Speech to the National First Nations Water Summit

Thank you for the warm welcome to Ngunnawal and Ngambri country.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

And I extend that acknowledgement to all First Nations people joining us at this conference.

Can I also thank the hosts of today’s summit:

The Australian National University. 

The Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation. 

The Native Title Council. 

And the First Nation’s Portfolio team here at ANU. 

A particular thanks goes to Professor Peter Yu, the university’s Vice President for First Nations, for chairing the event.  

Professor Yu stands in the very best tradition of this university. 

With one foot in the world of ideas, and one foot firmly in the world of public policy and social justice. 

Peter was director of the Kimberley Land Council. 

He helped negotiate the federal response to Mabo. 

And he now sits on the national Referendum Working Group. 

It’s been a remarkable contribution, a nation changing contribution, sustained over many years.

And I think he would probably agree with me that no year is more important than this one. 

When we all have a chance to vote yes as a country. 

Yes to recognising 65,000 years of Indigenous history. 

Yes to elevating First Nations voices in our national life. 

Yes to closing the terrible gap in life outcomes. 

And yes to coming together, as Australians, with big hearts and generous minds, in a spirit of reconciliation and national unity.  

Before I go on, I would like to also pay my respect to the memory of Yunupingu, who was a giant of First Nations justice in this country.  

Last week, we held a parliamentary condolence motion in his honour. 

It’s obvious that Yunupingu was held in the highest esteem – across the parliament, and across the whole of Australia. 

But I’m not sure anyone said it better than Professor Yu himself: 

‘That Australia today is at a critical point in its historic journey of Reconciliation owes so much to the lifetime commitment of Yunupingu. 

He had a central role in the key milestones in Australia's arduous passage from colonisation:

The Yirrkala Bark Petitions, the Gove Land Rights Case, the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, the Barunga Statement, the Native Title Act, the Voice and Uluru Statement and the Garma Festival.

Prime Minister Albanese told him at Garma last year that this time the Australian Government would deliver on its promise. Yunupingu's legacy is his tireless work that produced the Uluru Statement’.

As a member of that government, I want to reaffirm that promise to you all this morning. 

We will do everything in our power to bring Australians together this year, to make the case for reconciliation, to win this referendum, and to honour Yunupingu's legacy.

Friends, researchers, landholders, traditional owners.

It’s a pleasure to open this summit today.

As Minister for the Environment and Water, I wanted to be here – to learn from this gathering of expertise and experience; from this gathering of First Nations knowledge.

As researchers, as practitioners, as policy makers, you continue a long history of Indigenous water management in Australia.  

It’s a deep tradition, a sophisticated tradition. 

A tradition that gained its wisdom on the driest continent that people have ever successfully lived on.  

And it’s a tradition that’s never been given the respect it deserves. 

In fact, one of the oldest surviving human structures is a piece of First Nations water management in Australia. 

If you visit the Budj Bim National Park in western Victorian, you find eel traps that are over 6,000 years old. 

That’s before the Romans, before the Egyptians. 

Before the Greeks or the Babylonians.

Before any of them – the Gunditjmara people of Western Victoria were building dams, weirs and fishing channels into their river system. 

It was one of humanity’s earliest experiments in advanced engineering. 

And it was ingenious – channelling the eels into specialised ponds, built to different sizes, for eels at different stages of development. 

Budj Bim is now a world heritage site. 

It’s recognised around the globe for its universal value. 

But when Europeans first stumbled on it, they refused to believe what their eyes told them. 

They rejected the idea, instinctively, that First Nations people could build such a complex aquaculture system. 

They either tried to ignore it, or they became conspiracy theorists. 

Telling themselves the traps were built by a superior race of people who predated Indigenous Australians.

Like those kooky people who claim that aliens built the pyramids. 

This was the same impulse that led some people to dismiss Bruce Pascoe’s work in Dark Emu. 

And most harmfully – it was the same impulse that justified Terra Nullius. 

Now, Terra Nullius was a doctrine about land. 

But I know that First Nations writers, such as Dr Virginia Marshall, have extended that concept further in recent years – to the idea of ‘Aqua Nullius’. 

Which is the idea that colonisation also involved the wholesale loss of water rights, and everything that flowed from that dispossession. 

And that’s one of the reasons this conference is so important. 

Because I don’t think people fully know this history. 

And I don’t think people fully grasp its consequences. 

Most Australians would be shocked to learn that tens of thousands of First Nations people in remote communities still don’t have access to healthy drinking water. 

And most Australians would have no idea that First Nations people hold just 0.2% of the nation’s water entitlements – despite making up almost 4% of our population. 

Researchers at this conference have started to get the word out.  

Through your scholarship, through your advocacy, through your passion. 

You’ve helped publicise these problems, which is the necessary first step. 

But even more importantly – you’ve helped point governments towards potential solutions.    

I know everyone at this summit is working on these challenges. 

About how we can guarantee clean water to every Australian.   

And how we can extend ownership of water to First Nations people. 

Think about how fundamental both of those questions are. 

We have the first ingredient of life. 

And in much of Australia, we have the first ingredient of economic success. 

Today I want to give you an overview on what our government is doing on both these challenges. 

And I want to give you an insight into my thinking on the topic. 

As an Australian citizen, living in a rich country, based in a major city, I take certain things for granted. 

Some are so fundamental that I’ve never really thought about them. 

Like when I turn the tap on, safe drinking water will come out. 

