That decision will now be probed by the Victorian Ombudsman, “with particular regard to concerns raised about protection of sacred Aboriginal sites,” a statement from the watchdog said.
The Ombudsman will examine how the alignment was determined by the government’s road agencies and the “extent to which development of the project has made appropriate allowances for the protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage”.
The probe will also consider how the government “responded to concerns raised about the protection of sacred Aboriginal sites” and whether conservation covenants or credit trading agreements were negotiated.
Senior Djab Wurrung woman Marjorie Thorpe said the sacred trees and surrounding landscape carried traditional songlines and must not be lost.
“This is attached to our Dreaming, this is our connection to our land, our eel Dreaming, the stories of creation,” she said.
“We can’t destroy this for all time without everyone being aware of the consequences of what you’re losing.”
The government is now duplicating a 3.5-kilometre section of the highway, following an out-of-court agreement with lawyers for the Djab Wurrung.
But the lawyers are now threatening to stop these works, arguing a tree believed to be around 500 years old has been wrongly included within the project boundary.
“It is insidious what’s going on, as Djab Wurrung people or any First Nations, but this is not new to us how we are treated in the process,” Ms Thorpe said.
Late last year, a Federal Court judge ruled in favour of the traditional owners and overturned a decision by Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley to give the highway duplication the environmental tick of approval.
Ms Ley is now reviewing her 2019 decision, where she concluded that saving five culturally significant trees meant they would not be considered to have been desecrated.
Major Roads Project Victoria earlier agreed to change the project’s design to avoid cutting down 15 trees that were culturally significant.
A spokesperson said the agency was cooperating fully with the Ombudsman’s investigation.
“This project has undergone a rigorous planning process over several years — we have all the necessary cultural and heritage permissions to continue work on this urgently needed upgrade and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
The Ombudsman’s report will be tabled in Parliament.
Timna Jacks is Transport Reporter at The Age