It’s The Constitution, It’s The Vibe… It’s Water Justice

Written by:
15 June 2023
It’s The Constitution, It’s The Vibe… It’s Water Justice - Featured image
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In this article, Brianna McKee contextualises and disseminates the findings of the IPA’s research into the similarities between the Waitangi Tribunal and the proposed Voice to Parliament, conducted as part of the IPA’s analysis of the Voice to Parliament. The IPA has been researching the consequences a potential Voice to Parliament would have to the political freedom, liberty, and equality of Australians since the Uluru Statement of the Heart was first being drafted.

Australians only need look to New Zealand to fear the Voice

Last August I wrote in these pages about the University of Melbourne’s campaign, ‘Undoing Australia’, which at its core seeks to dismantle the nation-state in order to right past wrongs, real or imaginary. This year, the federal government released a blueprint setting out how this might be achieved. We know this today as the Voice to parliament.

The Voice proposal ticks all the boxes. It seeks to dismantle the constitution and rebuild it with a provision which will divide Australians permanently on the basis of race – all in the hope this will achieve reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people.

What might be next on the agenda? To stay one step ahead, we look to the University of Melbourne’s latest research, as it seems the ‘vibe’ across universities today, is the policy of governments tomorrow.

This year’s effort by the Australian Centre, a research unit of the University’s faculty of arts, has been to explore the relationship between country, climate and colonialism. The series interrogates ‘the settler state’s incapacity to manage the ecology of this continent’. A key focus of a recent webinar was ‘water justice’.

Titled, ‘Cultural water for cultural economies: pathways to water justice’, the online event was built around the idea that while ‘land rights have been the subject of sustained law and policy focus’, colonial ‘water theft’ went largely unacknowledged. According to senior law lecturer Dr Erin O’Donnell, this undermined ‘the legitimacy of water law and governance’ especially as it relates to delivering ‘ecologically sustainable water management’.

The presentation claimed it would highlight the work of indigenous peoples in the ‘settler state of Victoria’ to develop ‘new pathways to water justice’.

Sprinkled throughout the event description are phrases with religious overtones. For example, so called ‘original water theft’ is reminiscent of ‘original sin’, and references to a 2022 policy document Water is Life brings to mind Christ’s ‘water of life’. Intentional or otherwise, it is a reminder that indigenous and climate-related causes tend to be accompanied by a hefty dose of religious zealotry. A good example would be the sort of climate worship seen in some Extinction Rebellion protests, which is nothing less than rebranded paganism.

When the sustainability agenda turns religious, it is soon followed by a shift towards policies making nature equal to, or greater than, people. We see evidence of this in the University of Melbourne’s ‘water justice’ webinar. Dr O’Donnell claims her work is informed by a comparative analysis of a number of countries including New Zealand, India and Bangladesh – all of which have granted personhood status to certain waterways or recognised them as living entities. Moreover, in her biography, Dr O’Donnell is described as a water law and policy expert who is ‘recognised internationally for her research into the ground-breaking new field of legal rights for rivers’.

On top of this, Dr O’Donnell is the recipient of a highly lucrative ARC-funded research fellowship. She claims she will use the funds to ‘address aqua nullius, increase Traditional Owner power and resources in water, and create more sustainable and legitimate settler state water laws’.

Increasing bureaucracy around water laws and handing over water ownership to First Nation’s people will not of course help the average Australian, indigenous or otherwise. Hardworking taxpayers with a family to feed should not be footing the bill for research that betrays their interests.

New Zealand is predictably further down the path than Australia when it comes to so-called ‘indigenous self-determination’ and progressive water law reform. Consequently, it provides an excellent case study of what could happen in Australia. First and foremost is the ground-breaking law granting the Whanganui River legal personhood status in 2017. Granting rights to rivers started off as an elite vanity project, but the movement has grown in popularity in recent years.

Second, New Zealand has introduced an asset-confiscation program known as Three Waters – drinking water, stormwater and wastewater. It involves a plan to hand over governance of the water assets of the nation’s 67 councils to an equal number of unelected tribal members and council representatives. As noted by Richard Prebble, a former minister, the glaring issue is that ‘Liberal democracy is incompatible with co-government by tribes’.

Third, Australians can learn from New Zealand’s equivalent body to Australia’s proposed indigenous-only Voice to Parliament – the Waitangi Tribunal. The Institute of Public Affairs’ John Storey analysed this topic in a 2023 report, The New Zealand Māori Voice to Parliament and what we can expect for Australia. Storey found that since its creation, the Waitangi Tribunal has become a vehicle for allocating critical recourses such as health, education and job opportunities. By demanding preferential access to critical government resources for Māori, the Waitangi Tribunal has demonstrated just how quickly an advisory body can be hijacked by social justice activists, resulting in divisive racial politics.

Unfortunately, many high-profile organisations and tertiary institutions are actively campaigning for the Voice to parliament. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in a 2020 Twitter post that he wants to follow the lead of New Zealand on reconciliation with First Nations people. The University of Melbourne has pledged its support for the Voice and, through the Australia Centre, provides an array of research and publications supporting New Zealand style ‘indigenous self-determination’ techniques.

It’s important to ask where this could all lead, as the professional activists driving these movements tend to have an insatiable desire for treaties, apologies, and preferential treatment.

Ultimately, if politics is downstream of culture, then culture is downstream of education. The approach adopted by the federal government and the University of Melbourne when it comes to indigenous politics seems to rely on what the hapless Denis Denuto in The Castle described as ‘the vibe’.

If the University of Melbourne’s research continues to lead the political debate and logic continues to give way to ‘the vibe’, then Australians can look forward to a future of co-governance by indigenous tribes.

Rivers will have rights, but will we have access to water?

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