Water is life. No-one knows that better than communities in far west New South Wales, especially those along the Lower Darling, including Menindee Lakes. The Liberal‑Nationals Government has deprived those communities of not just water but also life as it has also allowed floodplain harvesting and excessive water extraction from rivers in the northern end of the Murray-Darling Basin. There has never been a starker reminder of the mismanagement of the water system than a million dead fish, some decades old, floating to the surface. The fish kills left an indelible mark on many communities around New South Wales, including mine, and I received countless calls and emails expressing horror at the failure to protect the river system, the lakes and the wildlife they support. Two weeks ago I had the great privilege to visit Menindee with my good friend the Hon. Rose Jackson. We met with community leaders, which is something that sadly even the New South Wales environment Minister—never normally one to miss a photo op—still has not done. We met with farmers, including Terry Smith; local residents in town like Graham McCrabb; the larger-than-life owner of Tolarno Station, Mr Rob McBride; and Indigenous Elders Cheryl and Barb.
Their message was clear: They wanted people to understand the devastation the Government's mismanagement has wrought on the local community, the social and cultural heritage of the lakes and, of course, on the environment. For generations, the water that flowed through the Murray-Darling Basin rivers has sustained 30,000 wetlands. It is home to 166 species of birds and native fish and to 95 threatened species of animals and plants. The importance of the Lower Darling cannot be overstated, given the integral role that the ephemeral lakes play as key bird and fish breeding grounds. Some birds travel from as far as Siberia to the Menindee Lakes system. A part of what once used to be full to the brim with "yellowbelly" golden perch, which birds thrived on, is now arid dirt. Of course, it is not just the local ecology that depends on the Murray-Darling Basin; so do more than three million Australians who rely on the rivers for drinking water, including more than 40 Aboriginal Nations. Every single year, the Murray-Darling Basin produces $22 billion worth of food and fibre. Tourism alone contributes $7.5 billion to the economy, generating thousands of jobs, including 10,000 in the recreational fishing industry alone. Each of those dollars spent is for the most part going into communities that are struggling.
We drove past acres of what was once prime grape crop, abandoned and left to wither on the vine because farmers no longer have access to the water they need. These communities of the Lower Darling are not asking for much. They are just asking for a fair go from a Liberal-Nationals Government, which has abandoned communities, economies and the environment just to prop up its mates. To understand the importance of the river system to the custodians of this land, you need look no further than the name "Barkandji," which comes from the name "Barka", meaning "people of the river". When we visited, it was Barkandji leaders Cheryl and Barb who had the most heart-wrenching stories to tell of the impact of water mismanagement. I will never forget standing on the banks of the river with them, next to trees that were hundreds of years old, still bearing the scars of ancient Indigenous canoe carving.
Tragically, a once great river, a cultural lifeline, is being destroyed before those Elders' eyes. There is an undeniable link between the shamefully poor social and health outcomes of the Indigenous people of the region and the desecration of this river. While The Nationals like to blame the drought and shirk responsibility for the impact of water mismanagement, it could not be further from the truth. A report into the Lower Darling fish kills by the Australian Academy of Science in 2019 states: The conditions leading to this event are an interaction between a severe (but not unprecedented) drought and, more significantly, excess upstream diversion of water for irrigation. Prior releases of water from Menindee Lakes contributed to lack of local reserves.
Starving the river of water—acts sanctioned by this Government—led to mass fish kills in the Lower Darling. Despite that clear finding, two years on nothing has changed. There have been no wholesale changes to management of the river and no reform initiated by the Government to help protect it into the future. Once again, this region has been forgotten by this Government. That is the reality of living in communities in the Lower Darling, who are deprived of water, deprived of local democracy and, as we saw in the case of the recent fish kills, deprived of life. We must acknowledge the failure and make wholesale change now to stop this absolute devastation from continuing.