Djab Wurrung people have won an injunction to stop the Victorian Government from continuing work on the Western Highway duplication project until November 19.

The Victorian Supreme Court granted the injunction in response to a challenge launched on Tuesday by Gunnai/MarrMaar woman Marjorie Thorpe—mother of Victorian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe.

The news follows Victorian Police and project contractors attending Djab Wurrung Country on Monday which saw the destruction of the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy and the felling of the sacred ancestral Directions Tree.

Over 50 protestors were arrested at the embassy last Tuesday, 40 for refusing to vacate the restricted area and 10 for offences relating to obstructing police.

A large number of protestors received infringement notices of $5,000.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews pointed to the consultation process between State Government and Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation (EMAC).

“We have had court processes, we’ve had agreements, we’ve had settlements, we have fundamentally done as we said we would do, and we have directly consulted and continue to consult with the 12 families that are the Traditional Owners of this particular part of our state,” the Premier said.

“They speak for that Country—I’m not casting aspersions on others who may have views still, but ultimately we’ve got to get on and get this done.”

EMAC manages Native Title for the Eastern Maar Peoples and has been involved in the project since 2017.

The Directions Tree was believed to be 350 years old, however, EMAC has since denied this in a statement.

“Despite its age and majesty, extensive re-assessments did not reveal any characteristics consistent with cultural modification. It did not appear to have been altered by our peoples for usage in our cultural traditions,” the corporation said.

“Independent arborists have indicated that the tree in question is ‘highly unlikely’ to pre-date European occupation.”

EMAC also said they did not have statutory authority over the area until February of this year.

“EMAC had limited influence to stop the felling of the fiddle back tree—a Cultural Heritage Management Plan (CHMP) had already been authorised prior to us being awarded statutory authority. It is this CHMP that the highway duplication project continues to operate under,” they said.

“EMAC continue to advocate for Country. We take our role as the inherent rights holders of our ancestral estate seriously. However, we can only use the tools available to us.”

Since the felling of the Directions Tree the Andrews Government has suffered heavy criticism for its role in the destruction of sacred Country.

On Thursday the Victorian Greens announced their intent to introduce a motion calling for an inquiry into the destruction.

The inquiry will assess the effectiveness of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (Vic) in protecting Country and culture, examine the role of police in the destruction of Country, and assess the integrity of the Registered Aboriginal Party system.

“This violation of our rights as First People shows exactly why the system urgently needs reform. The process as it stands is flawed—it’s the process that allowed this to happen. That’s the definition of systemic racism,” said Victorian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe.

“This legislation is destroying families on the ground. We opposed this legislation when it was voted on in Parliament, and we oppose it now. We don’t want to fight each other. This system is designed to divide and conquer.”

 

The Victorian Ombudsman in July of this year released a report on their investigation of the planning and delivery of the Western Highway duplication project.

The Ombudsman acknowledged in the report that certain voices had been excluded from consultation and that the Government had not acted on opportunities to include them.

Proud Gunditjmara Keerraay Woorroong Djab Wurrung woman, Sissy Eileen Austin, was one of the few that created the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy. In the wake of the Directions Tree’s felling, Austin announced she would be stepping down as the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria’s Member for the South West.

“It is heartbreaking to see what has happened in the last 48 hours on Djab Wurrung Country. As a Djab Wurrung woman it forces me to reflect on where I have placed myself in community. A lot of this is being driven by the Andrews Government and so is the Treaty agenda,” Austin said in an emotional Facebook Live.

“The Andrews Government and others involved in these decision-making processes, they have broken the hearts of Djab Wurrung women, Djab Wurrung children and Djab Wurrung people.”

“That is the last generation that will ever see that Directions Tree—if you think of it like that it is a loss, it is a massive loss.”

Austin said she felt a need to review her position.

“I will be 110 per cent from this moment onwards stepping off the Treaty Assembly and will no longer be Sissy Austin South West elected member to the First People’s Assembly of Victoria,” she said.

“I will not be part of something that doesn’t reflect the heart, the soul and the spirit of my community.”

The Victorian Supreme Court will resume discussions on the matter on November 19.

By Rachael Knowles