Wednesday, 11 September 2019
Water Amendment (Indigenous Authority Member) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise to support this bill for an Indigenous standing member on the board of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. I note this is only the first step to deeper engagement and consultation with Australia's First Nations peoples and I acknowledge the minister, who has reached out in the spirit of bipartisanship in relation to this bill. In opening my remarks in relation to this bill I also acknowledge, of course, the traditional owners and Aboriginal nations of the Murray-Darling Basin. I also want to acknowledge the peak bodies that have undertaken significant work in relation to advocacy for Indigenous Australians with connections to the basin, like the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations group and the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations. I want to thank the Hon. Linda Burney MP, who is the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians. I also would like to acknowledge the Hon. Ken Wyatt MP, who is the first Indigenous member of parliament to hold the ministerial portfolio for Indigenous Australians. The significance of these leadership positions dedicated to First Nations voices cannot be overstated. I especially acknowledge their significance today, as the creation of dedicated positions for First Nations voices is pertinent to the contents of the bill before us, which seeks to establish a standing position for an Indigenous Australian on the board of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority is the principal entity responsible for managing the Murray-Darling Basin. Labor welcomes the provision set out in this bill for a standing Indigenous member on that board. The Water Amendment (Indigenous Authority Member) Bill 2019 will amendment the Water Act 2007 to provide for a standing Indigenous member position on the board of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. It gives effect to the decision made by the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council at its meeting held on 14 December 2018, where it was agreed that a standing Indigenous authority member position should be established. The Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council consists of members from all basin states and the Commonwealth. The establishment of such a position will increase the authority's membership from six to seven members. It's important to note that this bill rightly does not preclude other authority members being appointed to the board who are Indigenous or who have expertise on Indigenous matters related to the basin. On this point, Labor believes that this bill should serve only as a minimum requirement and the first step to deeper engagement and consultation with Indigenous peoples in the governance of the Murray-Darling Basin.
The Indigenous authority member, as the position is referred to, will be appointed on the basis of their high level of expertise in relation to Indigenous matters in respect of basin water resources. This is characterised as experience with the development of cultural flows policy; working with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder on using environmental water flows to address cultural needs; working with the authority on cultural heritage issues in the Murray-Darling Basin; and expertise in engaging or consulting with Indigenous people or other social, spiritual and culture matters relevant to Indigenous people in the Murray-Darling Basin.
Fundamental to this contribution are the significant differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures, which are integral to the successful management and care of the Murray-Darling. Labor believes in the principle that underlies this bill—that First Nations peoples' voices must be heard in management of the authority on a permanent basis. The Basin Plan begins with an acknowledgment of the traditional owners of the Murray-Darling Basin, in which the MDBA:
… recognises and acknowledges that the traditional owners and their nations in the Murray-Darling Basin have a deep cultural, social, environmental, spiritual and economic connection to their lands and waters. The Authority understands the need for recognition of traditional owner knowledge and cultural values in natural resource management associated with the basin. Further research is required to assist in understanding for providing for cultural flows.
Labor's belief in this fundamental principle was evidenced in the policy that my predecessor as shadow minister for the environment and water, the member for Watson, formulated before the last election. We announced policies that would have increased First Nations peoples' involvement in the governance, planning and operations of the Murray-Darling Basin. Labor made clear that fundamental to this process was the consent from First Nations peoples in the basin regarding governance arrangements.
While we support the bill, we note that it addresses only one of the inadequacies identified in reports and recommendations in relation to First Nations peoples and the Murray-Darling basin. The South Australian royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan recommended that the authority have at least two standing Aboriginal representatives on the board from peak bodies established for the purpose of representing the interests of traditional owners in relation to water resources in the basin. Among other things, the South Australian royal commission recommended:
… a meaningful consultation should now commence between the basin states, the Commonwealth and the MDBA concerning cultural flow.
The royal commission also acknowledged the evidence that the basin's waterscape is intrinsic to the cultural identity of the basin's traditional owners. The commissioner said in his report:
… contemporary Australian society has a considerable way to go in understanding Aboriginal culture, and the significance of water resources within it.
He goes on to say that throughout the inquiry there were:
… pressing reminders of the damage and loss simultaneously suffered by the Aboriginal peoples of the Basin to their culture and way of life as a result of the over exploitation of Basin water resources.
It is clear that First Nations peoples have deep, highly valuable knowledge about the behaviour of their ecosystems, which should be central to the Murray-Darling Basin's care, restoration and management. So the appointment of an Indigenous authority member is long overdue.
The National Water Initiative, which led to the Water Act and was signed in 2004, provided for Indigenous access to water resources and ensuring inclusion of Indigenous representation in water planning wherever possible. It also stated that, in relation to Indigenous access to water resources, water plans should incorporate Indigenous social, spiritual and customary objectives and strategies for achieving these strategies wherever they can be developed.
