Indigenous people left high and dry from state snaffle

Victoria reaped more than $83 billion in water revenue over the past decade, but a truth-telling inquiry was told Indigenous people were left high and dry after none of that money flowed on to them.

Water Minister Harriet Shing fronted the Yoorrook Justice Commission on Wednesday to give evidence on country at Margooya Lagoon near Robinvale in northwest Victoria.

Counsel assisting the commission Fiona McLeod put to the minister that over a 13-year period from 2010 to 2023, the state received a total revenue of $83 billion from water.

"How much of that 83 billion in revenue has been distributed to traditional owners?" Ms McLeod asked.

"The answer is zero directly," Ms Shing responded.

Despite native title covering 40 per cent of Australian land, Indigenous people hold rights to less than one per cent of surface water, according to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

In the 2021/22 financial year, the state received about $6.6 billion from inland water revenue which the minister confirmed traditional owners received no primary benefits from that.

"How does that sit with you, minister, hearing that?" Commissioner Travis Lovett asked.

"Terribly," Ms Shing said.

In October, the state government issued two licences for cultural water use at eastern Victoria's Buchan Munji and the Tambo River to Gunaikurnai Land and Water Aboriginal Corporation.

Ms Shing noted at the time that traditional owners held less than 0.2 per cent of all water access entitlements in Victoria and work was under way to return water management to them.

From 2019 to 2024, the Department of Energy, Environment, Climate Action, which includes the water portfolio, allocated $39.2 million for First Peoples or traditional owner water portfolio programs.

The commission was told that of the 16 traditional owner water portfolio programs, only 10 were administered by First Peoples businesses and organisations.

Ms Shing admitted that compared to the $83 billion received by the Victorian government from water revenues, the amount spent on First People's water programs was very small.

"Allocation of funding has been, without a doubt, undeniably inadequate over a very long period of time," she said.

Of the $39 million allocated to the Indigenous water programs, $5 million was spent on staff costs and about $22 million on a grant program for self determination projects and Aboriginal water officers.

Neither of the two expenditures are controlled by Indigenous people with the minister conceding only two members in the Aboriginal Water Department staff, who received the $5 million, identified as Indigenous.

As Mr Lovett asked the minister how well she thought the government handled water quality running through streams, he held up a a jar containing lime green water with sediment collected from the local Margooya Lagoon.

"The quality of our water has been devastated over generations," Ms Shing said.

"We've failed to have systems of regulation, quality control, oversight of accountability for the way waterways and rivers are treated.

"We have seen some progress in improving the health of some of our waterways. This is not one of them."

About 80 per cent of Victorian waterways are under environmental stress, the minister said.

Tati Tati and Wadi Wadi traditional owner Uncle Brendan Kennedy also gave evidence earlier on Wednesday.

Mr Kennedy has been an advocate for Indigenous water rights in the Murray Darling Basin and for cultural flows, supporting cultural activities and First Peoples' rights to use and manage water.

Yoorrook, Victoria's formal truth-telling inquiry and part of the state's treaty process is set to hand down its final report in 2025.

13YARN 13 92 76