Indigenous groups unite in call for Murray-Darling royal commission

February 13, 2019
By Peter Hannam
Sydney Morning Herald

Only a federal royal commission with "real teeth" can uncover the corruption and mismanagement that is killing the nation's biggest river system, the Murray-Darling Basin, leading Indigenous groups say.

The demand was a centrepiece of issues raised by hundreds of water activists who gathered in Canberra on Wednesday, including some who staged a protest in the Marble Foyer of Parliament House.

Protest against fracking and Indigenous issues in the foyer at Parliament House on Wednesday.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer "The federal royal commission must have real teeth," Michael Anderson, acting chair of the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations, said. "It's got to have the power to recommend prosecutions."

The call, which dovetailed with the Greens' plan to introduce a bill for a royal commission in the Senate,  is aimed at breaking up "an incestuous relationship between the National Party and farmers" that had led to the unsustainable over-allocation of water extraction from the rivers, Mr Anderson said.

A separate South Australian royal commission into the basin, which released its final report last month, identified "gross negligence" and maladministration of the $13 billion plan to restore rivers' health. It recommended having two Aboriginal representatives on the board of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and a "meaningful consultation" over "cultural flows".

Indigenous groups say their interest, not least in "cultural water" rights, has largely been neglected in the design and implementation of the basin's recovery efforts.

"First Nations are the original custodians of our iconic inland rivers. For 60,000 years our knowledge and management maintained a sustainable, productive ecosystem," Rene Woods, chair of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, said.

"Now, catastrophic fish deaths, toxic blue-green algal blooms and unsafe drinking water are causing distress and hurting our communities."

The third group joining the royal commission call is the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations.

The third and possibly largest of three big fish kills on the Darling River at Menindee, in a photo taken on January 29.Credit:Graeme McCrabb 'Urgent action' needed

"We know we have to take urgent action to save our river system, which is in crisis," Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens environment spokeswoman, said.

"Something is very, very rotten: how on earth can we be spending $13 billion dollars and yet we've got a dead river system," Senator Hanson-Young said. "[It's because of] corruption, corporate cotton and climate change."

Only a royal commission "can get to the bottom of it", she said.

Protestors against fracking in the marble foyer of Parliament House in Canberra.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen The Herald sought comment from David Littleproud, federal agriculture minister.

Labor's water spokesman, Tony Burke, said his party would, for now, focus on its own bill aimed at repealing the cap that limits water buybacks in the basin to 1500 billion litres.

"We will soon have four extensive pieces of analysis in to the Murray Darling Basin – the Productivity Commission review, the South Australian Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission, the Academy of Sciences review in to the fish kills and the review commissioned by [Mr Littleproud]," Mr Burke said.

"There may be a point where Labor supports a further royal commission into this area but right now we are about to have four significant sets of recommendations in front of us and the rivers need action to be taken urgently."

Mr Anderson noted Australia is a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, launched at the United Nations' Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 – a point also highlighted in the SA royal commission's report.

Despite that commitment, federal agencies such as the Commonwealth Water Holder "had failed to engage with First Nations peoples sufficiently", Mr Anderson said. Indigenous people were required to give "their full prior informed consent with respect to biodiversity and planning for ecosystems in the Murray-Darling Basin", he said.