Exploring a First Nations voice in water policy reform
For the past year, Watertrust Australia has been supporting First Nations leaders and governments in exploring ways to increase First Nations' participation in water policy reform processes. Watertrust initially convened an interim working group to shape a roundtable with Hon Tanya Plibersek. The working group has since evolved to explore options for a more comprehensive engagement between First Nations, governments, and non-Indigenous water users in upcoming water policy reforms.
In their review of the National Water Initiative (NWI), the Productivity Commission identified Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s interests in water as a priority new objective of a renewed NWI. For the past year, Watertrust Australia has been playing a critical role in supporting First Nations leaders and governments come together to explore ways to increase First Nations' participation in water policy reform processes. The work is providing important foundations for water policy processes across the nation being considered to be more inclusive, legitimate and fair by all stakeholders.
In December 2022, Watertrust convened an 'interim' working group of First Nations leaders with an interest in water rights. The initial goal was to shape a roundtable involving 24 Indigenous leaders from across Australia, the Hon Tanya Plibersek (Minister for the Environment and Water) and representatives from the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water. While the initial aim of the roundtable was to discuss land and water buybacks for First Nations peoples, the discussion broadened to exploring ways of achieving a more comprehensive engagement between First Nations, governments, and non-Indigenous water users in upcoming water policy reforms.
To facilitate discussions, Watertrust prepared a background paper on how First Peoples’ voices might best influence the national water reform agenda, including a suggested set of principles, protocols and practices for supporting self-determination and free, prior and informed consent for First Peoples’ participation in water and catchment decision-making. The roundtable identified the need for a common standard for First Nations’ participation in water decision-making through upcoming reforms.
This work laid a foundation for a second roundtable in May 2023, co-hosted by the Australian National University, the National Native Title Council and the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation. For that roundtable, Watertrust prepared a second background paper that highlighted previous First Nations water policy reform initiatives and recommendations, as well as suggested next steps to build on those. The paper summarised the status of water statutes across all jurisdictions, including the provisions made for First Nations water and opportunities for influencing review processes of those statutes.
Watertrust is continuing its support to the working group at a time when there is broad interest across stakeholders in creating water decision processes that are more inclusive and equitable.