According to the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations Organisation, there are some 75,000 Indigenous people living in Australia's Murray-Darling Basin, and most of these people are traditional owners who belong to more than 40 autonomous First Nations. Forty-seven different Aboriginal nations are currently represented by two umbrella organisations, the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations and the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations.
The modern history of Aboriginal peoples' water is a litany of 'unfinished business', in the words of a 2017 Productivity Commission report. The authority with which First Nations peoples can speak to the health of the Murray-Darling Basin needs to be respected, heard and acted upon. In 2010, the First Peoples Water Engagement Council was established to advise the National Water Commission, but was abolished prior to the National Water Commission's legislative sunset. This council was established because biennial assessments by the National Water Commission found that states and territories failed to incorporate effective strategies for achieving Indigenous social, spiritual and customary objectives in water plans.
I do note, in respect of Indigenous involvement in governance, that there has been some criticism of the Liberal-National government for their lack of consultation. Native title holders in the Murray-Darling area were critical of the government for excluding or not inviting them to emergency and management meetings during recent fish kill crises. There is community concern about the government's management of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and it should be said that their failures to instil confidence in the management of the basin do affect First Nations peoples as well as farmers, environmentalists and the community. So I expect that we'll see some conscious effort to improve confidence.
In talking about the role of water resources and understanding its significance in Indigenous culture, I just want to mention something central to that issue: an art exhibition I attended recently here—well, not quite here, but in Belconnen. It was entitled Barka:The Forgotten River, by artists Badger Bates and Justine Muller. The Barkindji people, who have lived along the Barka—also called the Darling River—for thousands of years, were central to this exhibition. Barkindji means 'people of the river'. In Badger's words, the exhibition is a time line from the early 1990s to the present day.
You get a sense of this even just through the titles of the works. I do want to encourage people, if they get the chance, to go and have a look at this exhibition. It provides a different perspective on the way that water resources affect communities, including Aboriginal communities. I sometimes think that understanding things through art is a wonderful and helpful additional way of coming to grips with some of the complex issues that we face.
Badger's artist statement describes his early lino prints that celebrate the life force and value of the Barka River. The work, Me Fishing in the Darling River, tells the story of clear water in which Badger could see the fish and spear them. A work called No More Catfish tells the story of what Badger describes as the first fish that seemed to disappear in the 1980s. Life Coming Back to Moon Lake is about Lake Woytchugga at Wilcannia and how relieved the artist was that a 2010 flood brought an abundance of life. Ceramic footprints made by Justine Muller speak of the Barkindji people's fight in protecting the river. A mussel shell installation, Finished Up, is about the loss of the food chain in the river as a consequence of the loss of the mussels, and also the effect that has on the rest of the food chain. The feeling of degradation is even more acutely felt when seeing the works visually. The deep feeling of loss at the possible degradation of the river is shared by many who are connected to it.
The exhibition was a sobering experience, but a reminder for me as to why legislation that comes through the parliament that enshrines First Nation voices is so important. There is obviously a great deal that can be learned from understanding Aboriginal cultural values and approaches to resource management. Virginia Marshall has written: 'Aboriginal communities relate to and contemplate value in the environment as integral to Aboriginal identity in a way that articulates both communal and individual belonging to country. The land, the waters and the creation stories are the essence of Aboriginal identity, where sacredness articularises an inherent relationship to the environment unique to Aboriginal peoples.' I think that those sentiments need to be considered as we work to instil trust and confidence in the management of the basin, including through the centring of Aboriginal voices.
I want to touch on some concerns in relation to this bill. There have been some concerns raised in relation to the drafting; specifically, some have pointed out that the conflict-of-interest provision might limit the available pool of potential candidates for the newly created position. The bill requires that the standing Indigenous authority member not be a member of the governing body of a relevant interest group. A similar stipulation currently applies to all members of the authority board in order to prevent conflicts of interest, as I said. However, it has been suggested that the broad definition of what constitutes a member of a governing interest group might exclude many Indigenous persons with relevant expertise because of their participation in those organisations.
The Water Act defines this as being involved in the management of another entity that represents one or more classes of holders of water access rights, water delivery rights or irrigation rights, or who advocates managing the basin water resources in a particular way. Of course, I'm sure that the minister will look forward to hearing from people further about their concerns about the conflict-of-interest provision and its possible operation. As the shadow minister, I also look forward to hearing from Aboriginal communities about this issue in the course of formulating Labor's policy in the lead-up to the 2022 election.
Labor wants to work with the government towards a bipartisan approach, but, as always, bipartisanship can't ever be a race to the bottom. The government makes promises about co-design and consultation, but it needs to deliver. Labor welcome the provisions set out in this bill to establish an Indigenous standing member. We remind the House again that this is merely a minimum requirement and a long-awaited first step in deeper and better consultation with First Nations peoples, including their central participation in the governance of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. I commend the bill to the House.
