Dr Daniel Connell, Sarah Moles, Major Sumner and Kim Chalmers with Malcolm McKinnon, 25 August 2013
KIRSTEN WEHNER: It’s my pleasure to now move on to introduce Malcolm McKinnon who will moderate this morning’s panel discussion.
Malcolm is an artist, filmmaker and producer working mainly in the realms of social history and multimedia, particularly on projects in different parts of regional Australia. For One River, Malcolm has worked as curator of stories - a fabulous title, one I am going to try and claim - part of the role which has involved convening a series of critical symposia presented at various stages throughout the year-long life of the project. Please join me in welcoming Malcolm. [applause]
MALCOLM MCKINNON: Thank you, Kirsten, for that excellent introduction into particularly the interests of the Museum in the Murray-Darling Basin. It’s great to be here today working with the Museum to present this symposium, because there are such fantastic synergies between the work that you’re engaged in on an ongoing basis and our concerns through this really a fleeting project but a product, as Robyn has alluded, that we hope has some real legacy both in an intuitional sense and also in local communities where activity has happened all across the Murray-Darling Basin.
Let me first of all thank you all personally for coming along to this session this morning. This is the third and final of our symposia that we’re running in the course of the One River project. We ran one in Goolwa in October last year, one in Mildura in March, and this is the final one of those. There is few people in the audience who have a perfect attendance record. Deb Rodin for one who I was giving a special gold star to before. But whether you’ve been to all three or this is the first one, thank you very much for coming along.
We promise you this morning a stimulating program - not just this morning but throughout the whole day - of discussion with a range of illustrious presenters who I’ll be introducing in turn. This afternoon has some presentations from Museum curators and also from some of the artists who have been involved in producing work across the Murray-Darling Basin as part of the One River project which is, for those of you who are not aware, a kind of multifarious and broad-ranging beast that has at its heart had ten local projects at different places, ranging from Augathella in the north down to Goolwa at the mouth of the river and many places in between. There was a reprise or a re-presentation of those at Belconnen that many of you saw yesterday. There has also been a radio play, there’s been the creation of little films that I’ve made, a photography project, a website and all manner of things including these symposia.
Today we’re looking at the Murray-Darling Basin as one of the perennial hot potatoes, in a political sense, in Australian cultural life. There are debates about the Murray-Darling Basin as a contested space and as a space of conflicting visions that go back certainly to Federation. They come around with an amazing consistency. It’s one of these great examples in Australian culture of a kind of perpetual amnesia in many ways - the way that we seem to have an argument, then forget that we have had and have it again in almost the exactly the same terms sometimes many times over. We’ll be looking at that phenomena but also looking at this fundamental question about this particular historical juncture that were at now and whether we might be at some point of significant change perhaps, and different speakers will have their own view on that.
I am asking all of the people that are speaking today to identify themselves in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin. Robyn and Kirsten have done that in the course of what they’ve been saying. As Robyn alluded to, I have a family connection to the Murray River near Mildura.
[image shown] This is my grandmother in the back row of this photograph. This is a photograph taken in 1920 in the Murray River at Mildura. My grandmother was born at Kings Billabong near Mildura in 1904, and her father had the good fortune to be in Mildura with the Chaffey brothers before that when a small number of people made a large amount of money pretty rapidly in setting up the irrigation colony.
I myself spent the first part of my life in the Sunraysia. [image shown] Here is me as a very urbane, sophisticated infant swimming in the river in February 1963 with my mother. This is at a river beach near Mildura. I spent the best years of my childhood visiting my grandparents’ fruit block at Red Cliffs and I still have an ongoing connection. So like Robyn, I have this kind of river water in my shoes or sometimes I think perhaps in my blood, and there are many people like that. In fact, probably the most notable thing about the One River project through all of its components, including the local projects, is the way that it has mined this very deep connection and a sense of imaginative connection that people have with the river in all sorts of places.
What I want to do now is show you a little three-minute video that I have cut together from the work that I’ve done making little films across the Murray-Darling Basin. This is a collection of responses to the question I asked most of the people that I met about their understanding of this term ‘One River’. I am showing you this because I think it illustrates the kind of common wisdom that Robyn was referring to and Kirsten was referring to from a range of different people and a range a different places. I will show that to you now.
[Film clip shown]
MALE SPEAKER: From the rivers we can connect ourselves to our neighbors and connect our stories and have them forever more. A story that might go back 100 years is a valuable story, and a story that goes back a couple of 1000 years, you can’t put money on that type of story. When you pick up water, you can’t pick up water and hold it in your hands and see a sense of money - there is not dollars there. It is just a bit of water that runs through your fingers. I think that’s the way we need to understand it. It’s not ours but it’s ours in a sense to share for everybody.MALE SPEAKER 2: When you talk to people about their river they often blaim people up them for their problems. We’ve all got shared problems, I guess. I’ve had a bit to do with people just down below Cubbie, the Mindi lakes and right down to the Murray itself. It’s amazing how they always seem to blame people just above them for their problems. I think the sooner we realise it’s all one river and we’ve all got a shared interest in it, the better we’ll be.FEMALE SPEAKER: It’s the river that sustains us all. So the water that comes from that river keeps us all going. We have to manage it like it’s part of our heart, part of our life and part of our whole family. We have to care about what’s happening in other areas so we have to make sure the whole system is healthy. Like everybody, we are all concerned about where we live.FEMALE SPEAKER 2: This river starts out, it has got the McIntyre coming in; it has got the Gwydir coming in; it has got the Mei coming in - and that’s only the New South Wales side. And then on the Queensland side you’ve got the Weir river coming in; you’ve got the Moonie coming in. And then down further you’ve got the Colgara and the Cara going into it. Then you’ve got Warego and Paroo and all those going into it. So it is all connected to one river.
[Film clip ends]
MALCOLM McKINNON: We spoke to farmers, people who based their lives around fishing, riverboat captains and people who just have perhaps favourite swimming spots - a whole range of people. The consistent thing has been this depth of what I call common wisdom and also a kind of an imaginative capacity to appreciate the inevitable changing nature of the river and the fact that the worlds and the places that people are attached to are integrally connected with a whole range of other places.
What’s struck me again and again is how that kind of common wisdom is so distinct and removed from the politicised and technocratic language of so much policy, which I think is a real challenge for anyone who works in policy. Working in policy is not an easy realm. I don’t mean be critical out of hand, but there is this incredible kind of disconnect between this kind of emotional and imaginative intelligence that we encounter on the ground and the kind of technocratic, politicised dialogue that goes on in the public realm. We need to bridge that divide in lots of ways.
