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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee - 24/08/2015 - Water Amendment Bill 2015

PERRY, Mr Darren, Chair, Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations


CHAIR: Welcome, Mr Perry. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. The committee has your submission. Would you like to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Mr Perry : Yes. I would like to acknowledge that I am on Ngunawal country at the moment, and I pay my respects to the Ngunawal elders past and present.

I represent some 24 nations in the southern part of the Murray-Darling Basin, and we have thousands and thousands of generations of connection to our waterways that we have lived beside, lived with and benefited from the resources of. We have great concerns about what is happening with our environment now, and we hope that we can find a way to ensure that there is water for all, for now and into the future. Our outlook on life is that land, water, air and people are all one holistic being, and they need to live in harmony together. So I implore that any decisions that are made regarding the management of water in this country not be taken lightly and have good engagement with Aboriginal people who are directly affected by any such decisions.

CHAIR: Thank you. In your submission, you raise four particular areas of concern. I suppose the first three of them are largely mainstream, and we have sought for the department to provide advice on why they believe that the concerns that are expressed in those first three have been dealt with, so hopefully we will be able to get you some written explanation for those.

Your fourth concern was in relation to the potential disturbance or impact on Aboriginal culture and heritage by some of the works and measures that are being proposed. Have you been involved in consultation with the department over any of the projects that have occurred to date, and do you have any particular examples where there has been concern about disturbances or impacts on your cultural heritage from this?

Mr Perry : Yes, I do. I am a Ngintait man from the north-west of Victoria. We have had some large-scale works and measures programs under the Living Murray program so far in our country. There was some impact on cultural heritage through that but, because we have such an intimate knowledge of our country, we were able to stop any major impacts by good management. But there have been a couple of other projects that have been done under the Living Murray, such as the Hattah Lakes and also Koondrook-Perricoota Forest. At Koondrook-Perricoota Forest, there was quite a high impact on cultural heritage, and it was very distressful to the Barapa Barapa people, because something in the order of 17 skeletal remains were dug up during those works and measures. The management of cultural heritage matters adds greatly to the costs of any project, but there is no cost that can be put on the impacts on Aboriginal people. It is very distressful for us to have to witness our ancestors being dug up out of the ground after they have been put to rest a long time ago.

There is a proposed works and measures program for Lindsay Island, which is at the western extremity of my people's country. That is one of the largest proposed programs of all. There will be a major regulator built on the Lindsay River; and there will be, I think, six other sites throughout Lindsay Island and around Lake Wallawalla that will be highly impacted. This is central—this is in the core of our country. We have very sacred knowledge that relates to that bit of our country, which I am not able to share with you. It is secret, sacred knowledge to my people. But any large-scale works through there will impact greatly on us now into the future. It will certainly impact on our ability to pass on and continue our culture down through our future generations to come.

There are small benefits that can be gained for Aboriginal people out of these projects—for example, there is monitoring work and survey work to be done—but these only benefit a very small amount of our community. There are impacts that will occur for our community as a whole, through the landscape changes. It is not just the material culture such as skeletal remains and scarred trees and things; it is the landscape change that will also impact our people now and into the future. We have very sacred stories that relate to certain parts of our country, and some of these works are planned fairly squarely in some of the major parts of those stories.

CHAIR: Have you had much interaction with—undertaken and provided much feedback to—the department and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to express your concerns about the issues you have just raised?

Mr Perry : Yes, we have certainly raised our concerns in a number of different forums; discussions with department of environment and heritage, as well as the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, relating to extra works and measures programs.

CHAIR: Have you raised these with the Victorian department or with the federal department or both?

Mr Perry : Both, actually, because we have liaised with the catchment management authorities in Victoria and relayed our concerns, because most of these projects actually come down on to the ground through the CMAs.

CHAIR: Are you feeling that your concerns are being listened to?

Mr Perry : Not really. There is some lip service paid to us. But, on the whole, we are still seeing these projects go ahead, even though we have had quite strong resistance to some of them. Around the Hattah Lakes area, some of the Tati Tati people flatly refused to participate, because they realised that there was going to be a really big impact on their cultural heritage in that area. These things are still going ahead.

CHAIR: Thanks, Mr Perry. Senator Urquhart.

Senator URQUHART: I think, Senator, you have stolen all of my questions. But I will just go on a little bit further. In terms of the issues you have raised, Mr Perry, in point 4 of your submission I note that you have a number of key questions that you have posed there. Are they the basis of the questions that you have asked of these departments and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority? It says things like: 'Has this potential impact been accounted for in the bridging the gap program? Have the potential time delays and increased costs associated with cultural heritage surveys and unanticipated site discoveries been factored into business case studies for infrastructure upgrades? And has there been a consideration of the resource and capacity requirements of local cultural heritage officers in dealing with these issues?' Are they the questions you have posed to the departments?

Mr Perry : Yes. Those are some of the questions. It is quite apparent to us that these issues have not been properly resourced in any of the project plans that we have seen. So there has not been due consideration given to this.

Senator URQUHART: So in your view it is a resourcing issue. So they have been maybe dealt with but not in a comprehensive way; is that a fair assumption or not at all? I just want you to explain to me how you feel they have not been resourced.

