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First Nations leaders, fishers, farmers and environmentalists unite in Canberra for the Murray-Darling

Giovanni Torre -

With the Senate set to decide the fate of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, an alliance of First Nation leaders, irrigators, farmers, ecologists and environmental organisations travelled to federal parliament on Tuesday to urge politicians from across the spectrum to "deliver for inland rivers and communities".

The Murray-Darling Basin Alliance is calling on the government to negotiate with all members of the Senate to strengthen the Restoring Our Rivers (2023) Bill "to ensure real water is returned to Australia's biggest river system".

The group highlighted the triple threat facing inland communities of climate change, drought and long-term mismanagement of our inland rivers, calling for a range of amendments, in particular the guarantee of: Water rights for Traditional Owners; 450 GL of real water be returned to the rivers; and the recovery of sufficient water to ensure the flows in the northern basin (Darling/Baaka).

Key members of parliament from across the political divide, including Nationals, Greens, independents, and government ministers attended a press conference and BBQ held in the Senate courtyard today to hear stories from this diverse coalition.

Graziers and irrigators called for more water returned to rivers, First Nations leaders spoke on the responsibility to protect the Country, and multi-generational fishers urged legislators to guarantee that more water is returned to the river than is taken out.

Earlier in the day, Minister Plibersek was handed a petition with 10,000 signatures from across the Murray-Darling Basin urging her to "stand up and protect the rivers they love".

Image: Murray-Darling Basin Alliance.

Ngarrindjeri / Kaurna Senior Elder Major "Moogy" Sumner said government "needs to not just be listening, but actually hearing and implementing the teaching from First Nations people on how to look after our rivers and water systems".

"We need real water returned to the river to keep our waters clean and pure not just for us, but for everyone," he said.

Aunty Polly Cutmore (Gamilaraay/Wirri/Anaiwan) and Barry Stone (Ngampaa) were also present.

Murray-Darling Conservation Alliance chair Jono La Nauze said he was proud to stand alongside "such a wide cross-section of Basin and First Nations communities united in our call for the government to go further in returning water to our rivers".

"We've gathered over ten thousand signatures from across the Basin and today launch our Stand By Your Rivers campaign – calling on Minister Plibersek to offer a guarantee that the water that has been long promised but not delivered in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan finally reaches our waterways," he said.

Iirrigator Bill McClumpha from Red Cliffs, Victoria, said that "contrary to popular belief", buybacks are popular with the majority of irrigators who own entitlements, and they are not a factor contributing to irrigator exits.

"A new program will boost irrigation, not cut it. If recovery targets are completed by a buyback program irrigators will be protected against the allocation cuts certain to occur in dry years if targets are not met," he said.

Gloria Jones, multi-generational fisher from Clayton Bay, South Australia, said: "Here we stand ten years on from when Henry Jones cooked fish and spoke to all on the lawns of Parliament House, including Prime Minister Julia Gillard. However, ten years on and the Plan has not been delivered. We do not need more science to achieve the Plan, we know what needs to be done. Minister Plibersek, we ask you to be brave."

Gary Hall, a grazier from the Macquarie Marshes, noted that farmers who grow cattle on floodplains in the Darling Basin, contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy, and produce food for Aussie tables.

"Our community congratulates the current government for finally having the courage to address the failures of the Basin plan to date. We support a lot of the recommendations from the Senate inquiry, but it doesn't go far enough. We need this Bill to guarantee more for the Darling ahead of the next drought," he said.

Conservation Council of South Australia Campaigner Coordinator (Water) Char Nitschke said it is critical that all Australians, "from the bottom of the Coorong, where the Murray Mouth meets the Southern ocean, right to northern Queensland, demand real water for the river now".

"There's also unfinished business. The plan must be amended to account for climate change and First Nations water rights."

Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya 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.

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