Locals from Lake Tyers, a small Aboriginal community in East Gippsland, set up a roadblock leading into their township on March 8.
The action was to protest against a Victorian government-imposed administrator and call for a return to democracy in their community.
The only exceptions allowed through the blockade were health service employees and school buses.
In the early 1970s, all land in Lake Tyers was handed back to the local Indigenous community under the Aboriginal Lands Act. The Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust was established as the governing body, which meant that members of the community became members of the trust.
However, in 2005, Aboriginal Affairs Victoria (AAV) disbanded the community council, citing “a breakdown of authority, accompanied by violence”.
Since then, the Lake Tyers council has been made up of representatives from AAV, led by trust administrator Simon Wallace-Smith.
All but two of the previous local community members on the council were sacked. The two local community members sitting as board members on the council have often gone unheard and have been outvoted on key issues by the AAV representatives.
Some legal experts said both the government and AAV may be in breach of state, federal and international laws by denying the community the right to vote. What locals want is quite simple: the previous community board reinstated.
In a March 8 media release, local Aboriginal trust member Leanne Edwards described the unfair treatment of locals from the Gunai and Kurnai tribes as being a “Northern Territory-style intervention”. She also said the AAV board “has basically just moved in and taken over with no consultation with the local community”.
The expected government backlash in response to the blockade was not far away either. Since March 8, the Victorian government has cancelled a breakfast scheme and homework program aimed at school children, and several other community services.
The ABC reported on March 18: “Executive Director of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, Ian Hamm, said programs have been cancelled because the government could not guarantee the safety of the workforce in the absence of the administrator and manager.”
However, there are no fewer than 25 non-Indigenous people employed within the community — all performing roles safely. But the protesters say that people from the local community could perform these roles.
Other issues of contention include the fact that houses are being built on Aboriginal land without prior consultation with traditional owners and the current governing trust is also building sewerage lines through the middle of sacred Aboriginal sites.
The government says the construction projects are part of a “10 point plan” to “close the gap” in Lake Tyers.
However, Lake Tyers community elder Janey Proctor told the ABC that “community locals are fed up with the administrator and the Justice Department marching in telling them what they're going to do and how they're going to do it”.
“We don't want to be told what to do by non-Indigenous people that don't even live here and only come here on a 9-5 basis.
“It's time community affairs were put back in to the hands of the community,” she said.