advocacy government policy indigenous sacred sites

More Destruction of Sacred Sites – here in Victoria

Destruction of sacred sites in the Pilbara caused international outrage and one would have expected governments at all levels in Australia to take extra precautions to ensure this is not repeated. Regrettably has not been the case.

Destruction of sacred sites in the Pilbara caused international outrage and one would have expected governments at all levels in Australia to take extra precautions to ensure this is not repeated. Regrettably has not been the case. Here in Victoria the state government is proceeding with a highway project near Ararat that will result in the destruction of trees, including an ancestor tree which have been held sacred by indigenous people for centuries.   
This action has, understandably caused significant community concern and outrage. As Senator Thorpe said, quoting from the Age October 28, 2020 “they (the Andrews government) are destroying our cultural heritage and likened the tree’s removal to Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge in western Australia.   
This project raises fundamental matters relating to procedures and proper process of a governance nature which has concerned TfM for some time. All projects must be designed to address essential needs in the most cost-effective manner and subjected to a rigorous environmental impact assessment. There will always be a number of options and these should be ranked and compared to a base case (essentially do nothing). If safety is the prime consideration, as the premier insists, are several ways in which this can be addressed but the project must always be implemented in a way that works within constraints – one of which is the need to protect sacred sites.    
At the very least this could be addressed by imposing speed restrictions at critical sections of the route. This is standard procedure yet is clearly not part of the state government’s “solution”. It is also likely that these kinds of measures could be implemented at a fraction of the cost or minimal cost compared to the cost of this project. With respect to safety the accident rate is average for rural highway, not worse. The 11 deaths is a fake. This applies to Ballarat to Stawell, 123 km, for 5 years, not the 12.4 km stretch in question. We are advised the project only qualifies for federal funding on the basis of a 110 kph speed limit. In other words the project has been scaled up to qualify. Taking this into account the plaintiff developed an alternative route ‘the northern option’ which doesn’t impact the trees which regrettably the minister refuses to consider. In short this has become a politically driven project carried out without proper consideration of local interests or concerns or the need to carry it out in the most cost effective manner. Unfortunately this heavy handed approach to transport problems is typical of the approach used by this state government for many of its projects and is reflected in its “Big Build” program.   
Of greater concern however is the fact that the Environmental Effects Statement for this project is heavily flawed. Vic Roads admitted this in a public statement in which they stated they had significantly underestimated the number of trees that would be removed in the project when submitting its EES. This was recorded in the judgement in the Supreme Court in 4th June 2020. This evidence should have invalidated the EES and provided grounds to stop the project. Despite the EES being flawed, it was ruled that it was legal for the EES to be the basis of his decision to approve the route.

The implications of this judgement are profound. It raises serious concerns about the way the EES is conducted and opportunities for it to be manipulated and abused to suit political objectives. As it stands the EES is a faux process and the Minister has complete powers even if the EES is found to be faulty/flawed or plain wrong. It has major implications for all major projects including the West Gate Tunnel Project, North East Link and others in the government’s Big Build program. Clearly the law needs to be changed.  

It has become increasingly clear that the prime motivation for this project is not safety but the desire to secure federal funding for a capital works project. The cost of this is high and much of it borne by the local community including the destruction of a sacred site. It has also created public outrage and further loss of government standing within the community. All of this would have been avoided if the government had applied proper processes and sound governance procedures in the first place and been open and honest in its dealings with the local community.

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