I'd like to first of all say that what we are encountering in regional areas is the most exceptional drought for many in Australia's written history. That is not to say that it is the most exceptional drought in the history of Australia, but in written history it is beyond the pale. I would like to commend a person who is fighting bushfires in these dire circumstances—that is, the former Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon. Tony Abbott, who as we speak is fighting a bushfire at Drake, in my electorate.
We have to manage this drought. We can't actually make the weather change. It will rain, and that's when the drought will finish. We have to be very aware of the extreme circumstances that are currently before us. These extreme circumstances in the natural environment would mean there would be no water in the rivers. The only places that we are seeing water now are below regulated dams and below where there has been the capacity to store water from other times and release it now. So, when people say water is entitled to go down the river, to go to a place, if you want to return it to its pristine, natural condition, then the rivers would be totally and utterly dry. I think that's worth mentioning at the present time, because we have also built the economies of so many regional towns on our capacity to get access to regulated water, and if we didn't have that we wouldn't have these towns.
With regard to the Indigenous authority member, there must also be another side to this debate—that those people are also reliant on the economics that comes from water. In my own area, when I was at St George, I lived next door to the Waters family. Poddy Waters was the Aboriginal elder for the area. Ronny Waters and Jenny Waters were there. There were a whole range of Aboriginal people; they were a big part of our community. For them, the importance of the river was that it gave them jobs, and if you took away irrigation there would be no jobs. One of the greatest advocates for the irrigation industry were Aboriginal people, because that was their form of employment—in Dirranbandi even more so.
The reason I say that is that if we ever get this belief that the only position that is held is that Aboriginal people don't support irrigation, then that is the wrong idea. Where there is employment, they support it absolutely. It gives them the capacity for commercial advancement. It gives them the capacity to have businesses in the area where their families are from and the prospect of a better standard of living. That benefaction might not be directly working on an irrigation farm; it might be owning a shop in town or, like the Aboriginal family next door to me, owning the hotel in town—the best hotel in town, to be honest, the St George Hotel. These things have also got to be part of this mix. So we don't see this as, ipso facto, we'll say 'Indigenous', which means that we're just going to turn the whole place into a national park, because I'll tell you right now: that's not what a lot of Aboriginal people want. They are very aware now—I was recently in the northern part of our nation—that, if they have their lands, their natural asset, they want to be able to utilise it in such a form that they make a dollar out of it. They don't like the idea, at times, that green legislation works its way in and usurps their position, making them merely the mechanism for an extension of green caveats on private assets or the removal of land to basically a national park, under the auspices that it is somehow of benefit to Indigenous people. I've also seen that in the past, when the other side closed down the live cattle trade. One of the biggest groups that that hurt was Aboriginal people. I remember Freddy Pascoe up at Delta Downs saying: 'Well, we've got 60,000 head of cattle here. How does this work now that we're not able to export them?' Why that's pertinent to this bill is that we have to understand that the Indigenous authority member is not necessarily going to be someone who's a raging advocate for the environment. He will probably be a raging advocate for the economic wealth and economic growth of Indigenous people in the Murray-Darling Basin, in whichever form.
I bring up the drought because it will rain. It is going to rain again and you're going to get floods again. I've lived on the Murray-Darling Basin for basically all of my life: in Danglemah, which is in the Murray-Darling Basin; in Moree, which is in the Murray-Darling Basin; in St George, which is in the Murray-Darling Basin; in Charleville, which is in the Murray-Darling Basin; and in Loomberah, which is in the Murray-Darling Basin. Probably the only time I'm not there is when I'm exactly where I am now, Armidale. One thing they have in common is that the economic benefit of living in that basin is its attachment to water. If you do not have that connection, that nexus to water, it would be an absolute bowl of poverty. We have to be very mindful that anything we do does not go to destroy the economic base of these areas. I am certain that an Indigenous authority member would absolutely have that at the forefront of their mind. There is no point in delivering economic misery to people by shutting down any further opportunity of economic growth.
This is something that has been discussed for a while. I'll leave it to the minister to describe how we go about picking this Indigenous authority member. I know there will be many, many applicants. I know not only that Indigenous people are involved in the cotton industry, the commerce of towns in the regional areas and the labour hire industry but also that a large proportion of people in the Murray-Darling Basin, in comparison to a place such as Canberra, are Indigenous. They're not a majority, but they're are a larger proportion than in other parts of Australia—on the coast, for instance. What happens to this system is incredibly important to them.
The government, for its part, has invested billions and billions of dollars into making sure that we maintain the economic integrity of this area by making sure that works and measures have a large role to play in bringing back an environmental outcome without shutting down towns. We've seen in Mildura, the Macquarie and in the headwaters that it is vitally important that people clearly understand that we can provide environmental outcomes without having to shut down towns, and we must also focus on that. I am concerned that the current zeitgeist, by reason of the drought, is that there is somehow this drastic mismanagement of the river system, that there is some magical place where water is stored and has been held against the will of everybody else in the river system. That's not the case.