In saying this, I’m mindful that here we are in Canberra in the middle of a federal election. It’s very interesting that the man who is tipped to be Australia’s next prime minister was describing himself as a conservationist in a national debate the other day on the basis that he has been bushwalking a couple of times. I’m also mindful of the fact that this is the same bloke who the journalist Annabel Crabb describes as ‘the exuberant simplicities of Tony Abbot’, which I think is an excellent description of what passes for political dialogue not just from Tony Abbot, although he is a master exponent of the exuberant simplicity. I’m also aware of the shortsighted notion of someone like Tony Abbot saying - Tony Abbot himself saying only two years ago – ‘Why would we need to be developing a plan to return water to the river when there’s a flood? What’s going on here? Give us a break, for God’s sake, we’re not that stupid.’ There is a real kind of intelligence which I think is undervalued consistently in the political realm. It is not good enough, and we should be demanding more, I would say.
[Slide shown] I want to show another slide here by way of just injecting some sense of urgency into what we’re talking about today because sometimes it seems as though if we’re not in the middle of a ten-year drought or we are not in the middle of a blue-green algae outbreak on the Darling, we don’t have the sense of crisis or urgency – and we do. This is a photograph taken only a few years ago towards the end of the draught down in the Coorong where there was this issue of Murray River turtles being encased in a kind of coral crustacean that made it impossible for them to survive and in fact they were frequently attacked by predators. There was an episode there where a number of community groups, including the school at Millan, ran a turtle rescue program and went through the painstaking work of chipping these coral crustaceans off these turtles and rehabilitating them to eventually return them to the river when the water eventually became more habitable.
Just this week when I was flying up here on Thursday, I was reading in the Weekly Times, which is the Victorian Rural Press publication, about how the Murray crayfish has just been put on the list of species in critical danger of extinction. If we consider all these things to be collateral damage and we accept all those things, then that’s all well and good. But I think many of us would feel uneasy about doing that. There are issues that are real crisis issues that we have to deal with. The fact that water in the Hume Weir at the moment is fantastic, but of course there are these cycles that go on all the time and we would do well to learn from our histories. So that’s what we’re on about today.
The real question, as I said before, is to look at the way the Murray-Darling Basin is this recurrent political hot potato and the way that we have these repetitive arguments that often come down to sectorial interests fighting against each other and sometimes I think an oversimplified notion of environmental restoration or preservation versus economic imperatives. That is a very unproductive way at looking at the argument. I think many people can see a lot more common ground, and we have to be doing that.
That’s what we’re looking at today in a range of different ways and looking at whether we might be at a juncture in time where we can start to see some significant shifts in our ability to manage things. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, there are state governments that are busy obstructing national agreements at the moment to do with the Murray-Darling Basin plan. But let’s hope that we might be able to work beyond that.
Implicit in this is the question of where leadership comes from, and I think leadership comes from a whole lot of places that are not necessarily offices in Canberra. They come from all sorts of places across the Basin, and some of the people speaking today are actively providing that kind of leadership.
We’re pleased we’re having an excellent range of speakers who can address this topic, and the first of them is Daniel Connell, who is a historian, a teacher and a public policy analyst based at the Australian National University. Daniel has written extensively about Murray-Darling Basin politics and policy issues, including a book called Water politics in the Murray-Darling Basin. Daniel has a particular interest in governance issues relating to rivers that span and divide different political constituencies both in Australia and internationally. So please welcome Daniel Connell. [applause]
DANIEL CONNELL: The theme that I’m going to be talking about this morning is that of communities. Basically I’ll be talking about how that’s really been at the centre of the whole development debate about the Murray-Darling Basin for I guess 150 years. How do you create communities? How you protect them? How do you develop them? What are the purposes of these communities and what are the interests that they represent? I argue that it’s much more diverse than we normally think.
One of the perennial discussions is the role of irrigation. Irrigation is central to the way in which the debate about the Murray-Darling Basin has been conducted over the last 120 years. But what I am wanting to argue is that there is a lot more involved than irrigation. Irrigation is really important. I don’t want to suggest that it’s not. But the opposition of irrigation - environment et cetera - is a very unproductive sort of conflict.
As you all know, the Murray-Darling Basin extends far into southern Queensland and, as we were hearing at the beginning from Robyn, it’s very much a federal story. It’s a very central story to the history of the Australian national development from the point of view of South Australia in particular. It was certainly one of the most important issues and for many South Australians the most important issue that caused them to be interested in federation. So we’ve got an area with four different states and the Australian Capital Territory and then in addition to that the national government itself. So we have actually got six jurisdictions that are conflicting about how this area should be managed and should be developed. But central is the fact that it’s one basin and, somehow or other, we need to try to assert that and work out practical ways to turn that vision into something that influences what happens in policy and in management.
We saw before the paddle steamers. This was originally the first reason for the Murray-Darling Basin to be developed and Adelaide had this dream of seeing itself as the New Orleans on the Mississippi. I grew up in South Australia and went to university in Adelaide. The idea of Adelaide as New Orleans is a very attractive idea. It wasn’t the one I experienced, although we did have the Adelaide Festival which was beginning to head that way. This is a very important phase. We tend to think of it as something that’s in the dim past, but actually out of that early period when people were concerned, particularly South Australia, about trying to get the area sort of shaped with weirs and barrages et cetera so that it would be suitable for navigation, we actually put in place an infrastructure that is no longer relevant to having paddle steamers commercially going up and down streams in the Murray-Darling Basin. But communities throughout the Murray-Darling Basin had built themselves around the particular shape that the river has taken around that infrastructure. So that infrastructure and that period still continues to have a very big impact on the way in which people live in the Murray-Darling Basin.
Alfred Deakin: we know of him as Australia’s second Prime Minister and one of the most important people in writing the constitution, but his first great cause was the cause of irrigation in Victoria when he was a young minister in his early 30s in the Victorian colonial government. [Image shown] This particular cartoon shows him in his campaign to transform the area and use a very large amount of state money to transform northern Victoria. As you can see when you look at this cartoon, it’s obviously drawing on the biblical references that would have been obvious to people at the time - this is Moses striking the rock and providing water to his people, the cartoonist obviously with a sardonic touch. You can see down there on the lower right the public purse is also being struck, so there was a big debate about the amount of money that was going to go into this.
But the idea that Deakin had was that water was not just something about pipes, channels and things like that, he saw it as a way to create communities within the Murray-Darling Basin where you would have a large number of people all closely living together with independent small holder lots. He saw this as the foundation for the democracy that Victoria was very proud of in terms of the way in which it was leading the way in all sorts of innovations. The idea of not having pastoralists and people like that with their tendencies to pull the system back into a very hierarchical bunyip aristocracy-type system with the western district and things like that, he saw irrigation as way of bringing a new type of person into the political system of Victoria.
