Indigenous representation on the MDBA Board

By Terri Butler MP

11 September 2019

I rise to support this bill for an Indigenous standing member on the board of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. I note this is only the first step to deeper engagement and consultation with Australia's First Nations peoples and I acknowledge the minister, who has reached out in the spirit of bipartisanship in relation to this bill. In opening my remarks in relation to this bill I also acknowledge, of course, the traditional owners and Aboriginal nations of the Murray-Darling Basin.

I also want to acknowledge the peak bodies that have undertaken significant work in relation to advocacy for Indigenous Australians with connections to the basin, like the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations group and the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations. I want to thank the Hon. Linda Burney MP, who is the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians. I also would like to acknowledge the Hon. Ken Wyatt MP, who is the first Indigenous member of parliament to hold the ministerial portfolio for Indigenous Australians. The significance of these leadership positions dedicated to First Nations voices cannot be overstated. I especially acknowledge their significance today, as the creation of dedicated positions for First Nations voices is pertinent to the contents of the bill before us, which seeks to establish a standing position for an Indigenous Australian on the board of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority is the principal entity responsible for managing the Murray-Darling Basin. Labor welcomes the provision set out in this bill for a standing Indigenous member on that board. The Water Amendment (Indigenous Authority Member) Bill 2019 will amend the Water Act 2007 to provide for a standing Indigenous member position on the board of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. It gives effect to the decision made by the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council at its meeting held on 14 December 2018, where it was agreed that a standing Indigenous authority member position should be established. The Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council consists of members from all basin states and the Commonwealth. The establishment of such a position will increase the authority's membership from six to seven members. It's important to note that this bill rightly does not preclude other authority members being appointed to the board who are Indigenous or who have expertise on Indigenous matters related to the basin. On this point, Labor believes that this bill should serve only as a minimum requirement and the first step to deeper engagement and consultation with Indigenous peoples in the governance of the Murray-Darling Basin.

The Indigenous authority member, as the position is referred to, will be appointed on the basis of their high level of expertise in relation to Indigenous matters in respect of basin water resources. This is characterised as experience with the development of cultural flows policy; working with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder on using environmental water flows to address cultural needs; working with the authority on cultural heritage issues in the Murray-Darling Basin; and expertise in engaging or consulting with Indigenous people or other social, spiritual and culture matters relevant to Indigenous people in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Fundamental to this contribution are the significant differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures, which are integral to the successful management and care of the Murray-Darling. Labor believes in the principle that underlies this bill—that First Nations peoples' voices must be heard in management of the authority on a permanent basis. The Basin Plan begins with an acknowledgment of the traditional owners of the Murray-Darling Basin, in which the MDBA:

… recognises and acknowledges that the traditional owners and their nations in the Murray-Darling Basin have a deep cultural, social, environmental, spiritual and economic connection to their lands and waters. The Authority understands the need for recognition of traditional owner knowledge and cultural values in natural resource management associated with the basin. Further research is required to assist in understanding for providing for cultural flows.

Labor's belief in this fundamental principle was evidenced in the policy that my predecessor as shadow minister for the environment and water, the member for Watson, formulated before the last election. We announced policies that would have increased First Nations peoples' involvement in the governance, planning and operations of the Murray-Darling Basin. Labor made clear that fundamental to this process was the consent from First Nations peoples in the basin regarding governance arrangements.

While we support the bill, we note that it addresses only one of the inadequacies identified in reports and recommendations in relation to First Nations peoples and the Murray-Darling basin. The South Australian royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan recommended that the authority have at least two standing Aboriginal representatives on the board from peak bodies established for the purpose of representing the interests of traditional owners in relation to water resources in the basin. Among other things, the South Australian royal commission recommended:

… a meaningful consultation should now commence between the basin states, the Commonwealth and the MDBA concerning cultural flow.

The royal commission also acknowledged the evidence that the basin's waterscape is intrinsic to the cultural identity of the basin's traditional owners. The commissioner said in his report:

… contemporary Australian society has a considerable way to go in understanding Aboriginal culture, and the significance of water resources within it.

He goes on to say that throughout the inquiry there were:

… pressing reminders of the damage and loss simultaneously suffered by the Aboriginal peoples of the Basin to their culture and way of life as a result of the over exploitation of Basin water resources.

It is clear that First Nations peoples have deep, highly valuable knowledge about the behaviour of their ecosystems, which should be central to the Murray-Darling Basin's care, restoration and management. So the appointment of an Indigenous authority member is long overdue.

The National Water Initiative, which led to the Water Act and was signed in 2004, provided for Indigenous access to water resources and ensuring inclusion of Indigenous representation in water planning wherever possible. It also stated that, in relation to Indigenous access to water resources, water plans should incorporate Indigenous social, spiritual and customary objectives and strategies for achieving these strategies wherever they can be developed.

