This week the Victorian Government introduced the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Bill 2017 into the state parliament.
This bill represents, as the Minister said in his Second Reading Speech, a ‘landmark’ in Victoria’s history. It also represents the culmination of more than two-and-a-half years of work by EJA and the Yarra Riverkeeper Association.
The proposed law is a landmark because it recognises the Yarra River and its environs as a single, integrated living entity, to be managed as a single landscape under a 50-year community vision. This in itself is historic in Australian urban river management.
More than this, the bill establishes a legislative framework with certain powerful instruments at its heart: a Birrarung Council as a ‘voice’ of the river, intended to scrutinise and advise on management by government agencies, and an overarching Yarra Strategic Plan, including scope for binding obligations on public authorities.
Perhaps most profoundly and innovative is the entrenching of Wurundjeri identity and values in river governance through the bill. This includes bilingual naming of the bill and its preamble – in Woiwurrung and in English. This is an Australian first.
Prior to the introduction of the Bill into the Parliament, Wurundjeri Elders were invited onto the floor of the House, wearing traditional cloaks and face paint, and addressed the Parliament in Woiwurrung and in English. It was an extraordinary and powerful moment in Victorian history. I am proud to have witnessed it.
The Elders were met with a standing ovation from the MPs present. There was also a reception in Parliament afterwards.
EJA commenced a journey toward this law in late 2014. We worked successfully with community organisations, government and experts to design model proposals for such a law. Many of the legal and policy proposals we advocated for are reflected in the bill before Parliament. I am hopeful that what we have put forward may serve as a basis for reform proposals for rivers and waters elsewhere in Australia.
The Bill will be debated and voted on when Parliament next sits in August.
Image: Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly by Anna Carlile, Viola Design