He also saw it as a way of bringing urban civilisation - he was a very urban orientated person - and of creating centres within the Murray-Darling Basin along the river that had all the civic qualities and the civilised qualities of urban areas. He was very dismissive of what was involved in rural life in the pastoral sense.
Deakin also played a very big role in the Chaffey brothers coming out. They established some of the first and most important communities in terms of their numbers and influence - Renmark in South Australia and Mildura in Victoria. [image shown] I have always liked this illustration, which comes from A History of Mildura. That’s one of the Chaffey brothers, and he looks very like the illustrations that you’d see of Mao and Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s interesting these sorts of super life figures basically leading their people and playing this command and control type role establishing these colonies along the river. In that group you can see quite a few returned servicemen and all those sorts of people. This is very much part of the nation building story of Australia.
I think it is very important to understand their place in that nation story. When you look at some of the feeling that has been in the debate about water in the Murray-Darling Basin over the last 10 to 20 years, there’s a strong sense of betrayal in those river communities about the way in which they’re being portrayed in the national press as destructive to the environment and things like that. For 100 years, they were very much taught to see themselves as part of the process of creating a settled European-style Australia. For better or worse, that’s the way they saw themselves. So there’s a strong sense of betrayal when they see the national connection.
One thing I want to argue in my talk this morning is that we do need to move beyond that particular vision of the appropriate types of communities in the Murray-Darling Basin. We do need to think of it as a place which is much more diverse and which has communities with a much wider interest than just irrigation.
The river that we know is actually very different from the river that existed for hundreds of thousands of years. Just to get an idea of the variability of the older river - the pre-Hume Dam river, the pre-regulated river – [image shown] here’s a photograph of a small dam that’s been put across the river in South Australia to try to get a little bit of extra depth into the river so that they can continue to drain water out of it for some of the irrigation pumps that are along the way. It gives you an idea of how at particular times you could have very low flow.
One of the other things that’s very interesting about this particular photograph is that at this time, this is the drought of 1914, Morgan - which has been the place where they measure salinity along the Murray-Darling Basin, and it’s the sort of standard measure that has been used for a very long period of time - at this stage hit salinity levels of over 10,000 ECs. Now at 2,500 ECs people can drink for very brief periods. Basically at 10,000 ECs, it is not possible to use that for drinking water for people, for animals or for plants in any sort of way. It just shows that left to itself the river is a very variable and sometimes hostile force.
Hume Dam is the major storage on the river which has transformed it and which has made it possible to provide water security for communities, for industry and for a whole lot of activities right down the river. It’s the iconic and central and strategic sort of storage. This has been a major part of the story. In a sense, it was the building of Hume Dam completed in the 1930s which transformed the river and made it the river that we now know today, for better or worse.
We’ve been through a period of enormous expansion through the twentieth century. But come the 1970s and the 1980s, we had clearly got to the limits of the sort of development that we were undertaking and getting away with those sorts of developments and still having a reasonable river.
[Image shown] This is a photograph of Milang Jetty. I grew up in Strathalbyn. We’ve been asked to talk about our personal connections with the river. I spent a lot of my time as a teenager canoeing on this lake, Lake Alexandrina, and swimming where you can see the grass now - that’s where I used to swim as a child. This area was - and still is in many ways but not as much as it used to be - a beautiful place of enormous significance to me. It was an area that before they built the barrages, again, that was a period that I didn’t experience - that was in the 1940s - that absolutely transformed that area, and maybe we’ll hear more a bit later about life on the Coorong and that sort of area. This particular photograph in a sense represents the limits of whenever you want to take more out of the Murray you just allocate more or you just increase the development pressure. Effectively what this photograph means to me is recognition that we’ve come to the absolute outer limits and gone way beyond them in terms of development pressure. Further use of the river basically required increasingly sophisticated, smart management. That’s the crisis that we’ve been in for the last 20 or 30 years.
We’re talking about how should the river be managed, what does sustainability mean. Sustainability is very much like that: ‘Lord make me good, but not yet.’ When you think about a long-term development strategy for the Murray-Darling Basin, there comes a point where ongoing decline - and that’s what we’ve been operating on for most of the twentieth century - is not a rational basis for long-term planning. At some stage you have to stabilise and say, ‘Okay, they’re the limits we’re going to work within.’ Well they’re the limits that we hit 20 or 30 years ago. That’s what a lot of this debate about the Basin Plan for purchasing water to improve environmental conditions has been about.
Community consultation. [image shown] This has become a very well-known photograph of what happened at Griffith. Effectively, the process of trying to develop a more diverse notion of what should be happening in the Murray-Darling Basin has been a very painful process. It’s quite reasonable and appropriate that people express themselves strongly and argue their case. But, essentially, when we look at the whole idea of taking water back from the over-allocation that’s taken place over the last 100 years and reallocating it to the environment and all sorts of other cultural uses, what we’re talking about is restoring and protecting the communities where people live.
It’s very important when you think about purchases of water for the environment that you not see it as production versus the environment and as some sort of alien, anti-people type thing. Effectively, water for the environment means protecting the areas where people live; it means making them continue to be attractive places to live; it means protecting the values that exist in those places.
This is the last slide that I just want to finish on - this is Mildura [slide shown]. I’ve only got one slide that I’ve put there along with it, because I didn’t want to make the story too diverse, complex and confused, I just wanted to bring forward one of the alternative values that need to be taken into account. These communities, for example, are no longer just irrigation communities; they’re communities where a lot of people live who could live somewhere else. A lot of retired people live along the river. My argument is that, if we were to allow continuing expansion of irrigation and allow the river to degrade, we’d effectively be turning these places into very unattractive places to live. What that translates into is population movement. People who are retired can retire wherever they like, and it means that these places would shrink in size. That would have enormous economic impacts.
That’s just an economic argument for why we need to take a diverse approach to thinking about communities along the Murray-Darling Basin. I’m sort of forced into this economic perspective rather against my will because there are many other aesthetic and cultural things that are also extremely important that need to be taken into account and that we need to preserve along the Murray-Darling Basin system. [applause]
MALCOLM McKINNON: Thank you very much, Daniel. There’s a nice little heretical streak in what Daniel was saying, which I think is good, because the reality is that, if we are at some point of genuine change, then it does mean some fundamental attitudinal shifts. There is all sorts of traumatic change going on. We have to engage with that in a productive way and not just hope that things will return to some idealised vision of water being turned into gold, as Chaffey was gesticulating across the environment and that things need to shift. We need to question some of the prevailing stories and myths that have got us to where we are now.
