Victoria Police removed the last few protesters on October 30 from the site of a hotly-contested new highway extension between Ararat and Buangor.
Activists, who have lived at the site for up to three years, were forcibly and sometimes violently removed with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They were not allowed to take their possessions with them. Furniture, camping gear, flags, solar panels and generators have all been effectively confiscated and are locked behind a secure fence, protected by guards.
The state government’s preferred route for the contentious extension runs south of the existing Western Highway, through land that has significant cultural heritage. The land was traditionally used for birthing, with some areas being traditionally regarded as “Women’s Country”.
The Djab Wurrung have argued throughout this period that the highway should simply be widened, rather than rerouted. The government has consistently refused this request.
The government has made some modifications to their original plans, but these modifications were made without the involvement or approval of the traditional owners. The issues include the removal of significant trees and the opening up and exposure of Women’s Country.
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Legal Service (NATSILS) has called for an enquiry into the police use of Covid laws to arrest protesters, many of whom have been charged with offenses relating to an alleged failure to follow the directions of the Chief Medical Officer. These offenses carry fines of $1652.
There is also speculation over the timing of the arrests, which occurred just days before the easing of travel restrictions that prevented Melbourne activists from visiting the site. NATSILS is also concerned about the arrest of two legal observers.
Media have been barred from the site. A security guard, who saw me taking photos from the other side of the fence, approached me and said: “You’re under arrest, bro. The police are coming. Trespass.” The construction zone is now protected by the same restricted-access laws that are used to keep protesters away from logging operations.
Police have claimed that no inappropriate force was used in the arrests, despite one activist suffering a serious arm injury after being forcibly removed from a barrel.
The government has been negotiating with the Eastern Marr Aboriginal Corporation (EMAC), but there have been claims that EMAC does not represent the wishes of the Djab Wurrung. Last week EMAC controversially signed off on the destruction of the Directions Tree, regarded by many as one of the most culturally significant trees in the area.