Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Bill 2017

Mr  J. BULL (Sunbury) — I am also very pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Bill 2017. This is a very important bill for a number of reasons.

Before I go to the bill, I just want to commend the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, who is at the table, for her hard work and her dedication to working on that treaty with Aboriginal Victorians, because we know that true reconciliation with the nation’s first peoples is essential if we are to close the gap. I also want to put on the record how pleasing it was to see Mick Harding become the first Aboriginal person in history to address cabinet and provide an update on that treaty process. Members of this place will recall a very special moment prior to the winter break when this house, led by the minister, joined with Wurundjeri elders on the floor to introduce the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Bill 2017.

We have heard this afternoon about the importance and significance of the Yarra River and the very special regard in which it is held in this state and of course, importantly, as part of our first peoples’ rich history. It has a celebrated history, and we are giving this river a safe and secure future through this bill. In an Australian first, this bill identifies the Yarra River and the many hundreds of parcels of public land it flows through as one living, integrated natural identity for protection and improvement. We have certainly heard a number of speakers discuss the importance of the Yarra River. Indeed we are very fortunate in this state to have many fantastic waterways right across the state that people visit both throughout the week and during weekends for leisure and a whole range of activities.

The Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Bill combines the ‘caring for country’ wisdom of the traditional owners with the most modern river management expertise. For the first time in history, as we know, this bill is co-titled, and part of its preamble is written in the Woi-wurrung language, ensuring traditional owners have a permanent voice in the governance and protection of the river.

I did take note of a recent article in the Guardian of 20 July 2017, which reported on a groundbreaking archaeological discovery in Australia’s north that has extended the known length of time Aboriginal people have inhabited the continent to at least 65 000 years. The article states:

The findings on about 11 000 artefacts from Kakadu National Park, published on Thursday in the journal Nature, prove Indigenous people have been in Australia for far longer than the much-contested estimates of between 47 000 and 60 000 years, the researchers said. Some of the artefacts were potentially as old as 80 000 years.

Archaeologists found artefacts in a cave on Western Australia’s Barrow Island dating back more than 50 000 years, providing one of the earliest age brackets for the settlement of Australia. The article goes on to talk about new research that dates Indigenous inhabitation back to what we are essentially talking about — 65 000 years ago — which is a staggering discovery. It quotes Associate Professor Chris Clarkson from the University of Queensland as saying:

People got here much earlier than we thought, which means of course they must also have left Africa much earlier to have travelled on their long journey through Asia and South-East Asia to Australia.

If we just step back for a moment and try to comprehend those sorts of time periods, it is staggering to think what a connection the Indigenous people have with this land. I think as we go on and make these discoveries this only reinforces the importance of the treaty, of recognition and of understanding just how important our Indigenous people are. As I have said, this is an incredible discovery, and it is that connection to land that is so important.

I am extremely proud to be part of a government that has brought this bill to the house, and I commend both the Minister for Planning and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs on their hard work. The main purposes of the bill, which will form a new principal act, are to provide for the declaration of the Yarra River and certain public land in its vicinity as one living and integrated natural entity and to provide for the development and implementation of a Yarra strategic plan as an overarching policy. Obviously through the course of the Yarra there are a number of parcels of land and a number of authorities responsible for their governance and care, and this bill in essence works to tie those together and bring one plan to the table to be able to provide a holistic approach to governance and better management of the Yarra River.

We are very fortunate, as I mentioned, to have the Yarra and to have the other rivers, creeks and lakes and of course Port Phillip Bay in this state. Unfortunately what we do see in other areas, through poorly managed development and malpractice, is effectively environmental degradation of those areas. What this bill does is aim to prevent that occurring and take what is a very important river which is well managed and well cared for to the next level. The Yarra River and its parkland are a significant state asset, as I have mentioned. The river gives our city life. It provides more than 70 per cent of our drinking water, and it is fundamental to many activities.

This bill comes on the back of the ministerial advisory committee which provided advice that the community believes we can do more to protect the Yarra and its lands and that the governance arrangements around the way we manage the river need to be strengthened. The bill applies to the full length of the river. It includes the port of Melbourne and the catchment area upstream of the Upper Yarra Reservoir. Crown land and freehold land owned by public entities within 500 metres of the Yarra’s riverbanks are known as the Yarra River land, and this will be declared by the Governor in Council. This bill will require the commissioner to report under the act on the condition of the Yarra River land as part of the periodical report on the state of the environment of Victoria. Fundamentally it is a strategic plan that essentially will be a key component of this management process.

Through the bill being debated this afternoon there are a number of acts which will be amended. These include the Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994, the Crown Land (Reserves) Act 1978, the Forests Act 1958, the Local Government Act 1989, the National Parks Act 1975, the Parks Victoria Act 1998, the Planning and Environment Act 1987, the Transport Integration Act 2010, the Victorian Planning Authority Act 2017 — a very important act — the Water Act 1989, the Water Industry Act 1994 and the Wildlife Act 1975. This is an important bill that will improve the management of the river by legislating for that strategic plan and effectively taking what we know is a very important body of water and making it even better.

There are a number of other provisions within the act, which I will very briefly discuss in the time that I have remaining. The plan will have a 50-year outlook. The overreaching river corridor plan will be structured around four key elements. These include the environmental health of the waterway, community use and the access and amenity of the river and its parklands. We certainly know that there is always a lot of community discussion around this — how the waterway is used, who uses the waterway and what they use it for. These are all very important not just for the Yarra but for all the waterways right across the state.

If I think about my own community, there are a number of fantastic groups that work to support the local waterways in and around Sunbury. It is certainly appropriate to thank these groups for their hard work around protecting these waterways and ensuring that they remain healthy for future use. This is consistent with the government’s updated policies as reflected in Plan Melbourneand Water for Victoria, and this bill certainly falls in line with those policies.

Fundamentally, though, we must recognise and embrace the traditional owners who have lived with and known Birrarung since the beginning. We know the Yarra has fantastic parklands and green spaces that line the banks, and we need to protect and enhance these through a coordinated plan. We know that the Yarra also gives life to flora and fauna, and it is vital that the plan includes their protection. This bill provides important protections through a framework to ensure that this great river becomes an even better one, and I commend the bill to the house.