Moving along, the next speaker I want to introduce is Sarah Moles, who said that I could also refer to her as ‘the purple-spotted gudgeon from the Darling Downs’ with her spectacular hair colour that will come up very nicely under the lights, I’m sure. Sarah’s here all the way from south-west Queensland. Sarah is one of those people who does a lot of hard work on a lot of different committees to look at management of natural resources in her part of the world and across the Murray-Darling Basin more broadly. I want to pay tribute to Sarah as one of those people, because a lot of that work is a real slog. It’s unglamorous and requires going to a lot of meetings and sometimes asking yourself, ‘Are we getting anywhere with this stuff?’, which is really what I’ve asked Sarah to speak about.
I’ll just mention some of the work that Sarah’s involved in, informed by her passion for freshwater environments. She was a member of the Community Advisory Committee to the former Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council and the Living Murray Community Reference Group. She’s currently a director of the Queensland Murray-Darling Basin Committee and the Ethos Foundation, a member of two Great Artesian Basin advisory groups and also a fellow of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation. As well as that, Sarah and her partner Michael a few years ago travelled down the Darling River and produced an excellent book called The Dying Darling, an illustrated book of stories about the health of that river. Please welcome Sarah Moles. [applause]
SARAH MOLES: Thanks, Malcolm. Good morning, everyone. I’d also like to acknowledge the traditional owners before we start and also the traditional owners of the land where I live, which is Giddabul country. I’m from the Darling Downs.
[slide shown] This first slide - I have put a little blue dot on it to show you where I come from. I wasn’t actually born in Australia. I came here in the late 1960s. I’m a Navy brat and, as a result of being posted all around the world, really didn’t have any roots at all until my husband and I and our then young son moved to the Darling Downs in 1987.
I’ve lived there for about half of my life, which is an eye blink in terms of the timescales in which Indigenous people talk about their connection to country. But my connection to country is deeply important to me. I’m a riparian landholder in the Upper Condamine. I live about as far from the mouth of the Murray as you can get and still be in the Murray-Darling Basin. I can see the watershed from my kitchen window, and that connection is why I do all the greenie stuff that I do.
I find water to be an incredibly emotional thing. I have an intrinsic understanding that without water there is no life and that it’s the driving force of all nature. That’s why I get involved in all these exceedingly bureaucratic committees and occasionally bang my head on desks wondering, ‘Why aren’t we getting anywhere? Will we ever get anywhere?’ I don’t want to make you think from the start that this is going to be terribly negative. We have gone places, but by God it’s hard work.
I’m originally a photographer. I don’t actually have any formal training in any of this natural resource management stuff. By dint of becoming a riparian landholder and suddenly discovering that ‘Oh my God, you can’t just sit here and let it happen, you actually have to manage this stuff,’ including the creek that runs through your property, I found as many opportunities as I could to learn about the issues about natural resources.
It’s been my great privilege to work with some fantastic people in government departments, people who are scientists, particularly ecologists, who study salinity, vegetation and all kinds of really fascinating things. Although I certainly don’t consider myself an expert in any of it, I have an overarching interest and passion for fresh water conservation. I spent three separate incarnations working for the World Wide Fund for Nature on wetland conservation in the Murray-Darling Basin. I suspect the sum total of all that experience was something that gave me enough credibility and enough credible things on my CV that led to my being appointed to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission’s Community Advisory Committee and, as a result of that, onto the Living Murray Committee Reference Group. That’s going back some time. The first step must have started in 2003 or 2004, but please don’t quote me on the numbers.
My first observation as a Queensland representative on the CAC was: what the hell has this got to do with Queensland? All we ever talk about is the Murray River. Not that I didn’t think that was important, I just wondered why Queensland was engaging in this process that really didn’t have anything in it for Queensland. That was about the time that governments, not including Queensland, had committed a billion dollars to restoring the health of the living Murray, of choosing those icon sites such as the Ramsar wetlands along the river and the River Murray channel and really working hard to buy back water and to hit targets and to improve the health of those rivers, particularly the vegetation communities. We had red gum forests dying all over the Murray-Darling Basin - in dire straits. It had been far too long since we’d had colonial water bird breeding events. Those environmental alarm bells were really ringing.
Here I am perched at the top of the Darling and having been to some wonderful places in the Paru wetlands and down the Darling to Menindee and the Gwydir wetlands, and all kinds of fabulous places if you happen to like wetlands, which I do. I was deeply frustrated that the Darling was completely missing in this whole conversation that was going on. It was just so far off, it wasn’t even the ballpark. It was really a matter of great frustration. I talked about it to my husband, partner, lifelong pal who is a very competent artist: ‘How about we do a project together and do something about the Darling? Instead of staying home to look after the chooks while I go off to all these fantastic places, how about you come out and meet some of these people and do their portraits, draw their landscapes, and I’ll write a narrative?’
The Living Murray, Dying Darling was the result because it just wasn’t on the radar. It was an excellent process to go through because it enriched my understanding. Unashamedly, I’m a photographer by training but I’m a greenie, an environmentalist, by inclination. This whole process of going and talking to people, interviewing people, we made a conscious decision to visit each of the major catchments in the Darling to talk to irrigators, flood plain glaziers, dry land farmers, local government people, Indigenous people in order to cover as broad a range of views and interests and sectors that are present in the Darling Basin as possible to give a rounded picture of what was actually going on.
Michael was kind enough to say, ‘Okay, I’ll stick my hand up and be the naïve observer and I’ll be the person who asks the stupid questions.’ I went, ‘Hang on, honey, there aren’t any stupid questions. This is really complicated.’ But he did take on that role very willingly and he asked some very good questions. He said to me one day as we were driving home from Burke, ‘You know, I thought the answer to this big problem that we’re facing in the Darling Basin was going to be really obvious, it was just going to be irrigation. Too much water has been taken out for irrigation - end of story. And I’ve realised if only it were that simple. It’s much more complicated than that.’ And indeed it is.
I live and work in a world populated by bureaucrats and scientists, mostly bureaucrats, and I guess I’ve become a bit of a policy wonk and I’m quite comfortable with bureaucratic jargon and language that I think they use deliberately to mystify people and make themselves really sound important - we deal with all this really complicated stuff that you plebs down there don’t understand. Trying to transcribe what my interview subjects had told me without distorting their words gave me the most agonising case of writers block. I had no idea what it was like. It is physically painful. I had to just throw it away, put it aside for a while and go and do something else - anything else. I spent a lot of time sitting down on the creek in tears: ‘Oh, God, I’m never going to write this stuff.’
I ended up cutting a whole lot of rushes and reeds, dismantling an old bush gate, and building a canoe out of barbed wire and lamanda leaves, which became part of the touring exhibition that Michael’s work eventually became. I called it ‘The State of the Darling’ and the little didactic for it says, ‘State of the Darling, barbed wire, lamanda leaves, brackets and no paddle.’ I really thought at the time that we were up the proverbial creek in a dreadful canoe and no means of getting ourselves out of this dilemma. So that’s a little bit about me and where I’m coming from.
