Indigenous position added to Murray-Darling oversight board after years of local pressure

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday September 23, 2019

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A bill has passed federal parliament that will see the establishment of an Indigenous position on the Murray-Darling Basin Authority board, in an attempt to give traditional owners a say over how their water is used.

The amendment to the Water Act 2007 will give local Aboriginal communities a voice, according to Minister for Water Resources David Littleproud.

“This is a historic move to make an Aboriginal position a legislated, permanent role on the MDBA Board,” he said. 

“Aboriginal communities will now have direct input into the management of Basin water resources.”

Back in January, a South Australian royal commission released its report on the controversial Murray Darling Basin Plan, which oversees how the river system’s water is used.

Appointed by the former Weatherill government following allegations of water theft, commissioner Bret Walker found Indigenous groups had been largely left out of water management and that Commonwealth officials had committed “gross negligence” and “maladministration”.

The 746-page report made 111 findings and 44 recommendations. Among them, Walker called for an overhaul of the scheme to reallocate water from irrigation to the environment, and for the states to recognise and authorise the taking and use of water by Indigenous people through native title rights. 

He also noted that the MDBA had failed to do its job by ignoring “the best available science” and was secretive in its approach.

“Regrettably, from prior to the time of the enactment of the basin plan, the MDBA has shown itself to be unwilling or incapable of acting lawfully,” Walker found.

“That state of affairs exists today, and is the principal reason why there are serious doubts whether the current senior management, and board, of the MDBA are capable of fulfilling their statutory obligations and functions.”

More than 40 Aboriginal nations call the Murray-Darling Basin home. Their history and culture spans more than 65,000 years. Local communities — including Indigenous communities — have been calling for greater input in the handling of the precious river system for years, having seen the devastating impacts of mishandling first hand. 

Earlier this year, an emergency meeting was held by the MDBA, following the deaths of millions of fish in western NSW. While scientists, state representatives and water holders were invited to discuss water management, Indigenous representatives from the area were not.

Littleproud has now argued the river system would benefit from “Indigenous expertise and stewardship” within the board.

“I want to see Aboriginal Basin communities involved every step of the way,” he said.

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