But that isn’t the case for all Australians. 

As research from this university has found: 

Over 25,000 people in remote Australia don’t have access to water that meets basic health guidelines. 

And over 600,000 don’t have water that meets recognised aesthetic standards. 

That means cloudy water. 

Murky water. 

Water that doesn’t taste right. 

And in the worst case – water that contains an unsafe concentration of minerals, heavy metals and chemicals. 

In the town of Walgett, people have gone to bed thirsty instead of drinking from their kitchen tap. 

This is a place where soft drinks cost less than bottled water. 

That kind of scarcity impacts every corner of a person’s life. 

There’s health impacts – because unclean water contributes to heart problems, trachoma and avoidable blindness, diabetes, lung conditions and cardiovascular disease. 

There’s cultural impacts – because it hurts people to see their river dying.

And there’s economic impacts too – because towns and families can’t get ahead if they can’t rely on the basics of life. 

In a lucky country like Australia, a rich and self-respecting country, we can’t sit by and accept this kind of deprivation.

Which is why our government recently announced that we are investing $150 million to support critical water infrastructure in these remote First Nations communities. 

We’re still working through the details of the specific projects, but in principle, this funding will go to projects that offer simple solutions that can overcome the challenges of distance and logistics. 

Like installing pipes that are resilient to our harsh climate, robust against damage, and easy to fix if leaks occur. 

Or treating water in a way that doesn’t require expensive chemicals that are difficult to source and complicated to handle. 

Or using water sources that are sensitive to country, practical to supply, and resilient to the effects of climate change. 

Or just as crucially – training local people in the knowledge and skills needed to maintain these systems. 

I acknowledge that these are difficult problems to solve. 

More than anything, we have to conquer the tyranny of distance. 

Which is a considerable enemy on a continent this vast. 

But that’s why we need to be smart in our use of technology. 

It’s why we need to work closely with the communities on the ground who will be overseeing these projects. 

And it’s why we need to get the ball rolling now. 

And one place we’re getting started is Mutitjulu, in the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. 

In the Budget last week, we announced an extra $92 million to provide water, sewerage and electricity to the town. 

This is on top of the $150 million in the Water Grid. 

Water, electricity, sewerage. 

These are the fundamentals. 

And in the heart of this country – in a national park famous around the world – we’re working to make sure that our first people can rely on these essentials.

The second challenge is the question of water ownership. 

You can trace this one back – as a direct legacy of dispossession. 

When the British colonised Australia, they claimed First Nations land. 

They then set up a new system of water governance on top of it. 

Essentially – if you owned the title of land by a river, you could use the water in that river. 

Later, when water licences were centralised, entitlements were grandfathered. 

Which meant that, if you owned land, you got water licences. 

But if you didn’t own land, you weren’t getting water entitlements either.  

And that’s how we got to this situation today – where First Nations people hold only 0.2% of Australia’s water licenses. 

As you all know, this has held First Nations people back, in very real ways. 

As anyone in regional Australia will tell you – if you don’t have water, you don’t have a viable business model. 

And that’s why I’m so committed to delivering the $40 million of water to First Nations people in the Murray Darling. 

I know this promise has been sitting on the shelf for five years now. 

The truth is – it wasn’t a priority for the last government. 

But it’s a priority for me.

We will soon host a series of gatherings with First Nations people in the Murray Darling Basin, in late July and early August 2023. 

These gatherings will determine purchasing principles and consider interim governance arrangements.

I have also announced, in partnership with Minister Burney, that we will begin designing national water holding arrangements for First Nations people.

This was part of the feedback we’ve received in our consultation on the $40 million.

That we needed to make sure our legal arrangements were relevant and appropriate to the First Nations communities that hold them.

And to make sure they reflected the real needs and aspirations of First Nations people. 

It’s important we get this right. 

Because it’s bigger than the Murray-Darling Basin. 

Our government wants to see an inland water target added to the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. 

This is something that every state and territory agrees on. 

A target to drive the expansion of First Nations water holdings, with a regular reporting mechanism on progress. 

The Coalition of Peaks is currently conducting an independent review of the baseline data, before signing onto a specific target. 

We want to see genuine progress on water holding. 

We want to see more water ownership, held by more First Nations communities, creating more opportunities across Australia. 

But we’re doing it in partnership with First Nations communities. 

Not for you, but with you. 

Which means working to finally get the $40 million of water in First Nations hands, while designing an enduring holding arrangement for the entire country.

This national arrangement may ultimately be the mechanism for holding and managing the Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program in the Murray-Darling Basin.

That remains to be worked out. 

But regardless – I don’t intend to wait another year to begin delivering our $40 million commitment. 

This investment will remain within the Murray–Darling Basin, for the benefit of Basin First Nations people, irrespective of the national water holding arrangements. 

I’ll end on a final thought here. 

Some people like to pretend there’s a big gap between symbolic reconciliation and practical reconciliation. 

As if the two are in conflict. 

Or that we have to choose between one or the other. 

I reject that distinction completely. 

It’s a phony war. 

Because cultural respect and material progress aren’t in conflict. 

In my experience, they reinforce and support each other. 

We can do both. We must do both. 

And that’s what our government is committed to doing this year, in partnership with First Nations people. 

Fighting for a yes vote on constitutional recognition and a Voice to Parliament. 

And bringing water to the people who need it. 

Because nothing is more practical or urgent than that. 

Thank you.