I remember that one of the great witches they always wanted to burn was Cubbie Station—somehow there was all this water at Cubbie Station. Well, take a drone to fly over it. There's no water at Cubbie Station. In fact, I think the last time they took water was in 2017, and that was only a small portion of water. Some of this mythology has been brought about to drive a political agenda to shut down the irrigation industry, but it's not connected to the hydrological facts. The hydrological fact is that we have the most exceptional drought in the written history of Australia. Until it breaks there will be no water. On the issue of Menindee, what we have there is water released to go south and no water coming in from the north—unremarkably, the water runs out in the middle. Yet you hear some of the rhetoric that is cast around, and it's all about some nefarious process. I'd say the only place that really has a chance of irrigated crops this year is not actually in the Murray-Darling Basin. For cotton it would be up around Emerald, because they still have carryover water there that they can utilise.
I hope that with this Indigenous authority member coming to play we take into account the wide range of views and uses that Indigenous people—they're called Aboriginal people in my area—have for the Murray-Darling Basin. It most certainly has an incredible cultural importance to them. It certainly has an incredible connection to the history of the area, and it is absolutely vital to the economics of the area. In that vein, it is just as vital to other people and the economics of the area. I know that the member for Nicholls will soon give a speech, and no doubt he'll also reinforce the economic imperatives of irrigation to regional towns.
This Indigenous authority member will have a mighty job. It profits nobody if we further shut down the economic integrity of these areas, which is water. It profits nobody to make poor people poorer. It delivers nothing for the economy of our nation if one of our greatest food-producing areas is shut down from its capacity to do it its job. What I might suggest is that the future for Australia, to get a greater sense of water security—and maybe this is something that the Indigenous authority member could be part of the discussion towards—is to get further storages, more infrastructure, to bring new water at times as required from other catchments into the Murray-Darling Basin. There is a sense of contention. Something I've supported for so long is a form of the Bradfield Scheme that can bring water from the north of our nation down into the Murray-Darling Basin. This would cost vastly less than the NBN, but I think its economic benefit would be vastly, vastly more. If our nation were part of China, I'm certain we would have started it years ago.
The more we try to find a resolution and try to find water where water isn't, we realise that there is only one solution, and that's to find water where it's in abundance, in many instances where it's excessive and causes problems, and move it to where it's needed most. If we were able to do that, we would be able to take away so much pressure that has been placed on the economies of so many towns, where they have been asked to give up water for the requirements of the lower part of the river. The Bradfield Scheme, in one of its iterations, would be able to take water from the northern parts between Townsville and Cairns, where on certain weeks more than two Sydney Harbours flow out to sea from one river—I was looking at the Ross River in the last flood—and divert that in such a way that it would go into the Flinders, from the Flinders into the Thompson, from the Thompson into the Warrego, and from the Warrego down the Darling into South Australia.
As long as Australia exists, people will be talking about this. As our population and water requirements increase, this issue will be before us. There are other dam projects that I know the minister is very aware of. One is getting Nathan Dam up and running, so it itself is moving water from one catchment into the other catchment, or part of it—from the Dawson catchment into the Murray-Darling Basin. In fact, it has been cited as one of the mechanisms to help with the water requirements of Toowoomba. The reason these projects are held up is that we've created a litany of legislation and regulation, overwhelmingly at a state level, and a bureaucracy that's so hesitant to actually build anything.
This is all part of a plan that we have to have if we're going to bring about some long-term resolution of the issues pertinent to the Murray-Darling. Right now its greatest affliction is that it just has no water. In the immediate future we don't see any prospects of any water, because we don't see anything on the meteorological horizon that is going to bring water. We should be planning right now to do something that I think would be seminal in the further development of this nation: the construction of water infrastructure so as to move new water into that system.
I'm very pleased to take the opportunity to speak to the Water Amendment (Indigenous Authority Member) Bill 2019. In doing so, I congratulate the minister for bringing this Indigenous member to the management of the Murray-Darling Basin to make sure that we take advantage of the knowledge that is associated with Indigenous water management and ownership—the way that they have been able to manage river systems into the past—some of the biodiversity issues and some of the damage that's happening to our river systems, and the way that our Indigenous forefathers have been able to fix up some of the damage and simply manage the river system.
Some scientists in the not-too-distant past have tried to rewrite some of the history associated with the Murray-Darling Basin, and that's been exposed. It is a really worrying observation that we now have a situation where some of the science that the Murray-Darling Basin was predicated on seems to have been false and seems to have doctored. A 2007 report that effectively says that the Lower Lakes were predominately saline was rewritten in 2009 to effectively say that for 7,000 years the Lower Lakes of Alexandrina and Albert were effectively fresh—whereas the original report accepted that they were saline.