One of the things Malcolm asked me to do was to reflect on the kinds of alliances that have been formed between environmentalists and other sectors in this long, difficult history that we’ve had that has led us to the Murray-Darling Basin plan. Very early on, environmentalists from the peak groups – Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), Environment Victoria, New South Wales Nature Conservation Council, et cetera - who were active in the Murray-Darling Basin formed an alliance. Our obvious allies were the flood plain graziers, many of whom we had met through processes like the Living Murray Community Reference Group, the local committees and so on.
Those people were really struggling because the extent of over-allocation upstream from them meant that the country that they had specifically chosen in many cases to purchase for a grazing operation precisely because it was regularly inundated were no longer getting any of those floods. They were very thoroughly across the whole notion of what an environmental flow does in terms of productive grazing, and even in some cases productive dry land agriculture, because a decent flood would give them sufficient soil moisture to keep their grasses growing or to provide a storage of water for a couple of years at least of decent crops or decent pastures to raise their cattle on. They were the obvious initial allies.
Slightly less obvious were the shooters and fishing community. People would raise their eyebrows and say, ‘How come you greenies are getting into bed with shooters?’ The answer is: people who like to hunt ducks want water in wetlands, because ducks won’t go there if there isn’t any water. Similarly, people who love to fish need adequate flows at the right time and of the right temperature so that fish breed, fish migrate and fish grow so that there will be fish in rivers for them to catch.
Those were the early days of the alliance that environmentalists formed to contribute to the dialogue around how do we get to a place where we can have a Murray-Darling Basin plan. Since the Basin plan was formed, more recently the alliance has grown - if you’re interested you can check out the lifeblood.org.au website http://www.lifeblood.org.au which contains a list down the side of all the groups who are involved in the Lifeblood Alliance. It’s actually more extensive and wider than you might think. There are climate and health alliances - people who are concerned that the impacts of climate change are going to have dramatic impact on human health and therefore we need to keep water in rivers to keep rivers healthy so that people can be healthy, as we heard from Adrian on Malcolm’s little video earlier on. There are bird groups, fishing groups, local environment groups, and the environment groups that you would expect. But also farmers are becoming much more organised and there are now a number of environmental farmers networks across the place. I think that there will be greater and more extensive alliances formed as we get into implementing the Basin plan.
I had a hiatus of involvement in Murray-Darling Basin stuff between the time when the old commission was dissolved and the authority started. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve picked that up again as a member of the Northern Basin Advisory Committee.
In the interim, the Lock the Gate Alliance, the campaign against inappropriate coal and coal seam gas mining, took over a big chunk of my life. Malcolm asked me to reflect on where I thought alliances might go. There are a couple of reasons why the Lock the Gate campaign is relevant to this conversation. The first is that the Lock the Gate Alliance has formed alliances with an extraordinary range of people. Many, many people who are involved in it are farmers. But there’s also what I would consider to be quite right wing groups such as Property Rights Australia involved in the alliance. There are churches, lawyers, doctors, nurses, people interested in the impact of toxic chemicals on our environment – so the list goes on and on, and I have no doubt that that will continue to grow.
The other reason why the Lock the Gate campaign is relevant to the Murray-Darling Basin is that there’s a lot of coal seam gas extraction going on in the northern part of the Basin not so far from where I live. If you know southern Queensland from Dalby out nearly to Mitchell where June Roberts’ wonderful sculptural paper rolls were immersed in the river. Potentially, there are some serious water quality impacts. If things go wrong and there are spills we could see quite a lot of very salty water with a whole lot of undesirable contaminants in our rivers, and all that’s going to make its way down to Adelaide, as if Adelaide doesn’t have water quality problems enough.
The other issue is that extracting coal seam gas relies greatly on removing ground water so that the gas can flow. Our understanding of the degree of connection between groundwater systems and surface water systems in the Murray-Darling Basin is not great. We really do not know what the impacts are going to be. There’s an awful lot of salt stored in the water that is being extracted from coal seams.
As Malcolm indicated, once upon a time not so long ago salinity was the crisis facing the Murray-Darling Basin. Then we moved on to environmental flaws and then we had floods. In a way I believe that we are still reeling from one crisis to another. But it seems to me that, when we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to deal with salinity across the Murray-Darling Basin we should be extremely circumspect about mobilising millions of tonnes of salt and bringing it to the surface of the landscape where it could create further problems - and in some cases places where we don’t have that problem at the moment precisely because the salt is stored out of sight out of mind and safely below ground.
The other deep concern is that, in this particular part of Queensland we are talking about ground water aquifers that are connected to the Great Artesian Basin where pressure is an extremely valuable resource. That’s another issue and we don’t have time to discuss that today. Nevertheless we have all this ground water coming up out of the ground. There is no allocation. The companies can take as much of it as they need. We are going to have a very interesting water accounting problem at some time in the future, because some of this is being discharged into rivers and it’s all very blurry. When you ask Queensland bureaucrats at least on how this is going to be managed, they are far from clear about what the hell is actually going on and how it will be managed.
I would like to acknowledge that there has been a lot of progress. We have a Commonwealth water Act for the first time; we have the Murray-Darling Basin plan; we have the first draft of an environmental watering plan; we have flagged the constraints to delivering environmental water - we have a constraints management strategy. The new Murray-Darling Basin Authority is listening. That shot of the draft Basin plan on fire in Griffith, what a textbook case in how not to do community consultation. That was like watching someone walk backwards into a very rapidly spinning fan - what a disaster. It set the cause back a long time to patch that up. Trust is so hard to build but you can blow it so easily. Then people are very reluctant to rebuild it quickly after an incident like that.
My sense of where we are at the moment is that whilst we have made great progress, we are still tending to put all our human scented needs first, unlike Aboriginal people who put mother earth first and work back from there.
These are some things that I think it would do us well to remember as we move forward with the new Murray-Darling Basin plan. My own view is that we are still putting socioeconomic priorities first, we still tend to see water as a commodity; we tend to value rivers water as an economic resource before any other driving force of all nature and all that - it’s not quite jelling for me.
At this particular time with an imminent election, in one sense I am heartened that there has been such bipartisan support not just for the water act but for the Basin plan. I am a little concerned when I look back at the Nationals’ position as I wonder how much influence they might have on a coalition government, if that is what we end up with, in terms of wanting to amend the plan so that socioeconomic concerns have primacy again rather than the more balanced approach that the authority is trying to deliver now.
