• Bruce Shillingsworth on dry section of Barwon River with children during the 'Save the Rivers' Corroboree, 2019. (NITV)Source: NITV
Stick with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan because drought breaking rain on the east coast is months away, says one of the most senior First Nation advisors on the eco-system.
Julie Nimmo

18 Dec 2019 - 8:50 PM  UPDATED 18 Dec 2019 - 9:03 PM

The Murray Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) needs to be "overhauled" to meet the needs of NSW communities according to Deputy Premier and Minister for Regional NSW, John Barilaro.

Simply expressed on the webpage, "the plan sets the amount of water that can be taken from the Basin each year, while leaving enough for our rivers, lakes, wetlands, and the plants and animals that depend on them." To be effective, it requires absolute collaboration of the basin states Queensland, NSW, ACT, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Government. 

One day after the six Ministers responsible for water in the basin met together at a Ministerial Council, NSW Government has issued a press release stating, “NSW will not deliver the Water Resource Plans, as it does not meet the expectations of our communities, and NSW will not contribute to the additional 450GL in water recovery as we simply have no water left to give."

At issue is the obligation for NSW to contribute its share of the agreed to 450GL back into the environment “when we are experiencing the worst drought in living memory is ludicrous," stated Mr Barilaro. 

NSW is not alone in opposition to the MDBP water sharing arrangement. 

Victorian Water Minister, Lisa Neville was reported after the Ministerial meeting to confirm "her state would not participate." 

Ms Neville is instead calling for a rethink

‘‘What we’re talking about here is creating a man-made flood to achieve environmental benefits – yet what we’ve found is that under the current modelling, neither the community nor the environment will get a good outcome," she said.

Down stream of the once mighty Murray Darling River system, South Australia's Minister for Environment and Water, David Speirs MP, has affirmed his commitment to the plan since the Ministerial Council meeting. "Blowing up the plan will cost communities, the environment and farmers and importantly, it will not deliver a single extra drop of water."

The MDBP environmental contribution of 450GL, comprised from each State contributing a minimum of 62GL is for the benefit of vegetation, birdlife and fish. 

NSW Minister for Water, Melinda Pavey said today "for too long the Federal Government and South Australia ignored the needs of regional NSW communities who are experiencing the worst drought in recorded history. I made it very clear today that NSW will not deliver the Water Resource Plans and NSW will not contribute to the additional 450GL in water recovery targets,”.

Echoing Ms Pavey's position, Mr Barilaro was unequivocal in opposition to the MDBP as it stands, “make no mistake, our threats to walk away from the Plan are not empty and NSW will hold the Commonwealth and Basin States to account to make sure these changes are carried out and our communities given a fair go.”

In this maelstrom of dispute is Gomeroi man Phil Duncan, the incoming Chair of Basin Community Committee, appointed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority Board for a three year term that commences 1 January 2020.

Mr Duncan holds the honour of being the first Aboriginal Australian to lead the Murray-Darling’s Basin Community Committee whose remit is "to ensure that people have access to us, from a range of stakeholders, not just Indigenous, but all the stakeholders; rural, Greens, local government etc and we'll take those voices and those concerns on to the authority through the Basin Community Committee and obviously onto the board, and then at the end of the day, onto the Minister."

Yesterday Mr Duncan attended the Ministerial Council to introduce himself to the attending Ministers, executives and staff. Afterwards he spoke to NITV News and affirmed his steadfast commitment to the Plan.

States need to stay with the Plan, and not walk away

Travelling home after the Ministerial Council meeting, Mr Duncan expressed his absolute confidence in the plan, and hope that NSW, his home state, would remain engaged. 

“The easy option is to walk away. And then that would create one of the largest political bunfights in our history. Let's stay focused. There is no plan B, but we are progressing into the stages where we start developing Basin plan version two, and this gives us the opportunity to take lessons learned from stage one, Basin plan one. But it should not dissuade us from taking our eyes off the real issues that this drought is crippling.”

"This is not a time for conflict or disagreements. This is a time for compassion and understanding. This is a time for us, for our elective leaders to demonstrate their willingness to work together, to be able to understand that you can't have a whole of community approach if we haven't got a whole of government approach.

"The Basin plan gives us a staged approach to recovery, but more importantly, it gives us the platform for a whole of community approach where all the stakeholders from the rural sector from the First Nations people, from the green groups, from local government, to come together. Because we live in a world of shrinking resources and the availability of funds. What we need to do is to share our knowledge."

Mr Duncan is himself a man of the inland rivers within the Murray Darling basin, he grew up in Moree, NSW and descends from grandparents of Gomeroi and Wiradjuri Nations.

"My grandfather was born under a tree alongside Terry Hie Hie Creek. That tree still stands. That's our birthing tree.  On the other side of the family, Mum's grandfather was born on the banks of the mighty Murrumbidgee River in the middle of Wiradjuri country. In modern day terms, these two men could be described as river keepers, river stewards. So, I have a strong desire to continue to have my culture handed down throughout my family."

"Being the first Aboriginal person appointed to chair the Basin Community Committee, it's fantastic, it is historical and I recognise the significance of the appointment, but my Aboriginality shouldn't mask the fact that I have the necessary ability, skills, knowledge, confidence and energy to be able to do this job." said Mr Duncan

The drought comes up frequently, concerning Mr Duncan professionally and personally.

"There's no rain forecast for the next six months at least. None.

"If one of the key stakeholders in the Basin agreement, one of the key state government stakeholders walks away, it could truly cripple communities, cripple them even further."


The future of the MDBP water sharing arrangements

The Federal Water Minister, Mr Littleproud recently proposed an inquiry into the Murray Darling Agreement to be headed up by the newly appointed Inspector–General of Murray–Darling Basin Water Resources, Mr Mick Keelty.

The former Federal Police Commissioner is due to report his findings in March, providing the States support this Federal inquiry. The Australian has reported Victoria and South Australia have refused to back the inquiry, with Queensland undecided and NSW the only basin state in agreement to support the inquiry.

The proposed inquiry, led by Mr Keelty does have unreserved backing of Mr Duncan.

"I can tell you this, from an Indigenous perspective, he is a champion for our people. He is a great listener. He is not afraid to sit on the ground under the tree with the people, and people need to know that.

"Mick Keelty is a person that, from my lenses, I trust. He understands and has taken the time to have a greater understanding and an intricate understanding of particularly the northern Basin, but all the Basin.

"And so Mick's role is going to be crucial because it's going to give us the opportunity to clearly demonstrate flexibility and be able to customise water sharing plans, maybe customise water sharing plans after they've been signed off to allow that flexibility so we can frame what's in front of us on a day-to-day and a week and in a monthly process as we see no more rain forecast."

Indigenous community say they've lost their culture to water mismanagement
The Barkindji community's fears surfaced at a recent corroboree in the small town of Wilcannia, which was once a thriving Murray-Darling River port.