We have a whole raft of issues out there around water management, river management and the forests associated with the Murray-Darling Basin. Last week I had the opportunity to host Minister Littleproud in the Barmah Forest where we were able to see firsthand some of the damage that's associated with trying to run more water down the Murray River than what the Murray River can actually cope with. We know that the Barmah Choke has a limit of around 9,300 megalitres a day. The Millewa choke is actually even thinner and lets less water through. The only way that the water authorities can get the water that they need down the river is simply to flood the forest, and we were able to see that firsthand. We were able to see the damage associated with some our current practices.
I'm sure if there were an Indigenous person on the authority they would look at that in a very, very dim manner. They would look at this and say that this is not the way the river system is supposed to run as an ongoing, everyday way of managing water. So I think there are some real benefits for this.
We've also seen vast amounts of water being traded from one region, or one valley, into another valley. We have seen enormous amounts of erosion and degradation of the river systems taking place in the Goulburn. The way that the authorities have tried to fix up this erosion is to have further environmental flows. We had an environmental flow in the middle of winter which was valued at about $60 million—$60 million worth of water was just flushed down the Goulburn River in the middle of winter in an attempt to try and improve vegetation on the sides of the riverbanks.
Some of these objectives and the uses of this environmental water have to be questioned, especially when we look at some of those environmental objectives associated with water use in South Australia: to take more and more water down out of agriculture so that we can supposedly keep the Murray Mouth open. That's not a natural occurrence. It has been scientifically proven that the lower lakes of Alexandrina and Albert were predominantly estuarine historically. We have spent $70 million putting water into the top of the bottom of the Coorong, whichever way you want to view it, to effectively try and improve the health of the Coorong.
There are a whole raft of management projects that have been going on under Minister Littleproud's leadership, but we've still got this pain and the horrible impacts of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We're still seeing farmers being forced off their land because of the ridiculous prices that water is currently achieving—this ridiculous price of $800 a megalitre. Nearly every commodity is out of the market once water gets to that sort of price.
I don't think mainstream Australians, by which I mean Melbourne and Sydney residents, understand truly the pain for agriculture that's been associated with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I don't think they understand that so many outstanding farmers, mainly in dairy but also now in horticulture, are being forced off their lands. They're being forced to sell their cows or pull out their trees or leave fruit to rot on the trees, because they can't finish off the crop if they're not going to have the water to finish it off properly.
If we are to have a change of attitude, a change of understanding, about whether we really want to have an active, vibrant and dynamic agriculture sector—and the answer to that is we do—then we have to have a conversation about what we do with this limited amount of water. We have a finite amount of water, unless we do what the member for New England was saying and try to introduce new water out of Northern Australia or introduce new water into the Murray-Darling Basin system out of Tasmania. If we are going to stick with the finite amount of water that we have then we have to have a serious conversation about what is the best use of the water that we have available to us.
In times like those we're seeing in the north at the moment, when it is incredibly dry and there are very low inflows into the northern basin, it would be wrong to try to replicate a wet, or normal, year. If our environmental managers were to try and fool nature it would be the incorrect thing for our natural assets. These are some of the learnings that we could benefit from when it comes to having an Indigenous member of the authority.
Let's list our environmental assets. Let's list our environmental objectives and outcomes. Let's work out what it is that we want to achieve. But that list cannot be endless. We have to have a finite list of objectives. What sort of health do we want to have the river in? What amount of water are we prepared to let flow down the river to create the optimal breeding time for the various species of fish? Or are we going to let the environment create an endless list, which means that when they get as much water as they can possibly get their hands on they're going to pull up another environmental objective, which will give them some environmental credibility to use that water on?
In the lower Murray system there is so much water going down the river that has been traded out of the areas of historical productivity—namely, the Goulburn and Murray regions—into the Sunraysia and the areas around Robinvale and Mildura, where some of the high-value commodity crops are being grown. At the moment in horticulture, it's mainly almonds, table grapes and citrus that are able to afford far more than the other forms of horticulture and dairy.
There is a significant question we need to ask. There have been literally hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the dairy sector in the Goulburn Valley in the last two or three years: stainless steel going into Cobram, Girgarre, Stanhope, Shepparton, Tatura and some serious investment in processing in the dairy sector. Now we're getting to a point where all of those processors are struggling to find the milk that they need to put through their processing plants. This has an enormous impact on employment, on regional development and on the lives and livelihoods of so many people throughout the Goulburn Valley. The pain is palpable. The hurt and the detriment that has been caused by taking water away from agriculture and putting it into the environment is real and is tangible.
So we have every right to question every drop of water that is taken out of agriculture. We have every right to have every environmental flow, every drop of water, calculated and to have identified the outcomes they are hoping to achieve with a particular flow. And when there is water left in the system at the end of the year, and the agriculture industry is screaming out for that water, then maybe there's an opportunity for the environment to be a bit more flexible when it comes to loaning water back to agriculture so that communities can take advantage of that carryover water, water that wasn't used in the previous year. Certainly, that would have been very highly regarded and appreciated had it been put on to the market or made available to those who have water allocations throughout the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District.
