Fight grows in sacred tree highway battle

Karen Sweeney
·2-min read

Transport authorities have offered to stall works on Djab Wurrung Aboriginal cultural sites as a battle over a highway duplication on sacred Indigenous land grows.

But the offer by the state government and Transport Victoria has been rejected by lawyers who were on Thursday successful in an injunction bid to stop all work on the Western Highway near Ararat.

A new legal battle was sparked this week after a directions tree in the state's west was cut down, prompting fears for six more trees of significance to local Indigenous people.

Justice Jacinta Forbes on Thursday granted an injunction stopping duplication of the highway, preventing construction works including planned topsoil clearing.

Richart Attiwill QC offered a last-minute promise on Thursday afternoon: no major construction work beyond clearing of topsoil, fence installation, weed spraying and verge construction for two weeks.

He said none of the six trees would be cut down, and no work would happen within 1km of the trees.

Ron Merkel QC, who brought the case on behalf of Djab Wurrung elder Marjorie Thorpe, said the works transport authorities wanted to be allowed to do were those "most likely to harm the cultural heritage" of the area.

"There's not a skerrick of evidence why, after so many years, this needs to be done in the next two weeks," he said.

The offer meant an interim fight was going to become a major fight, he said.

Mr Merkel had earlier argued that protecting the culturally significant site from harm included preventing disturbances and interference with the land.

The concept of running a highway through the area was inconsistent with its heritage and if work went ahead the government bodies could be committing offences under Victoria's Heritage Act, he said.

Cutting down the directions tree, after a long period with no work, had been a signal major construction was to resume, he said.

There had been a request before the tree was cut down for works to be halted, but that was refused.

"The next thing that happened ... is protesters were being cleared away from the site, arrested and the embassy set up to protect the two main trees was being dismantled by police," he said.

But Mr Attiwill had earlier argued the harms alleged were actually the status quo.

"The only harm identified by the plaintiff ... is that the trees are going to be in close proximity to the highway - that's the current position," he said.

Djab Wurrung supporter Amanda Mahomet said it wasn't just about the trees.

"Culture is difficult to put into words, because it's something you feel," she said.

"This is about identity and standing up for what is left of the Djab Wurrung. Djab Wurrung Country is magical."

The case will return to court next week.