The Federal Environment Department will re-examine the contentious Doma development at the foot of Mt Ainslie after Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley instructed her Department to review the approval, citing potential new information about its Aboriginal heritage.
Ngambri man Shane Mortimer has drawn attention to the Foothills site, revealing that there had been no consultation with traditional owners or any registered Aboriginal groups throughout the environmental assessment process.
Mr Mortimer says he has established an allodial title to the land, related to the concept of land ownership by occupancy and defence of the land. He traces his descent from Ngambri woman Ju Nin Mingo, daughter of James Ainslie after whom the mountain and suburb are named, and thence through nine generations of women.
Mortimer says a breastplate given by Robert Campbell to his ancestor, engraved with a dedication to Onyong, Chief of the Ngambri People, sets the benchmark for him regarding traditional ownership. He is “very comfortable” with where he sits as a titleholder for the country, although he has scant regard for Ainslie himself.
“He was just a drunk who was deported for bootlegging grog and he was only here for eight years,” he says.
Mortimer will now set out to prove that the Foothills development site is a men’s business site connected with tool making. And, he says, there are other artefacts that “undeniably” indicate the area’s history.
“I can’t go into explicit detail right now,” he says. “We’re not willing to release that at the moment until we’ve had authentication of the artefacts when we can speak a little more confidently about what we’ve identified, but they are definitely man-made.”
Mr Mortimer says ANU archaeologist and Murri man Dave Johnston, who has been a consultant on multiple heritage projects across eastern Australia, and geologist Dr Anne Felton have both examined the site to determine its values.
“This is also unique geology, a nationally significant volcanic site,” Mr Mortimer says.
“The extrusions run all the way from the park opposite Olims to the Australian War Memorial and they go 10 metres deep. It’s a very substantial site.
“There are endangered species on the site that are some of the last remnants of how the Limestone Plains looked,” he says, pointing to the existence of golden sun moths, whose larvae live under the ground and feed on roots of yam daisies, scattered sunray daisies and button wrinklewort plants, and nearby breeding sites for endangered Rosenberg’s monitors on Mt Ainslie.
A report by former Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment Dr Maxine Cooper identified the significance of the grasslands, which were also signposted by CSIRO in an effort to stop people driving across the site.
When initial development approval was granted, the Environment Department said Doma must forfeit a number of environmental credits as compensation, contribute $100,000 to a golden sun moth research project and establish a photo archive of the old CSIRO headquarters.
Doma Group says they have checked public records and while acknowledging that evidence of Aboriginal use had been found nearby, the company doesn’t believe that the materials fall within the boundary of the development. They say any investigations into the site’s heritage issues had been completed before they purchased it in 2016.
The 1999 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act’s heritage provisions were not triggered as those investigations did not identify world or national heritage sites.
Mr Mortimer says he is “reasonably confident that [ACT Minister for the Environment and Heritage Mick] Gentleman will look kindly at this in the ACT”, and is pleased that Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley has called a halt to the development while further assessment is carried out on the cross-jurisdictional site.
He wants a federal enquiry into the lack of binding provisions for examining Aboriginal heritage issues across most Australian jurisdictions.
“It needs to embrace all Aboriginal lands in light of the Jukaan Gorge and Rio Tinto disaster,” Mr Mortimer says.
“We need common standards across the country. People need to apply the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act rule that you must ask first. I believe that has been ignored by the National Capital Authority and the Doma Group.
“There needs to be a fundamental change in attitude to first peoples and their rights. We have a potential Jukaan Gorge of our own in the ACT.”