As I have said often in this place, water management is one of the most complex issues facing the state government, but also the federal government. We need to look at what we do with our water management, with all of those farmers and all of those secondary users of water products, such as food and/or fibre. We need to have conversations about water with those people fairly and squarely in mind. We need to look at the damage that has been done to these communities in the name of better environmental outcomes, and we need to compare one against the other. We need to make sure that everybody who thinks, 'We have to avoid these fish kills at any cost,' realises that the cost may be that we will lose human lives if we're not careful. The chances are we probably already have. Making unattainable and simply unaffordable water that has always been plentiful, always been available and always been affordable for three, four and five generations of farmers has, without doubt, meant that farmers within northern Victoria and southern New South Wales have effectively taken their lives at the demise of their farms.
We need to be honest; we need to be real. We all want a better environment. We all want healthier river systems. But we also have to be honest about the pain and the damage that has been caused as we have gone after these objectives. Therefore, when we get to a situation where the environmentalists cannot clearly enunciate the benefits associated with various environmental flows and various amounts of water being used for what, in many instances, have been absolutely ridiculous outcomes, such as trying to regrow the vegetation on the banks of the river that was lost by sending down too much water, a high flow of water, in the middle of winter—if this is the way we think we should spend $60 million worth of water—and then also throw in the added benefits of improving fish-breeding seasons, then I think we've got every right to question these assets, these environmental objectives and the practices that have been put in place to try to reach those objectives.
I again want to congratulate the minister for this idea, this concept, of bringing an Indigenous person into the management process. Hopefully, that will have a really strong and positive outcome. We should always try to understand—to have even a basic understanding—that an enormous amount of pain and detriment has been caused by the amount of water that has left agriculture and been put into the environment, and we need to be very careful about how we proceed into the future.
There have been a number of speakers who have referred to the Bradfield Scheme. I, along with one of the youngest and most brilliant doctorates ever awarded in universities in Australian history—they're a professor who wishes to remain anonymous—and a gentleman called Roy Stankey, one of the biggest sheep farmers in Queensland and one of the two smartest blokes I've ever known, drew up the revised Bradfield Scheme. Bradfield made three proposals. The first one: you dig a big, long tunnel—forget about that one; no-one's going to take that one seriously these days. The second one: you go through a break in the Great Dividing Range. There's no Great Dividing Range at a place called the Desert Uplands. The third one: you dig a canal up from Spencer Gulf and fill Lake Eyre that way.
What is most relevant to the Murray-Darling question is that the prevailing winds blow 32 million megalitres across the top of the Murray-Darling Basin. The Murray-Darling Basin has 23 million megalitres of run-off. This would blow 32 million megalitres across on top of the Murray-Darling Basin. Now, the gentleman who was proposing this was not exactly a fool. He built a bridge which is still the cornerstone of the traffic movements in Sydney. They said, 'You're building six lanes'—or eight lanes, I think it is—'and we've only got 25,000 cars in Sydney.' He said, 'We are building for the future.' He built the underground railway system, which is still the main means of transportation in Sydney, and he won the world prize for engineering. So the water supply to Sydney is still mainly the water supply that he built and engineered. He also built, in your own home city, Deputy Speaker Vasta, the Story Bridge and the University of Queensland, which your daddy, you and your brother, as I understand it, went to, as I did also. He also built that.
The revised Bradfield Scheme says that you take the Bradfield Scheme and the waters where it rains all the time in the Kennedy electorate, which I represent. We get 200-inch rainfall at the Tullys, Babindas, Innisfails and Inghams, and you put a little tiny bit of that—because you only take the top of it right up in the mountains—and you put it back through to the other side of the Great Dividing Range, which we already do in Mareeba now. We take the Barron River and move it to the other side of the Great Dividing Range, and that's the Mareeba irrigation scheme. The Hells Gate Dam is stage 1. You take the water from the Burdekin, the third biggest river in Australia—the upper Burdekin—and you transfer it to that break in the Great Dividing Range. And then you go through onto the rolling, rich black soil plains, which used to have written across the map, 'The best natural grasslands in Australia.' It now grows 10 million hectares of prickly acacia trees, destroying all flora and fauna. When we die and go up to heaven, God will ask: 'What did you do? I gave you that beautiful asset. What did you do with it?' And we will say: 'We grew prickly trees on it.' We destroyed all of the possums, koala bears, kangaroos and dunnarts—the most endangered species in Australia. They were all destroyed by prickly trees because we sat on our backside and did nothing with the great asset that God had given us.
