Instead they saved the Dish

The same week Sussan Ley refused to give protection to the Djab Wurrung trees, she gave special heritage status to the Parkes radio telescope. This is how culture is preserved in Australia.

Ley reasoned that the telescope was a symbol of science and inquiry. It had helped broadcast the moon landing, she said, and later inspired a film by Rob Sitch. “The most famous Dish in the nation,” she called it, “… conserved and protected for future generations after being awarded National Heritage status.”

It is as if the country is a Planet Hollywood and its heritage is a glass case with Roy Billing’s jacket in it. Everything is simpler that way.

Four days earlier, Ley rejected an application to give heritage protection to an area of land near Mount Ararat, including six trees that are of particular significance to the Djab Wurrung people. The logic is difficult to fathom.

She left in place an order that is not binding and found that the tree most in the way of a road expansion is in fact not important. It will be torn down. By best estimates, this destruction will make the journey from Melbourne to Adelaide two minutes faster.

There is an alternative route for this road, although it was rejected. Ley wrote that even if the new route saved all trees, it “would come at a significant economic cost … and would also delay the enjoyment of the road safety benefits”.

The trees are known as delgug – “tall person”. In their application to the Commonwealth, the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy said the trees are living beings of immeasurable value. “These trees are our ancestors and we must protect them to the best of our ability. Destroying them is severely upsetting, and brings bad fortune.”

When you visit the trees you cannot ignore their enormity, the awe of their swollen and hollowed trunks, the life and the living to which they have been witness. The decision to cut down one of them and run a kink of road perilously close to others is extraordinary.

To make sense of it, you have to look into the Australian psyche. This is the unfinished business of colonisation. It’s so ingrained, ministers are likely unaware of it. But somewhere, deep down, they would prefer to destroy what was here than to grapple with the realities of taking it. Michael Kennedy, the lawyer for the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy, calls it “institutional denial and institutional control”.

As all this is happening, the Andrews government is in a treaty process with First Nations people. Sissy Eileen Austin, a Gunditjmara Keerraay Woorroong Djab Wurrung woman, is an elected member in those negotiations. She says the latest decision has “created a tidal wave of anxiety”. She says: “Much of the last 887 days has consisted of Djab Wurrung warriors protecting Country and fighting an endless battle in multiple forms.” A spokeswoman for the government says: “It’s now time to get on with this vital project, which will improve safety for communities in Western Victoria.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 15, 2020 as "Instead they saved the Dish".

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