• Aunty Marjorie Thorpe addresses crowd at Djab Wurrung protest (Rachael Hocking, NITV)Source: Rachael Hocking, NITV
The recognised cultural authority group for the Djab Wurrung landscape urges state government to respect its decision-making, as protesters opposing the highway upgrade assemble on steps of parliament.
By
Rachael Hocking

Source:
NITV News
10 Sep 2019 - 5:46 PM  UPDATED 10 Sep 2019 - 7:06 PM

Three Victorian Aboriginal representative bodies today mounted pressure on the state Government to resolve settlement negotiations over a controversial upgrade to the Western Highway between Ararat and Buangor that threatens a culturally significant landscape.

The Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, supported by the Federation for Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations (FVTOC) and the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council (VAHC), each issued a written statement calling on the government to respect the integrity of their consent.

Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation - the recognised cultural authority for the region under theTraditional Owner Settlement Act 2010 - has negotiated the controversial Western Highway bypass development with government since 2016.

More recently, in May the body oversaw changes to a proposed route to protect 15 culturally significant trees.

In a statement the organisation said it had respected cultural heritage in its decision-making.

"Eastern Maar understand the complexities and sensitivities around widening the highway but what also needs to be understood is that the appropriate measures and processes have been followed," the statement reads. 

Question marks

However, other Djab Wurrung Traditional Owners said question marks remain over the approvals process. 

Eastern Maar member, Aunty Marjorie Thorpe, told NITV News she has major concerns around approvals for the project.

"I've been to every full group meeting and never at any stage did the full group decide they want to go against saving these trees," Ms Thorpe said. 

"Unfortunately a lot of mistakes have been made, a lot of errors have been made. I think it's about time we did things properly and people are properly involved." 

Ms Thorpe spoke to NITV News as the protest to protect Djab Wurrung country reached the steps of Victoria's Parliament House. 

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Led by Djab Wurrung women, a crowd of  around a thousand demonstrators joined Traditional Owners like Ms Thorpe who called out the processes which gave a green light to the planned clearing of hundreds of significant trees from the latest proposed route.

Former state Greens MP Lidia Thorpe described the process as "manufactured consent". 

"Aboriginal Victoria choose who they want to talk to, they don't want to talk to people like us - Djab Wurrung women - they pick who they want to talk to, because that's how they get consent," she told the crowd. 

Young writer and activist Sissy Austin likened the relationship her people have with the Victorian Government to an abusive relationship.

"As Djab Wurrung women we're in this toxic, disgusting, abusive relationship with the Victorian government," she said. 

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Push for Inquiry

Meanwhile, inside Parliament later on Tuesday, state Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam called for an independent inquiry into the Traditional Owner approvals, including the processes which led to the Western Highway bypass approval.

Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Gavin Jennings swiftly rebutted the idea, defending the Aboriginal Heritage Council which is responsible for recognising cultural authority groups, known as Registered Aboriginal Parties or RAPs, within the state. 

Both the FVTOC and the VAHC threw their support behind Eastern Maar and described protesters of the current bypass proposal as undermining the self-determination of the Traditional Owners.

“What all of this public commentary is doing is undermining the existing representative structures of Traditional Owner Nations which have been long fought for and established over decades of struggle,” Federation CEO Marcus Stewart Stewart said in a statement. 

“Traditional Owners have the right to determine their own political structures and representation, so to bring that into disrepute is disrespectful."

Elsewhere, an eviction notice remains in place to remove the Djab Wurrung embassies which have been established on the site of the proposed route for over 15 months.

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Djab Wurrung Traditional Owners say they are heartbroken following a suspected arson attack on a significant tree close to the camp where First Nations protestors and their supporters have gathered to oppose a controversial development for Victoria's Western Highway.