Mr Perry : The fact that they are under-resourced suggests to me that adequate weight has not been given to the concerns relating to the cultural heritage issues around these major projects.

Senator URQUHART: Senator Ruston may have indicated that when we questioned the department I asked about a number of the issues you have raised in your submission. They have indicated that they will respond to the committee with those concerns, which we can then pass on to you. Are there any other issues—the weighting is a particular issue—which you have not put in here on which you feel you need answers from the department?

Mr Perry : Probably not answers but—

Senator URQUHART: Or maybe for us to emphasise?

Mr Perry : We are seen as a peak body in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan rollout. We sit at the peak bodies meetings and the lack of consultation on this bill has been pretty poor. We thought we would have been spoken to right from the beginning.

Senator URQUHART: How far along has it happened? You have been left out. So the fact that you sit on that body but have not been consulted right up front, how has that happened from your point of view?

Mr Perry : We thought we would have been directly engaged by the department itself. We have only got things second hand through the whole thing. When there was a call for submissions we saw that, so we put our submission in, but there has been no direct one-on-one engagement with the two peak bodies of the Murray-Darling Basin, the Aboriginal peak bodies, which are MLDRIN and NBAN, Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations.

Senator URQUHART: We will certainly raise that in the correspondence and see what feedback we can get.

Senator SINODINOS: I want to follow up on one of the areas you raise around potential significant disturbance and impacts on Aboriginal cultural heritage and important cultural landscapes. For existing infrastructure upgrades, what sort of consultation has there been with groups such as yours in order to ameliorate or to minimise those impacts?

Mr Perry : As I said, I am from Victoria, so I see the Victorian side of it mostly. Most of the on-ground work comes down through the CMAs in Victoria. It comes back to how good a person is in that role as project manager within the CMAs and that relates directly to the amount of engagement with traditional owners, the Aboriginal people. It has been a hit and miss affair in the Living Murray program.

Senator SINODINOS: Were you talking before about resourcing in relation to local cultural heritage officers? Is that an issue?

Mr Perry : Yes, it is because the state is under-resourced as it is. In Victoria, we have registered Aboriginal parties and there have been reviews of the RAPs recently. With the Commonwealth being a part of this, we see that the feds need to pick up some of the slack here.

Senator SINODINOS: What is the situation in relation to native title along the basin?

Mr Perry : There is one RAMSAR site within a current native title claim, which is the Coorong, Lower Lakes. That is pretty close to determination, from my understanding. In Victoria, we have the Traditional Owner Settlement Act, which is a slightly different way of doing native title, relevant to Victoria. There will be determinations under that and agreements made which impact our cultural heritage sites and water. The less water available, the less able are we to do our cultural obligations and to have our cultural rites recognised.

Senator SINODINOS: Would the water that would be available in that context be environmental water, or could it be other water?

Mr Perry : Water is not excluded from native title, so it is still a very grey area. Nobody has really worked out how native title actually reflects on water.

Senator SINODINOS: That is what I was wondering about, because I think that is an issue in its own right in terms of what rights you would have in relation to water in those areas where you may make a claim and, therefore, what the obligations are in relation to that water.

Mr Perry : I can definitely speak for Victoria, because there was a change to the Victorian Water Act in relation to the Traditional Owner Settlement Act: water is on the table for traditional take. The definition of 'traditional take' has not been made clearly apparent to us yet, but there is certainly scope for Aboriginal people to have rights to water through native title.

Senator SINODINOS: That is something that is evolving in Victoria at the moment.

Mr Perry : Yes.

Senator SINODINOS: You are not aware of what New South Wales is doing in this regard?

Mr Perry : I am aware but not greatly informed.

Senator SINODINOS: I am not trying to put you on the spot. I understand. I have seen your submission. It immediately raised the issue about your rights, as a community, to water and what that meant about the split between the various uses of water and the decisions that you then make as traditional owners about the use of water.

Mr Perry : Just to clarify that a little bit, we have got a current project underway, the National Cultural Flows Research Project, which is a joint project between us and the Commonwealth, mainly through the MDBA and the CHU, which will inform everybody about what we require as Aboriginal people around water to meet our cultural obligations and also about our socioeconomic requirements. The science is not in yet on that one.

Senator SINODINOS: Thank you very much.

Senator URQUHART: You talked about the gains from the sort of infrastructure that we are talking about. You talked about monitoring work and survey work. Can you just explain a little bit more about what you mean by the gains. Is that to your community? Can you explain that to me?

Mr Perry : It is pretty much an individual thing. There is a small part of the community that is involved in cultural heritage work and that benefits from those projects. But the community as a whole does not benefit from that. There are people paid to go and do the on-ground work, and they put a bit of money in their pocket. But the community, as a whole, does not benefit.

Senator URQUHART: I understand that now.

CHAIR: You made some very interesting points which we will certainly follow up on for you.

Mr Perry : Can I table a couple of documents that may inform the committee a little bit further at some stage. One is a briefing paper that we gave to the Hon. Bob Baldwin, the parliamentary secretary. There is some work on the impacts of infrastructure works on water management and some information relating to Aboriginal socioeconomic issues around water management.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Perry. We will table those documents. Thank you very much for making the time to come today. You evidence has been very useful. The committee will now suspend.

Proceedings suspended from 12:04 to 13:37