South Australia rallies to save a 90-year-old theatre from road upgrades, but what of sacred 800-year-old trees?

A government plan to widen a major road link has provoked an outpouring of community opposition over concerns the project will see the demolition of multiple culturally important heritage sites.

When you read that sentence, what news story came to mind? Was it the proposed South Road expansion that could, hypothetically, see the razing of the 90-year-old Thebarton Theatre along with 600-100 other properties including a school and a church dating back to 1881?

Or, was it the Victorian government’s plan to bulldoze hundreds of culturally significant, centuries-old trees outside Ararat as part of an upgrade to the road that links Adelaide to Victoria – a 725 kilometre stretch of bitumen that a vast number of South Australian residents will travel along at least once in their lives?

The former attracted over 45,000 signatures within three days, an outpouring of support from the local and international music community, and an extraordinary amount of media commentary for a proposal that was seemingly so far beyond the South Australian government’s immediate priorities that footage emerged of the Premier explicitly and inexplicably declaring it “must never be bulldozed” just months earlier.

Over by the Western Highway outside Ararat, the other fight has been led on the ground and in the media by members of the Djab Wurrung community and its supporters for over a year, using their physical presence at the Djab Wurrung Embassy and social media to dig in against efforts by the Victorian state government to proceed with the planned demolition. Like the North-South corridor widening that could, maybe, see the Thebbie demolished, the proposed widening of the Ararat to Buangor leg is just one possible option on the table.

Throughout it all, activists and supporters have noted, with sad irony, the successive outpourings of public support for western heritage icons like Notre Dame Cathedral while the planned destruction of much older, deeply significant sites edges closer with barely a fraction of the same mainstream support or recognition.

Recent weeks have seen protests ramp up across the border as a government-imposed eviction deadline has come and gone, gaining mainstream media attention nationally and overseas. But a quick survey of South Australian media reveals a surprising lack of discussion – despite the state being a key stakeholder in the Adelaide to Melbourne road corridor. While our own state government is responsible for stretches of road on this side of the border, such as the South Eastern Freeway, the corresponding Victorian leg remains part of a wider, federal government-funded upgrade of the entire route.

South Australia has its own patchy record of balancing a respect for the heritage of First Nations peoples with short term economic and infrastructure needs, from the sidelining of traditional owners in the debate around nuclear waste dump proposals on the Eyre Peninsula to the ongoing push to test for oil reserves in the Great Australian Bight, despite the firm objections of many Mirning elders. Indeed, we are only just beginning the process of returning to country some 4600 ancestral remains currently held by the South Australian Museum, many of which were disturbed through land clearing and infrastructure projects of which we are all the beneficiaries.

All of which demands a greater degree of buy-in from the state’s non-Indigenous community than they currently receive. But, as the Djab Wurrung community and its supporters hang on in the face of arson attacks, the threat of forced expulsion from their traditional lands and a government approval process that seems stacked against the clear and vocal opposition of the broader Djab Wurrung community, the very least South Australia can do is look across the border and take notice of what may be destroyed partly in our name.

As we live and work on the country of the Kaurna, Peramangk, Ngarrindjeri, Adnyamathanha, Narungga and other First Nations, we ought to ask ourselves: is shaving a few minutes off a major freight route more important than the irreplaceable cultural heritage of a group that for over 180 years has been subjected to massacres, widespread loss of traditional lands and systematic cultural erasure?

Is the heritage value of an art deco theatre more important than what these trees represent?

And among all the talk of reconciliation, recognition and healing the wrongs of the past, is this the kind of road we want to go down? Because there’s a good chance we’ll all end up driving on it.

Learn out more about the Djab Wurrung Embassy and how to support its efforts here

Header image:
Highway outside Ararat (Photo: Shutterstock)

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