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First Peoples in Victoria received none of the $83 billion in water revenue the government received over 13-years, truth-telling commission hears

Dechlan Brennan -

A truth-telling inquiry in Victoria has heard the state received more than $83 billion in water revenue over the past decade, but none of that was passed on to Indigenous people. 

On Wednesday, the Yoorrook Justice Commission's hearings into historical injustices surrounding land, sky, and waters in Victoria saw Water Minister Harriet Shing give evidence at Margooya Lagoon near Robinvale in the northwest of the state, on the banks of the Murray River. 

Asked by counsel assisting Fiona McLeod how much of the $83 billion in revenue from water over a 13-year period was disturbed to Traditional Owners, Ms Shing replied: “The answer is zero directly".

The hearings have heard from a number of ministers in the Victorian government, all of whom have acknowledged the discrepancy in revenue from the land that the government receives compared to Traditional Owners. 

Despite Native Title covering 40 per cent of the country, First Nations people hold the rights to less than one per cent of all surface water. 

Ms Shing began her address to the Commission by acknowledging that the “settler colonial conception of water as property is very different to the Traditional Owner concept of water and water ownership".

“This continues to be reflected in our system of management and water entitlements today which continue to disadvantage and cause harm and injury to Traditional Owners,” she said. 

The hearings heard Victoria received $6.6 billion from inland water revenue in the 2021/22 financial year. 

Traditional Owners received no direct or primary benefit from that revenue. 

Commissioner Travis Lovett asked Ms Shing how that sat with her?

“Terribly,” she replied. 

Asked by Commissioner Lovett if she saw Traditional Owners as a priority in the water sector, Ms Shing replied: “Yes…Traditional Owners are best placed to care for Country, and when we have healthy Country, we have healthy communities".

Welcome to country from Tati Tati Elders and dancers in Robinvale. (Image: Yoorrook Justice Commission) 

Between 2019 and 2024, the Department of Energy, Environment, Climate Action - which encompasses Ms Shing’s water portfolio - allocated $39.2 million for First Peoples and/or Traditional Owner water programs.

Last year, the Victorian government issued licences for cultural water use at eastern Victoria's Buchan Munji and the Tambo River to the Gunaikurnai Land and Water Aboriginal Corporation.

The Minister acknowledged at time, Traditional Owners in Victoria held less than 0.2 per cent of all water access entitlements across the state, but argued work was underway to slowly return water management to them. 

However, the Commission was told of the 16 Traditional Owner water portfolio programs, only 10 were administered by Indigenous businesses and/or organisations. 

Commissioner Lovett said: “First Peoples have got no say in the water sector really... That is why we can't generate wealth and prosperity, because we are shut out of that system".

“The only time we are included is when legislation is made about us, like bail,” he said. 

"We are hearing about the billions of dollars that goes to irrigators every year, but First Peoples don't see billions; we don't even see millions — we just see cents."

Ms Shing admitted that in comparison to the $83 billion in revenue, the amount spent on Indigenous water programs was miniscule. Of the $39 million allocated to Indigenous water programs, $5 million was spent on staffing and around $22 million on a grant program for self-determination projects.  

Neither of the two expenditure programs are Indigenous-led and controlled, and only two of the members of the Aboriginal Water Department staff who received the $5 million were Indigenous, Ms Shing admitted. 

"Allocation of funding has been, without a doubt, undeniably inadequate over a very long period of time," the minister said.

Chairperson Eleanor Bourke told Ms Shing: “If government doesn't change, there will be no change".

“We have been doing this for 40, 50, 60 years...It is almost still in the welfare space and that is the big problem. There has to be a change in the head space,” Commissioner Bourke said. 

In response to being confronted with a jar of green water by Commissioner Lovett - collected from the nearby Margooya lagoon - and asked how well she thought the government handled water quality; Ms Shing replied: "The quality of our water has been devastated over generations".

“I think when you look at one of the most modified river systems in the entire world there has been a move away from the flows that have made and kept water country healthy,” she said. 

Ms Shing said there has been progress in the improvement of some of the state’s waterways but admitted: “This is not one of them".

Earlier, Tati Tati and Wadi Wadi Traditional Owner, Uncle Brendan Kennedy gave evidence to the hearing, observing that Europeans needed to understand “the enormity of what they are doing [to the environment] instead of hiding behind books and laws".

An advocate for Indigenous water rights in the Murray Darling Basin, he told Ms Shing: "We don't want acknowledgements, we want you to reconcile the truth in your heart".

The Yoorrook hearings continue, with Premier Jacinta Allan set to give evidence to the commissioners on Monday. 

The findings are set to be delivered in 2025. 

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