The Yarra (Birrarung) has been Wurundjeri’s river since time immemorial. For decades, settler Australians treated it as a drain, and now use it as a playground.

The Yarra Birrarung’s bicultural model recognises the Yarra (Birrarung) corridor in Melbourne as a “living” natural entity of bicultural character: both traditional owner and settler-Australia. But although it offers a pathway to decolonise rivers and landscapes, we need to see real shifts in cultural and power dynamics in Australia’s reconciliation processes.

The Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act is a remarkable piece of legislation. It’s the first Australian Act to be co-titled in a traditional owner language — in this case in Woi-wurrung, the revival language of the Wurundjeri people. “Wilip-gin Birrarung murron” translates as “keep the Birrarung alive”.

The Act is also remarkable because, in its ambition to achieve a healthy river over the next 50 years, it recognises the Yarra (Birrarung) corridor as a “living” natural entity of bicultural character: both traditional owner and settler-Australian.

The Yarra (Birrarung) has been Wurundjeri’s river since time immemorial. For decades, settler Australians treated it as a drain, and now use it as a playground.

But the Act’s preamble gives some sense of First Nations people’s profound and poetic ways of relating to rivers. Wurundjeri traditional owners have also been longstanding contributors of knowledge to Yarra policy. Under the Act, a Yarra Strategic Plan must include a “land use framework” for the river corridor. More than a dozen public agencies and Wurundjeri owners must endorse the framework.

Environmental Justice Australia and the Yarra Riverkeeper Association made a case and led expert evidence at the recent public hearing into the draft Yarra Strategic Plan. This draft plan will underpin what happens with the Yarra Birrarung over the next decade, alongside Melbourne Water’s Healthy Waterway Strategy.

While different groups debate the draft plan, the Yarra remains a major urbanised waterway, facing population and infrastructure pressures and the slow train-wreck of climate change. Given its status as an urban drain 40 years ago, it’s astonishing that it has retained its natural values, benefits and “services”. That is a testament to the foresight of community groups that have actively protected, restored and advocated for waterways and parks.

In the public hearing, Wurundjeri Woi wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation made sobering submissions that were constructively critical of the draft plan and its preparation. The corporation offered insights into the experience of Wurundjeri in its dealings with government and agencies.

During the hearing, even those with whom we disagreed, such as St Kevin’s College, put forward impressive experts and strong arguments. Representatives for community and friends’ groups made articulate cases and compelling insights into the care, experience and intellect communities bring to managing our waterways and public lands.

But after more than 18 months of preparation, the draft plan and framework was inordinately vague — in our view, lacking a transformative agenda. For a “strategic plan” it was strikingly deficient in strategy.

Melbourne Water maintained that the plan and framework were only ever intended to be “high level” and “living” documents, accompanied by implementation plans. To us, this seems like bureaucratic code for “trust us, we’ll sort it later” and “nothing to see here”.

Melbourne Water conceded a few points, such as extending (albeit vague) protective measures to the river corridor floodplains further upstream, but in its current form the plan won’t actually bind anyone to anything much.

It also contains little that will protect or restore Yarra Birrarung River tributaries. So it seems implausible that the plan might make serious inroads into the formidable task of achieving a healthy river or halting and reversing trajectories of decline.

In their closing submissions, Melbourne Water expressed they were “shocked and quite upset” at Wurundjeri’s criticism. This exemplifies an unfortunate situation: a state institution wringing its hands about its treatment. The sub-text seems to be that “we” have done “you” a favour.

These types of messages are not consciously biased, but we need to think carefully about whose treatment should be in focus. We need to be mindful of historical asymmetries in cultural power relations. The Yarra Birrarung’s bicultural model exemplifies one pathway to decolonisation of rivers and landscapes, but real shifts in cultural and power dynamics also have to occur in Australia’s reconciliation processes.

We also need to decolonise the law reform processes that protect and safeguard our environment.

Dr Bruce Lindsay is a senior lawyer with Environmental Justice Australia.

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