The national peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services (NATSILS) is calling for an urgent inquiry into Victoria's use of special police powers, as the fall-out of the state's felling of a 'Directions Tree' continues.
Around 50 arrests were made at the 'top camp' of the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy on Tuesday, about 2.5 hours drive west of Melbourne.
According to Victoria Police, approximately 50 protesters were arrested for refusing to leave a restricted access area and failing to comply with the Chief Health Officer’s directions, and a further 10 protestors were arrested for obstructing police at the site of the protest.
Offences included intentionally obstructing an emergency service worker on duty, refusing to leave a restricted access area and failing to comply with the Chief Health Officers directions.
As well as those arrested, a "significant number" of protesters will also receive infringement notices of $5,000.
Police powers were extended under the COVID-19 pandemic when a state of emergency was declared in March this year.
Yorta Yorta woman and co-chair of NATSILS, Nerita Waight, said there needs to be an urgent inquiry into how these powers have been used.
“We have received reports that police blocked road access to the sacred Djab Wurrung trees early this morning and they have refused access for lawyers, saying they are non-essential workers. There is mounting evidence of racial discrimination from Victoria’s COVID-19 policing,"
The embassy has been protesting the Western Highway Upgrade project between Ballarat and Ararat since 2018, but activists flocked to the site following the felling of a mature Yellow Box tree - referred to by some Djab Wurrung people and their supporters as a 'Directions Tree'.
There have been reports from the Djab Wurrung Embassy of one protestor suffering a broken arm during the arrests, however Victoria Police reported no injuries.
No trees, no Treaty
Overnight, Djab Wurrung woman Sissy Austin stepped down from her position with the First Peoples' Assembly, Victoria's representative body responsible for working towards a Treaty with the state government, in protest at the felling of the tree.
Ms Austin has long been a strong advocate from the protection of the cultural landscape on Djab Wurrung Country.
Ms Austin said she could not continue to be part of a treaty process that she felt did not represent the values of her community.
"Our trust is not only being broken, but our hearts have been broken. We're seeing our Country being torn apart," she said.
"I'm a person of integrity and I've always kept my word and if I don't feel like something is representative of community and community's feelings and issues, I refuse to be a part of that."
Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, the registered Aboriginal party for the area, said it has consulted closely with the Victorian government to protect 16 trees it had identified as culturally significant.
The highway duplication route was altered last year to protect those trees.
A statement issued overnight from Eastern Maar said it had "limited influence to stop the felling of the fiddleback tree" on Monday.
"Despite its age and its majesty, extensive re-assessments did not reveal any characteristics consistent with cultural modification," the statement said.
"It did not appear to have been altered by our peoples for usage in our cultural traditions.
"Independent arborists have indicated that the tree in question is 'highly unlikely' to pre-date European occupation."
Injunction on work
The Supreme Court of Victoria has now issued an order preventing works from going ahead on the highway upgrade until 2pm Thursday.
The plaintiff in the case, Marjorie Thorpe, said she is frustrated at having to fight the removal of the trees with limited resources.
"It'll be business as usual, with those trees what they want to do in this plan is actually put the road around them so it'll be like they'll be in a museum," the senior Djab Wurrung woman said.
"There's not much that's going to change other than the great hope that maybe we'll get some attention onto this devious cultural heritage legislation that does not protect our cultural heritage, does not recognise us."
The matter is due to be heard in the Supreme Court on Thursday morning.