According to the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations Organisation, there are some 75,000 Indigenous people living in Australia's Murray-Darling Basin, and most of these people are traditional owners who belong to more than 40 autonomous First Nations. Forty-seven different Aboriginal nations are currently represented by two umbrella organisations, the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations and the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations.

The modern history of Aboriginal peoples' water is a litany of 'unfinished business', in the words of a 2017 Productivity Commission report. The authority with which First Nations peoples can speak to the health of the Murray-Darling Basin needs to be respected, heard and acted upon. In 2010, the First Peoples Water Engagement Council was established to advise the National Water Commission, but was abolished prior to the National Water Commission's legislative sunset. This council was established because biennial assessments by the National Water Commission found that states and territories failed to incorporate effective strategies for achieving Indigenous social, spiritual and customary objectives in water plans.

I do note, in respect of Indigenous involvement in governance, that there has been some criticism of the Liberal-National government for their lack of consultation. Native title holders in the Murray-Darling area were critical of the government for excluding or not inviting them to emergency and management meetings during recent fish kill crises. There is community concern about the government's management of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and it should be said that their failures to instil confidence in the management of the basin do affect First Nations peoples as well as farmers, environmentalists and the community. So I expect that we'll see some conscious effort to improve confidence.

In talking about the role of water resources and understanding its significance in Indigenous culture, I just want to mention something central to that issue: an art exhibition I attended recently here—well, not quite here, but in Belconnen. It was entitled Barka:The Forgotten River, by artists Badger Bates and Justine Muller. The Barkindji people, who have lived along the Barka—also called the Darling River—for thousands of years, were central to this exhibition. Barkindji means 'people of the river'. In Badger's words, the exhibition is a time line from the early 1990s to the present day.

You get a sense of this even just through the titles of the works. I do want to encourage people, if they get the chance, to go and have a look at this exhibition. It provides a different perspective on the way that water resources affect communities, including Aboriginal communities. I sometimes think that understanding things through art is a wonderful and helpful additional way of coming to grips with some of the complex issues that we face.

Badger's artist statement describes his early lino prints that celebrate the life force and value of the Barka River. The work, Me Fishing in the Darling River, tells the story of clear water in which Badger could see the fish and spear them. A work called No More Catfish tells the story of what Badger describes as the first fish that seemed to disappear in the 1980s. Life Coming Back to Moon Lake is about Lake Woytchugga at Wilcannia and how relieved the artist was that a 2010 flood brought an abundance of life. Ceramic footprints made by Justine Muller speak of the Barkindji people's fight in protecting the river. A mussel shell installation, Finished Up, is about the loss of the food chain in the river as a consequence of the loss of the mussels, and also the effect that has on the rest of the food chain. The feeling of degradation is even more acutely felt when seeing the works visually. The deep feeling of loss at the possible degradation of the river is shared by many who are connected to it.

The exhibition was a sobering experience, but a reminder for me as to why legislation that comes through the parliament that enshrines First Nation voices is so important. There is obviously a great deal that can be learned from understanding Aboriginal cultural values and approaches to resource management. Virginia Marshall has written: 'Aboriginal communities relate to and contemplate value in the environment as integral to Aboriginal identity in a way that articulates both communal and individual belonging to country. The land, the waters and the creation stories are the essence of Aboriginal identity, where sacredness articularises an inherent relationship to the environment unique to Aboriginal peoples.' I think that those sentiments need to be considered as we work to instil trust and confidence in the management of the basin, including through the centring of Aboriginal voices.

I want to touch on some concerns in relation to this bill. There have been some concerns raised in relation to the drafting; specifically, some have pointed out that the conflict-of-interest provision might limit the available pool of potential candidates for the newly created position. The bill requires that the standing Indigenous authority member not be a member of the governing body of a relevant interest group. A similar stipulation currently applies to all members of the authority board in order to prevent conflicts of interest, as I said. However, it has been suggested that the broad definition of what constitutes a member of a governing interest group might exclude many Indigenous persons with relevant expertise because of their participation in those organisations.

The Water Act defines this as being involved in the management of another entity that represents one or more classes of holders of water access rights, water delivery rights or irrigation rights, or who advocates managing the basin water resources in a particular way. Of course, I'm sure that the minister will look forward to hearing from people further about their concerns about the conflict-of-interest provision and its possible operation. As the shadow minister, I also look forward to hearing from Aboriginal communities about this issue in the course of formulating Labor's policy in the lead-up to the 2022 election.

Labor wants to work with the government towards a bipartisan approach, but, as always, bipartisanship can't ever be a race to the bottom. The government makes promises about co-design and consultation, but it needs to deliver. Labor welcome the provisions set out in this bill to establish an Indigenous standing member. We remind the House again that this is merely a minimum requirement and a long-awaited first step in deeper and better consultation with First Nations peoples, including their central participation in the governance of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. I commend the bill to the House.