I certainly understand that we are going to have a system of tradeoffs, that we will be trying to balance environmental, social and cultural values to come up with the best compromise. But I am going to be very alarmed if everything becomes subservient once again to socioeconomic needs. Above all I am very concerned that it’s just going to be a political football and we will kick it around again and we will go back several years. Fingers crossed for a good outcome there.
I was on a teleconference maybe three weeks ago with members of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and my Northern Basin Advisory Council colleagues, when I raised the need for consistent terminology which is something that we still don’t have. The language between Queensland and the New South Wales is different. When you add up all the different kinds of water products and the way they are labelled, there are score of them. Surely we could simplify that. I made some comment to the effect that ‘Gosh wouldn’t it be good if we could have one consistent terminology across the whole Basin’, and there were guffaws around the room - ‘Dream on, Sarah, it will never happen.’ I said, ‘Hang on, why can it never happen?’ ‘Oh it’s too hard.’ I said, ‘Come on, guys, surely that is not hard, it’s a matter of political will. We could agree, could we not, that we will work towards having a consistent terminology across the Basin. It doesn’t sound to me like a really big deal just to have an agreement that we would work towards that.’ What the authority and governments are asking us the community to do, that’s really hard. They are asking us to restructure our communities but they won’t play the game themselves so that everybody - not just people who work in bureaucracy - actually understands what the conversation is about. I don’t reckon it’s a big deal.
Where are we going? There are some things that I think we still need to do. In addition to consistent terminology across the Basin, I think it would be very handy to have a set of coherent and consistent policies. The salinity coal seam gas stuff is an example that sticks in my mind.
We are going to have to deal with the impacts of climate change somewhere down the track, and no doubt we will have to amend the Basin plan at some point in the future.
Most of all though what I think has been missing from the debate today, and again in Malcolm’s video where Adrian was speaking, he talked about the value of water - it’s just water running through your fingers. For me that’s the debate that we have not had and that Australia, not just the Murray-Darling Basin, needs to have. What is the real value of water in all its roles and all its functions across the landscape? Not just economic values but spiritual, cultural, social and environmental values. All these things need to be the subject of a very courageous conversation.
I would like to pay tribute to the One River team for cracking that open and allowing us to have a debate that is not framed in bureaucratic jargon but is a real conversation amongst real people living in the real world. Thank you. [applause]
MALCOLM McKINNON: Thank you very much Sarah, and I especially appreciate the passion that Sarah brings to the debate. It really does get to the heart of that question we might discuss a bit later on about where leadership comes from in this instance. There are people like Sarah all around the country who are devoted, passionate and there for the long haul. They are often the people that we need to be looking for more and privileging more in the debate because they are doing the hard work, I think. They are there to remind us about the things that we say that don’t make sense, as Sarah said, which is terrific, and also to point out the instances of what we would have to call cognitive dissonance where we say one thing but we behave in a way which is entirely contrary to that in some other aspect of our endeavours and there is no shortage of examples of that.
I should have explained earlier on that the way that we are running this session this morning is that there are four speakers who will speak and then they’ll all come and seat here and we will have some time for discussion and questions after the last two speakers.
The next speaker that I would like to introduce is Major Sumner, also known to many people as Uncle Moogy, who is a Ngarrindjeri elder from down at the mouth of the river in the Coorong region. Moogy is a teacher and a mentor to many of his people. He has for several years now been working to revive ceremonial journeys, or Ringbalin in the Ngarrindjeri language, along vast stretches of the Murray and Darling rivers, to summon river spirits and encourage the return of fresh water to depleted and damaged country, and Moogy will talk a bit more about that.
Part of what is interesting about that work is the way that it deliberately draws together different Aboriginal peoples from across the river system and in lots of ways has become a powerful representation of Indigenous interests across the Murray-Darling Basin. Moogy, you have a little film, do you want to talk first or should we show this little film first?
MAJOR SUMNER: Let’s show the film first.
MAJOR SUMNER: Thank you. Before I start my talk, I would like to invite our ancestors but also honour the ancestors and the traditional owners of this land that we stand on here today.
[Indigenous language spoken]
In my language I invited the ancestors from four directions to come here. When I talk about our ancestors, I don’t just talk about mine. I talk about all your ancestors wherever you come from in the world, whatever brought you here to our country, I invite them here, too, to be with you to help us understand each other, to help us understand this country with what we are here about today. Help us think and help us to speak all the right things. I invited them here in the song to come and sit amongst us, the spirits of our ancestors to be here with us - the ones that looked after this land before us and the ones that will be after we go when we join them. We’ll be there looking after this land.
I’d like to thank the Murray-Darling Basin and a man became a friend. Over the last four years he’s been travelling - not all the time, but he’s been making it possible for us to travel right up into Queensland to dance, all the different communities, to tell their story, their creation of their part of the river – that is Roger Davies in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. He has travelled with us a couple of times. He knows about the river; he knows the stories; he’s been there; he’s camped alongside us.
The cultural side of the river, the cultural side of this land, as Aboriginal people and as Ngarrindjeri, we put that first. We put our mother, the earth first, because we all come from the earth. It doesn’t matter where we come from we all come from there, and then we go back to there.
Our journey through life sometimes can be a very rough one, sometimes smooth, the rivers that we travel. I was born down on Lake Alexandrina on Rowkin (?). I lived there, I went to school there. I grew up to be nearly a teenager, and then we had to move to another community. But I remember the river, the lakes, the fishing and the stories that my grandmother told me. We would go and do fishing. She said, ‘If you go to that part of it, there is this type of fish that live there. You go around here and there is this type of yabby there. Then you go over here in this area here and this is where they live in the holes,’ the yabbies live in the holes and all different types of fish. It’s like a multicultural community down in the water. Certain types of fish live here because the yellow belly don’t like living with this mob so they all live together and they feed there because that’s where their food is. Over the last couple of hundred years it’s all been mixed up. You look at how Aunty Beryl says, ‘Come Michael, see how the water was’. I remember the Coorong when we went fishing and you could see the fish swimming into the nets. You can’t do that now. It’s all a funny colour right through.
Dancing the spirit back into the land, dancing the spirit back into ourselves, and then inviting other nations to come with us to learn about the country they live in, to learn about who they live next to. I always think people, you live in this country, how many people here speak Ngunnawal? How many people speak a language that you live up in Queensland? How many people speak another language where your home town is of that group - learn about the stories, learn about the language, sing the songs, be involved.
I know that people need that river, need that water for survival, for their economic base. I know they need it for their crops; I know they need it for their farms. But if we have no water to drink to keep us alive, those farms and crops are not worth nothing because we won’t be here. If you have got no water to drink and you have got no fresh, healthy water, to keep your body going, we die. The Ngarrindjeri have that spirit inside, and we’ve all got that spirit inside of us, but in Ngarrindjeri we call that the Me we. That tells us if we’re doing something wrong to ourselves or to another community. If we’re doing something wrong about the land, your spirit tells you. But I think some people built a little thing inside of them that overrides that spirit - ‘Nah, that’ll be all right.’
