Senator Lidia Thorpe has urged the federal government not to miss the "opportunity to deliver on their commitments to First Peoples regarding water rights" presented by the Water Amendment (Restoring our Rivers) Bill 2023.
The Bill, which is currently before the parliament, is "a long-overdue opportunity to update legislation, policy and resourcing arrangements to ensure they address the enduring rights and aspirations of First Peoples in the Murray Darling Basin", Senator Thorpe said on Monday.
On Friday the Senate inquiry report into the Bill was tabled in parliament, with a range of recommendations put forward by the committee and crossbench.
Senator Thorpe's additional comments outlined what she said needs to be done in the Bill to address First Peoples water injustice.
The Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman and independent Victorian Senator representing the Blak Sovereign Movement said her proposals build off decades of advocacy and have support from a broad range of First Peoples bodies and individuals, as well as environmental groups, irrigators, legal experts, and government bodies, including the SA Royal Commission (Commissioner Bret Walker SC, 2019) and Productivity Commission's Basin Plan Implementation Reviews in 2018 and 2023 (interim report).
"To First Peoples, the earth is our mother. Water is the lifeblood that runs through Country, connecting clans and songlines while nourishing the land," she said.
"Since time immemorial, the knowledge and expertise of First Peoples has kept the lands and waters in the Murray Darling Basin in optimal health, while sustaining the cultural, social, and economic well-being of communities who live there.
"This Bill as it stands represents the latest iteration of the colonial government's exclusion of First Peoples from water management and the denial of our Sovereignty and rights to care for Country."
Senator Thorpe said that throughout the Senate inquiry process, there was unanimous agreement "from First Peoples and our representative bodies, environmental groups, irrigators, and legal experts, about what needs to happen to this Bill to strengthen our water rights and deliver outcomes for our people".
"It is critical that the Albanese Government and Minister (Tanya) Plibersek do not miss this opportunity to fulfil some of the big commitments they have made promising water justice for First Peoples. I will not let this be another broken promise from the government, who talk big yet continue to exclude us and deny our Sovereign rights to manage Country," she said.
"First Peoples in the Basin have enduring Sovereign rights and cultural obligations to manage and care for our lands of waters. These rights are outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), to which Australia is a signatory, and must be embedded within this legislation.
"I urge the government to amend the Bill to address the recommendations made by the Senate committee as well as further recommendations made by myself, which have the backing of numerous key stakeholders, to strengthen First Peoples rights and ensure the health of the rivers is restored."
Senator Thorpe also called on the government "to make good on their other promises and begin a Treaty process immediately, so that each Sovereign language group can self-determine their own aspirations in relation to water access, use and ownership".
Minister Plibersek told National Indigenous times that the Restoring Our Rivers Bill "will mean healthier rivers for everyone, including First Nations".
"After years of stagnation under the Liberals and Nationals, the Albanese Government is also delivering $40 million of water entitlements for the benefit of Aboriginal people across the Murray-Darling Basin," she said.
It is understood the government will give consideration to any proposed amendments to the Bill.