Law and policy reform to protect the Yarra River (Birrarung) has been a long process but we might just be at the pointy end of the season.
The Yarra Birrarung Act is, as readers may recall, a landmark piece of legislation intended to recognise the river corridor as a ‘living’ natural entity, based on its bi-cultural Wurundjeri Woi wurrung-Settler character, with the ambition of achieving a ‘healthy’ river over the next 50 years.
A Yarra Strategic Plan (YSP) must be prepared under this law, which includes a ‘land use framework’ for the river corridor. More than a dozen public agencies and Wurundjeri (the Traditional Owners) have to endorse it for its approval.
The contents of this Plan will be key to what happens on the Yarra over the next 10 years, alongside other important tools such as Melbourne Water’s Healthy Waterway Strategy.
The YSP represents a centrepiece of the Yarra law. It is a pivot on which much ambition rests.
In late May and early June, a Draft YSP and Land Use Framework were considered at a public inquiry. The Panel that conducted this inquiry will make findings and recommendations on whether these planning documents are a sound basis for going forward.
EJA and the Yarra Riverkeeper Association (YRKA) jointly took up the challenge to make a case and lead expert evidence on the draft Plan. Those submissions are available here. Add link
Like most panel processes there was a fair degree of contention and dispute. There was some meeting of minds. For our purposes (EJA and YRKA jointly) it boiled down to this: after more than 18 months, and with the resources of more than a dozen public institutions, the Draft Plan and Framework turns out to be inordinately vague and generalised, lacking in transformative agenda, and at best intended to be a reference document available for the consideration of council planners.
For a ‘strategic plan’, as our experts pointed out, the whole thing is remarkably deficient in strategy.
As counsel for Melbourne Water repeated several times, the Plan and Framework were only intended to be ‘high level’ and ‘living’ documents, accompanied by implementation plans. This is code we might suggest for ‘trust us, it will all be okay, we (beneficent public agencies) will sort it out in the long-run’. In other words, ‘nothing to see here, let’s get this sorted and move on’.
By the end of the hearing, Melbourne Water had conceded a few points, such as extending (albeit vague) protective measures to the river corridor floodplains further upstream. But the fundamentals had not really shifted. For example, the Plan will not actually bind anyone. It contains little that will protect or restore Yarra Birrarung River tributaries.
Without these sorts of minimal qualities it seems implausible that the Plan might make serious inroads into the genuinely challenging task of achieving a ‘healthy’ river.
Let’s recall that this is a major urbanised waterway, facing continued business-as-usual population and infrastructure pressures, not to mention the slow-motion train wreck of climate change. Given its status as an urban drain 40 years ago, it is remarkable to have retained any natural values, benefits and ‘services’.
The process of preparation of the YSP is not concluded. Indeed the panel report will be a crucial moment in the fate of the planning exercise. Its findings and opinions may be of considerable influence to the outcome. We trust they will contribute to its greater fortitude and effect. A finalised plan and framework is due later this year, according to the current timetable.
The clear value of a public hearing process was on display in the Inquiry. It is not a perfect process. We all know of examples where the formal equality and fairness of hearings are distorted by the real power imbalances of resources. Nevertheless, there is an accessible scrutiny and transparency, in a relatively informal setting, in the panel process. The attention, intellect and patience of panel members, we should say, is typically extraordinary.
Two final matters about the Inquiry are worthy of reflection.
All the oral and written cases put by all submitters were high quality, even those with whom we had substantial disagreement (such as St Kevins College, whose experts were impressive). Representatives for community and friends’ groups made articulate cases and presented compelling examples and insights into the care, experience and intellect communities bring to managing our waterways and public lands.
Secondly, Wurundjeri Woi wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation made candid and sobering submissions. These were constructively critical of the Draft Plan and provided important reflections on the experience of Wurundjeri in its preparation and dealings with government and agencies.
It should be borne in mind that Wurundjeri made early and powerful intervention in the policy-making process for reformed Yarra River governance back in 2016. It is their river. It has been since time immemorial. They own the lore of the river. In the Yarra Act they have effectively proposed a model of its decolonisation too. Let us ‘settlers’ not be coy about the generosity of that proposition. They have given the Yarra River poetry, where we treated it as a drain and now as a playground. Just read the Preamble to the Act.
In their closing submissions, Melbourne Water expressed they were ‘shocked and quite upset’ at Wurundjeri criticism. That may well be how the institution’s staff feel. But does this not precisely re-state and reinforce the problem: a state institution wrings its hands about its treatment in a public hearing? Is not the sub-text here that ‘we’ have done ‘you’ a favour? Our colleagues at Melbourne Water may not have consciously meant that but isn’t that the point: these types of comments and views are not intended to be consciously biased and reproduce a certain history of treatment but rather they operate at a deeper and more pernicious level of institutional and systemic bias and conduct.
It might be worth reflecting on these points when we ‘settlers’ recall who is trying to reconcile with whom and how the Yarra Birrarung Act might contribute to that process.