But as Aboriginal people of this land we know it’s not going to be all right. We know of the stories that have been handed down to us for thousands of years. That’s why when we done the ceremony, we’ve been doing that for thousands of years,connecting up, because as river people we come under one law, our law of that land, our law of that river. We’re under that one law and we have practised it. Not many people that are non-Aboriginal recognise our law or honour our law, but we still do.
As Aboriginal people we have to live in two worlds: we live in our world and we live in the westernised world, because we’re all involved in that nine to five work, we’re all involved in different meetings and we’re all involved in trying to convince people that this is the way to go.
How many people live along the river? Thousands, millions of people live along the rivers right through the country, but how many of them know the creation stories? How many of them know the songs that are sung at certain places? The song we sing is not just a song you pull out of the air and say, ‘We’ll sing it here. Next year we’ll sing it over there.’ No, those songs are about the land. They’re about our connection to the stars, our connection to the wind, the trees, the sand and the animals. Ngarrindjeri have a word, we say Natchey, which means your closest friend. And to us the plants, the animals, they’re like a totem, similar to a totem. That’s our closest friend, that river. Some of us have got that river as our closest friend - the water, little creeks and the fish that live in them little creeks and all these what they call swamps. I think I heard Sarah say that about the swamps, the breeding places.
There’s a man in our community who says they [swamps] are the nurseries for all the little fish that come back into the water. They’re there. Mangrove swamps around the oceans and that - a lot of the life for the ocean starts there and yet people want to knock them down, fill them in and build buildings on top of them.
A lot of the towns that were built in this country are the towns that get flooded every year. You see it on the TV with people crying around, ripping their carpets up, pushing all the mud and dirt out of their front lounge room, pushing it down the passage. Their windows have broken and the cupboards are floating around in the house. Every year that happens. That tells you one thing: you have built your house on a flood plain.
I thought you lot of people were smart. The smartest thing you could have done or can do in the future is talk to us - talk to the Aboriginal people of that country around where you live. You’ll notice some of the old people lived up on high rises. People would say, ‘That’s all right. We’ll build down here.’ They lived up there for a reason. Every now and again that water will flood. How many times has water in cars been cruising through Brisbane - or Nyngan? Have you heard of a town called Nyngan? You could fish in your lounge room there at certain times of the year. You’ll catch a lot of fish there too.
We know the stories of this country. We’ve been here for thousands and thousands of years. I go on ceremonies every year - not the river ceremony - I go on other ceremonies with other different groups. We start from the Coorong and we finish up right up in the desert about 500 miles away, I think, at the other side of Uluru. The songs are sung and the water is shown in different places where if you’re thirsty you go here, you dig a little hole and you sing and you hit the ground and in a few minutes the water will start coming up. This is in dry river beds.
When we talk about culture, we talk about an ancient culture, ancient stories, stories of a long time ago that are still current today and that are still very powerful today. That’s what I’m involved in along with other groups as you see there [image shown]. My grandchildren, that’s only a few of them on the bus. I have 24 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. I’ve got nine children, and they’re all involved in culture. We’ll be dancing and doing that ceremony here on 30 September. We’re coming up and we’re dancing up at the Snowy Mountains. We’re dancing right on the - I don’t want to get too cold. I know this is cold country but we want to dance up there. We want to be involved in the group from here, the Ngunnawal people, so they can be involved in our ceremonies about the river. Dancing, being a part, and it’s open for everyone to come - everyone.
There’ll be fliers put out. Adrian Brown told me that he has put some information out, as I’m sure Lindy Allen will put some information out so that people will know exactly whereabouts and what time. Dancing will start just on sunset. That’s how we do our ceremonies. We invite our everyone and their ancestors to be there on the 30th. We start on the Murrumbidgee, come down and then back here into Canberra.
My reason for seeing that river healthy is a different reason from what we’ve heard today and what we’ll hear in the future. My reason is a cultural reason. First and foremost is if we look after ourselves then we look after other things because if we don’t look after ourselves in the physical, spiritual and mental state, then there’s no way we can look after anything else.
Rather than put the farms up here, put them down here and you put yourself up there, because if we can’t keep healthy ourselves there’s no way we can help anyone else in a physical and mental state, in a spiritual state. That’s where culture comes into it. Because all the farms, if you’re not healthy - if you’re down here waiting for the water and all the farms are up here, we’ll all be dead. The animals will take over the farms, if they’re around, but they need water too. And we need fresh water to live.
If that spirit leaves us, like I said there [image shown], we’re nothing. We’re dead inside. We need to keep that spirit going. We need to keep the spirit inside of us that tells us that we’re doing the right thing or that we’re doing the wrong thing. We all have to be responsible, not just us as Aboriginal people - everyone have to be responsible for that river, for that land that they live on.
Some people say to me sometimes: ‘But what about the white people? What are they going to do?’ I say, ‘Well you can rest assured. Write this down. They’re not going home, they’re staying here, they have to be involved too. They have to come and dance with us.’
I’ve been doing this for four years now. About three weeks ago I was in France. I got invited to a boomerang throwing competition. They’ve got their own boomerang throwing club in France, so I got invited there, me and the dancers and we danced at a few ceremonies. One of the men that comes from France comes over every year to be involved in that ceremony for Mura Mura, all the way down to the Murray mouth, he travels with us. This year he brought his girlfriend and they both danced with us. We painted them up and they danced with us. We taught them the dance on the way down.
They’re not the only non-Aboriginal people who have done that. There was a woman from America a couple of years ago who came across as an onlooker. I said, ‘If you’re going to travel with us, you might as well learn some of the dances. I’ll get my wife and my daughters to teach you.’ Then she danced all the way down. She lives in Denver in America. The other week I got an email from her - she wanted to know what date next year because she’s going to bring some of her friends.
There’s people that have been travelling with us. A couple from here got married and used it as their honeymoon to travel down the river with us. So it’s open there for everyone to come, everyone to be a part of. Even if you don’t want to dance. Just come down and look and listen to the stories - but learn about this country you live in. Learn the true stories about this land, the creation stories. I think you people would be very surprised of how some of our land was created, of how the rivers were created and the mountains - why that little bush is there.
I’ve done a few cultural things. I cut a bark canoe out of the red gum and I floated it in different places down around in South Australia. I brought it up to Sydney and I floated it in Darling Harbour. I’m doing a bit of work on it now but I’d love to bring it up here when we come up and float it in one of the little rivers or lakes here.