There were no bulldozers in the days of Bradfield. With bulldozers, it's quite attractive to build a giant canal and take and flood Lake Eyre with seawater. And the evaporation, as I said, is 32 million megalitres—the prevailing winds blow it up from the inside of the Great Dividing Range over the Murray-Darling Basin. Having read every report, there is no doubt in my mind that there will be a very, very significant increase in rainfall over the Murray-Darling Basin. But no-one in their right minds would take the waters from North Queensland and cross those magnificent, beautiful thousand-kilometre-wide and thousand-kilometre-broad rich black soil plains where you don't have to use fertiliser for eight years. We farm without using fertiliser, and there's the research farm there. Of course, we can then also use the waters of the Flinders River. We can't use that because there are just too many gaps to use it effectively. It's the sixth biggest river in Australia.
This magnificent scheme for the people of Australia, with the water going to Lake Eyre: how do you pay for it? If you take one per cent or two per cent of Lake Eyre—I can't remember which one it is—and you use it as a salt factory, it is the best salt factory in the world. It has nine metres of evaporation, and five per cent of salt water is salt, so you can work it out for yourself. That's a pretty big area, Lake Eyre. But that will virtually pay for the $5,000 million it costs. Wilson Tuckey used to be a great advocate for the scheme.
On the Indigenous side of it, it is very hard for me to contain my rage. In this place we apologised for the theft of the children, but we are thieving more children per capita today than we were doing then. And yet we had the enormous hypocrisy of this place—I had to fight to stop myself from walking out on the vote, or going public and calling a press conference. I claim to have a bit of Kalkatungu in the family tree. I'm dark and come from Cloncurry—you prove I'm not, but I most certainly identify, often and repeatedly. And under the law of course, legally, I am—that is, the law that was around a couple of hundred years ago.
I will quote Greg Wallace, speaking as a First Australian. Greg is very famous because of the first time 60 Minutes ever did a repeat program. He started Work for the Dole in Australia, an absolutely remarkable achievement. I was the minister and they all thought I had something to do with it. I didn't even know he'd done it until 60 Minutes went off! He then got a second 60 Minutes, the first time in the program's history. It was the most-watched program in Australia in those days, so he was a superstar. Gerhardt Pearson, Noel's brother, rang me up and said, 'Well, why don't we use the Work for the Dole money to build the houses?' Instead of building 400 houses, we built nearly 2,000 houses and we provided 720 jobs in the house-building program. These blokes were getting their dole money, but they were getting it topped up to a full wage as well by the state and federal government money that I was administering.
This is what I want to say: look at the hypocrisy of this place in talking about putting a First Australian on the Murray-Darling Basin. I quote Greg Wallace: 'When I was CEO at Napranum, all of the CEOs in Cape York and the Gulf were blackfellas. Now they're all whitefellas. When I was CEO at Napranum, we had 36,000 head of cattle. Now we have none. When I was CEO at Napranum, we had 2,000 jobs—700 of them working in a highly-skilled area, building houses. Now we have none.' This government has cut off all housing money, but in any event there is no Work for the Dole scheme and the houses haven't been built by First Australians.
All housing built in those days was built exclusively by local Indigenous labour. I doubt whether seven per cent of the workforce building the houses over the last 10 years was Indigenous labour, let alone local Indigenous labour. Let me go on with Greg's quote, 'We had water rights, we had quarrying rights and we had timber rights.' God bless the ALP, the champions of the First Australians! They took away our water rights, they took away our quarrying rights and they took away our timber rights. And, not content with that, they took away our right to have a beer! Everyone on earth can have a beer except we First Australians. All you whitefellas, you can drink, but we blackfellas, oh no—we can't be trusted to drink.
We all drink. I know they had Prohibition in America, but it didn't stop anyone from drinking. In fact, the alcohol consumption actually went up, believe it or not! So we continue to drink. What has happened now is that we've all got criminal charges so we can't get a blue card, and the only jobs now, of course, are government jobs. There are no cattle, there is no house-building and there are no title deeds, so I can't take up a block of land and build a service station and own it myself, because there is no such thing as title deeds; they took them away from us as well. It's not really difficult; we issued 800 title deeds when I was minister. I pay respects to the very great Eric Laws, who just got an Order of Australia, and to the late Lester Rosendale, who is from what is probably the most prominent First Australian family in Cape York. His first cousins are Mattie Bowen, the famous rugby league player; Noel Pearson; and Greg Wallace.
Let's just go through this—oh, I haven't finished, I'm sorry! When Richard Mears was the chairman of the committee, we went up to the Torres Strait. We went to Masig Island and Showy Nona started screaming out, 'They're murdering us, Bobby!' He just kept shouting it out. And Richard Marles—I'm sorry; I got the name wrong, but I hope I got it right this time—said, 'What is he talking about?' I said: 'You banned by law all fruit and vegetable gardens in the backyards of every Torres Strait Islander family, just condemning them to death. They're going to die of malnutrition because they've got no fresh fruit and vegetables. By the time they get it up there, they've got no shelf life left, and they couldn't afford to buy it anyway. Not content with that, you banned dinghy fishing, which was the only commercial income which Torres Strait Islanders had.' They fought the battle, God bless the Torres Strait Islanders, and they got the rights back, but it's been 20 years since there's been a vegetable garden. They've forgotten how to put in a fruit and vegetable garden.
