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

Ms HUTCHINS (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs) — It is with great honour that I rise to speak to the first bill that has been before this house with a traditional owners name to it, the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Bill 2017. I would like to begin by paying my respects to the elders past and present of the Kulin nation, the traditional owners of the lands, the Wurundjeri, and to thank the elders who participated on 22 June and walked onto the floor of the Parliament. I was really quite taken aback with emotion. You could have heard a pin drop in the place that day to hear the words from Aunty Alice Kolasa, Aunty Gail Smith, Uncle Colin Hunter, Jr, Ron Jones, Allan Wandin and Jacqui Wandin. I thank them for their contribution and for their words in traditional language, and also for their heartfelt support for this bill, the Yarra River Protection Bill, which is history in the making.

We know it is history in the making because it is the first time that Victoria has had a bill to protect such an important living asset. It encapsulates the role, the voice and the language of our traditional owners here in Victoria. It gives the traditional owners a say in the way forward on how we plan and manage the Yarra River and its lands. This is now being enshrined in law. It is also a landmark bill because it is the first time in Australia that a river, and the many hundreds of parcels of public land which it is situated along, is being recognised as one living and integrated entity, and is attracting both protection and planned improvements.

I want to touch on the special relationship that Aboriginal Victorians have with the river. Two years ago I had the absolute honour of being with an elder and doing a walk along the Yarra River talk about the history to learn more about the culture. I can tell you now that the relationship with the land and the river extends back tens of thousands of years to when the creator spirit Bunjil formed the people, the land and all living things along the Yarra River.

For people’s knowledge there is actually a teacher’s resource available that explains Aboriginal creation and the story of the Yarra River — it is certainly readily available. The Yarra City Council, in conjunction with the Wurundjeri tribe, have developed a teacher’s resource for the subject of history in line with the Australian and Victorian cross-curriculum standards.

The Yarra City Council kept the focus as local as possible when putting together that curriculum to really increase the learning of the history and students’ connection to local Aboriginal places, histories, cultures and peoples through the classroom. That is available as an online resource for any Victorian that wants to learn more about the Wurundjeri connection to land and to the Yarra.

The Wurundjeri commitment to land is underpinned by cultural and spiritual values that are vastly different to those of ours and of European settlers. The Wurundjeri did not own the land in the European sense of the word; those that belonged to the land were owned by the land. They did not live in permanent settlement but rather camped for periods within defined clan boundaries where food was plentiful, moving along when the land needed to regenerate. In doing the walk along the river with the elder a few years ago, I had all the food sources pointed out to me, believe it or not, that still exist along the Yarra — traditional food sources that we take for granted.

The Wurundjeri not only utilised the land for food and the river for water but also used them for the establishment and resourcing of very important medicines. The moment Europeans arrived and settled in the area, the way of life along the Yarra, and the relationships of the Wurundjeri and other local Aboriginal people in the area, significantly changed forever. Many clans were forced to leave the area. For at least some of these settlers the underlying drive was an imperial belief in British superiority over the traditional culture, heritage and history of the Wurundjeri connection with the Yarra, particularly along the parts that we know now as Southbank and all the way to the MCG.

Despite the effects of colonisation, Aboriginal peoples and cultures survived, and the strong bonds between families and clans could not be broken. This bill is an extremely important part of recognising that connection to the land, and re-establishing the boundaries and the opportunities for many Aboriginal people — people who are connected to their ancestors that were originally part of the land, back before European settlement — to be able to be part of the ongoing decision-making. That is what this bill does: it provides for the declaration of the Yarra River and certain public lands in its vicinities to be protected as one living natural entity.

This bill also requires the involvement, inclusion and community participation of traditional owners in the planning processes. It also provides for the development and implementation of a Yarra strategic plan as an overarching policy and planning framework for the Yarra River.

I want to acknowledge the great work that is done by the Yarra riverkeepers, who do a fantastic job of both promoting the beautiful natural resource that the Yarra is in all its parts, but also for being an advocate group out there fighting for the protection against inappropriate developments and the protection of the waterways so that they are clean and accessible for everyone to enjoy.

The bill also provides for the declaration of the Greater Yarra Urban Park Lands, another extremely important part of the bill. This bill is so important because the Yarra is the bloodline through our city. We are legislating for the first time for a single-led agency to develop and coordinate the Yarra strategic plan. We are giving the Yarra a voice and the traditional owners a seat at the table by appointing an independent Birrarung Council to oversee the development and the implementation of the strategic plan.

It has been noted that the Wurundjeri will be represented on that committee. In the event there are other Aboriginal groups that are deemed by the Victorian Heritage Council to have registered Aboriginal party status in the near future, there is a seat reserved at the table for those traditional groups to be involved. Of course I talk in the main about the groups associated with the Bunurong and their traditional languages, cultures and traditions. That is a decision yet to be considered in full by the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council. The Minister for Planning, in his second-reading speech, said that the council that is being formed through the river protection bill itself will have a seat at the table for further groups as they are recognised.

We are changing history by the naming of this bill and the absolutely historic day on 22 June when elders came into this chamber and spoke in traditional language on the floor. This is not just about setting history from now but setting up for the future, for future generations to enjoy the rich resources that the Yarra provides in terms of environment, in terms of culture and in terms of supporting the wildlife that will benefit. The bill will also ensure that our traditional owners have a voice as an ongoing, independent, recognised organisation of traditional owners involved, along with environmental and agricultural representatives and community groups, in continuing to protect the beautiful Yarra River.