaluated within a 30-day time-frame.

"To blame the Aboriginal cultural heritage system for higher construction costs is spurious so let's call it for what it is," Mr Wandin said.

"This latest attempt is a rehashed effort by the Victorian opposition and the mining, farming, and construction industries to bulldoze the State's cultural heritage system so they can make more money.

"We've seen from the experiences in Western Australia what happens when these powerful lobby groups get together to influence government to erode the protections of Aboriginal cultural heritage. We don't want that to happen in Victoria."

It comes as the Victorian Opposition withdrew their support for Treaty and sought to blame the cultural heritage process for delays in planning, despite government data showing less than one per cent of all planning permits in the last financial year required a heritage management plan.

Experts, including native title lawyer Matthew Storey, have said the legislation remains sound but requires more resources to operate to maximum capacity - especially with Labor pushing ahead with their 'Big Build' initiative.

"If the delays are stemming from the fact that there's a high level of development applications, you should be putting more resources into those people necessary to approve the applications, and that body is the registered Aboriginal party," Mr Storey said.

He previously questioned several of Mr Walsh's claims involving the cultural heritage space, arguing they were "misleading."

First Peoples' of Victoria co-chair Reuben Berg told reporters on Monday that whilst anyone involved in the cultural heritage space knows it's "not a perfect system," Treaty would be an opportunity to address some of the issues.

On Thursday the Wurundjeri Corporation said they had built up an "enormous capacity for professionally managing cultural heritage across the State" since 2008.

"The Corporation is currently responding to 483 active cultural heritage management plans across 7,097km2 of the Greater Melbourne region and environs," the Corporation said in a statement.

As a Registered Aboriginal Party (RAP) under the Aboriginal Heritage Act, the Wurundjeri Corporation is responsible for engaging with land developers to evaluate CHMPs on Wurundjeri Country. Both developers and governments are required to consult RAPs. There are currently 11 RAPSs in the state, covering approximately 75 per cent of Victoria.

National Indigenous Times understands a RAP has failed to approve a plan within 30 days just five times since legislation was enacted almost 20 years ago, in 2006.

The Wurundjeri Corporation said "preserving our cultural objects and landscapes is of great cultural importance" not just to Indigenous people, but for the Nation, as cultural tourism is a "valuable industry that generates billions of dollars for the Australian economy annually."

Highlighting recent cultural desecration to one of the Sunbury Earth Rings by developers; damaged when tonnes of soil stockpiles were dumped upslope without a permit causing irreversible damage to one of the rings, the Wurundjeri Corporation noted: "Once destroyed, we can't get these invaluable cultural sites back."

"This is a massive loss to all Victorians, now and into the future, erasing 65,000 years of Australian history."

Mr Storey has said he believed most people would agree the state should have "some protections around cultural heritage," arguing this should be done by the people who were culturally attached to the land.

"We're not talking about town planners, we're talking about the owners of the cultural heritage."

Mr Wandin was also critical at the timing of the Opposition's backflip on supporting Treaty, arguing it was politically timed to coincide with January 26.

Despite opposition leader John Pesutto refusing to discuss when the decision was made - citing cabinet confidentiality - Mr Walsh revealed it was decided in October/November.

"This attempt to directly link increasing house prices to the current statutory cultural heritage processes is a deliberate strategy to play on the fears of Australians struggling with cost-of-living pressures," Mr Wandin said.

"Victoria's Treaty aspirations should not be undermined by the opposition who would rather line the pockets of developers than protect Victoria's world-renowned cultural heritage."

He said developers and the building industry should be scrutinised for their role in destroying cultural heritage sites "in the name of profit," and called for an inquiry.


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