As for the dinghy fishing, all the freezers are gone from the 15 islands. You brought your catch in and sold it to the freezer, and that was your income. That was how we made a living in the Torres Strait, and that was taken away from us. We've got it back now, but the freezers are gone, so there's no use going fishing. There's no-one to sell it to, because there's no freezer to put the fish in. You go and put it in the fridge. We're talking about a huge amount of fish that you'll get from two or three blokes going out in a dinghy in a day.
So we sit here and talk about whether we should have representation on the Murray-Darling. We don't talk about 400 to 500 of us dying of malnutrition every year. That's not a figure plucked out of the air. That is the leading authority in university medical education in Australia—his figure, not mine. When I tried to get the figures on diabetes, the reaction of the Queensland government was: 'Oh, we love the black people. We're socialists; we love the black people.' Their reaction was not to fix the problem up but to hide the figures. For 2½ years they did a magnificent job of hiding the figures, but eventually I got them.
Our new Prime Minister has agreed to put market gardens in, but we've had no action and we must get action. Otherwise, people will think that we're just fibbers and noisemakers. We must put the market gardens back—and the much-maligned Christian churches.
I am a published historian. I wrote the bestselling non-fiction work in the year that it came out. It was launched—Murdoch press runs this, not me—by Kevin Rudd to over 1,000 people in Sydney. it was launched by Barrie Cassidy in Melbourne to over 1,000 people. I lived out bush with the last of the Kalkatungu. His mother was one of the few survivors of the battle, or the massacre, on battle range. We lived out bush together. We had mines together. I know I'm one of the very last vestiges of the knowledge of the old days. As a race of people, we must stand condemned, because that is how we're treating the First Australians.
We come in here and talk about whether they have representation. We don't talk about giving them a title deed. We don't talk about giving them jobs. We don't talk about giving them back their rights to timber and water and quarrying, which they've had since time immemorial. When I say quarrying, I mean a lot of our implements, of course, were stone implements. Quarrying was a very valuable and important issue to us economically. To get a feed we need a tomahawk. To make a fire we needed that tomahawk. We had it for forever until now, and now we don't have it.
Now, the first movement I've seen in the years I have been down here, in spite of screaming, yelling, losing my temper and doing all sorts of wild and crazy things, has been from the current Prime Minister, and I would hope that, if there's a change of government in two or three years' time, it's continued by the Labor Party. But, at the present moment, we have not had action, and we must have action on the market garden issue.
My time is up, but all of the fruit and vegetables go to Brisbane and then back up to North Queensland. They lose two weeks of shelf life and then, by the time they get to the Torres Strait or Cape York, they're out shelf life. We've got nothing to eat of fresh fruit and vegetables and we're dying of malnutrition.
This is a historic day. In the gallery today there are a couple of First Australian members of the Murray-Darling Basin Community Committee with us, and I'm glad they are, because this has been a journey for me since before I was minister. I sat with a gentleman called Ronnie Waters in St George when I first became the member for Maranoa, and we talked about the Basin Plan, the consultation he had had and the lack thereof. The fact he didn't feel that he had a voice shocked me. One of the most respected traditional owners in the St George community had been disrespected. Today we are righting that wrong and making sure our First Australians have a voice—a strong voice at the table in the management of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
I acknowledge the opposition in the bipartisan way that we have got here. I say also, particularly to the member for Watson, over the last 18 months, we've achieved a lot in the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, particularly through the legislative framework that we put in place with the northern Basin review and the sustainable diversion limits. That would not have happened without the maturity and leadership from the member for Watson. And, while we didn't always agree, we always saw that it was important that we not only gave certainty to the 2.5 million Australians up and down the Basin but also included our First Australians. And in that agreement with the member for Watson we created a world-first $40 million Indigenous fund that now will be spent. Both the member for Watson and I refused to spend that until we could get a First Australian on the board. It would be inappropriate for us to start that program until such time as a First Australian is put on the board. Now, once the recruitment process is complete, that money will roll out to Indigenous communities up and down the basin for their economic and cultural benefit.
We're also working with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to make sure Indigenous communities can map how the environmental flows are matched to those of the cultural flows. That's going to take time because it's about listening and that's what we haven't done so well in the past. So today we're changing that. We're going to make sure we get the outcomes for our First Australians that we expect for everyone else. Other speakers have talked about the economic hardship, which we will continue to do with the social and economic panel to investigate ways we can actually right that wrong, and it's important that our First Australians are brought with us as well.
This is very important and I know, when it is put through to the Senate, we will have bipartisan support. From the process of finding the first board member of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, they will be someone not necessarily aligned to a particular area and will be someone who lives in the basin, who will represent all Indigenous Australians on the basin. It is a great honour and, to Ronnie Waters, it's as much about you and your story that I stand here today having the proud moment to move this bill. I commend the bill to the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.