It’d be good to bring it up and get other people back into doing cultural stuff – shields and all the other things. These little clap sticks are from the Mallee right on the Coorong. My reason for being here, my reason for talking, is entirely different but, at the end of it, it’s for the same thing - it’s to keep the water in this country, whether it be the Murray, the Darling, the Lochlan, the Murrumbidgee, and all the little ones that come into it such as the Nebine Creek, keep them healthy. When we keep them rivers healthy, we keep ourselves and people around us, the animals and plants, we keep them healthy, too.
I’d like to thank you all for listening to me and I’d like to thank Lindy, Ellen and One River for inviting me up and making it possible for me to be here. But also last of all I’d like to thank the people here, Adrian Brown and that, for taking me up and showing me the mountains, showing me the rock paintings yesterday. I had a really good day looking at their cultural stuff.
There’s a lot of rock art around the mountains. How many people in Canberra have been there to see them or to honour the people that painted them as you go? Maybe learn the song and sing that song as you walk through, letting them know that you’re coming. When we sing a song and dance we sing [Indigenous language spoken] in Ngarrindjeri, and that song means Ngarrindjeri coming. We do that ceremony. We’re coming in to dance, we’re coming in to talk. Thank you very much. [applause]
MALCOLM McKINNON: Thank you very much, Moogy, for showing a different kind of leadership and for asking us some excellent, quite elemental, questions.
Time is moving along and I want to introduce our final speaker for this session, the multi-dimensional Kim Chalmers, who is a wine grower and also a composer and musician, festival director and an environmental activist – so she wears many hats - based primarily in Mildura. Kim’s family company, Chalmers Wines, has introduced Italian avant garde grape varieties new to Australia but well suited to dry climates and environments in which they’re grown here. The winery has also worked to greatly reduce its consumption of irrigation water from the river.
As a composer, Kim has a diverse output ranging from works for solo piano to large-scale electronic and multimedia performance pieces. Her most recent major project was Conflux, which was commissioned, or supported at least, as part of the One River project. Some of you who were at Belconnen yesterday might have seen an excerpt from that work.
Kim has always impressed me as a person who can balance a whole range of professional interests with incredible dexterity. She has a new interest in utero that she’s developing at the moment that will be keeping her busy. For now, I’ve asked Kim to tell us a bit about the challenges of being a horticulturalist activist in her work. Please welcome Kim Chalmers. [applause]
KIM CHALMERS: Thanks, Malcolm. I’m from Mildura and the area around Mildura. I grew up in that part of the world which is just downstream of where the Bidgee meets the Murray. It’s a really beautiful part of the world. I’m going to tell you a little bit about what I do. I guess my talk is really focused around the concept that being an environmentalist and an irrigator are not necessarily two separate things. There’s a lot of talk about how those two roles are so opposite to one another, but I’m standing here today to tell you that they’re actually not.
[image] This is the Peacock Creek which is a creek which runs in flood times from the Bidgee through to the Murray. It used to be an old course of the Bidgee before it found a shorter route many thousands of years ago, and this ran through my family property. My grandfather established a broadacre farming property there on the Murray on the New South Wales side near Lake Beninee many, many years ago. He actually in the 1940s and 1950s approached the establishment of that farm in a very environmentally responsible way, particularly for his time. So having a real respect for nature is in my family. My grandfather cleared the Mallee in a way that was very sensitive to bushland. He made sure he left green corridors everywhere for native wildlife and flora to maintain its presence despite the farming, and he rotated his crops in a very responsible way to keep the integrity of the soil.
My father then established a part of that later on. Growing up in this environment has inspired me in a number of ways. One of those is in my art, and this is a couple of photographs from a project I did with Sally Hendrix, who is my collaborator on the One River project [image shown]. You can see there how the landscape of the river environment is so intricately tied in with what I do. I find the concept that Uncle Moogy spoke of of the songs being about the land, I’m clearly not an Indigenous person but I feel that, and the music that I create is always inspired from the region.
Here’s a little picture of the past [image]. This was obviously a part of the broadacre and grazing history of the property where my family grew up. This is an old shearing hut quarters that was located on the Peacock Creek. That’s when the creek used to flood before the dams and things and locks were put in and and they used to use paddle steamers to move things down.
Moving on from that broadacre history, my father started viticulture and irrigated horticulture on a corner of the property in the 1980s. As you can see there [image], our vineyard is a bit different from a lot of vineyards that you see in the area in that it is full of trees. The tractor drivers hate it because they have to go around them all the time. But all those green corridors that were originally left there by my grandfather when he cleared it for broad acre have been left there for viticulture as well. It’s a technique that we use to also keep our chemical use down, because having all those native birds and things there keep the insects away and we don’t have to use any pesticides or anything on our crops. So keeping the land healthy indeed does keep the people healthy, and it keeps business healthy as well.
Over the years of working like this in our vineyards we’ve developed a whole method of sustainable viticulture where we’re using less water and we’re using less chemicals but we’re producing crops that are commercially viable. The word ‘irrigator’ is a bit of a dirty word at times when you’re talking about the environment, but we’ve developed methods to be able to reduce our water use by up to about half. We’re growing grapes with about half the amount of water that most other people in our district are.
I think the need to have more water for our environment is absolutely essential. I’m not anti-Basin plan; I’m pro-Basin plan. I think that water for rivers, water for communities, water for the environment is absolutely paramount, but that does not necessarily mean that irrigated business can’t exist. This is the cover of a DVD which we produced ourselves [image shown]. I wrote the script. It was partially funded by the federal government and was actually distributed out to irrigated grape growers right across the Murray-Darling Basin free of charge. Thousands of copies went out.
A lot of people contacted us after we sent this around saying, ‘Thank you so much, we’ve done things you talked about in this video in our farms and we’ve managed to save X amount of water.’ It’s not only about what you do in your own back yard, it’s about how you share that knowledge across the Basin to make everybody stand up and listen and realise that they can become more sustainable and that less water doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
Moving on from that farm that was my family property, we sold that property in 2008 and we’ve established two smaller vineyards now. My sister and I are heavily involved in the family business too, so we’re the third generation on the land here. Our two new sites are also irrigated vineyards. [image shown] This one is in the northern part of Heathcote near Rochester. It’s irrigated from the Murray Goulburn system. As you can see, we’ve also got plenty of native trees and things in our vineyard there. It is in a traditional area that was grazing and cropping.
And we’ve established a new little vineyard in Merbein. It was interesting to see the photographs of the Chaffey ‘propaganda’, shall we call it? Merbein was a product of that Chaffey development. It was an ambitious plan at the time but it has created a community where people love to live.
We heard from Daniel earlier about what makes places like Mildura great that it’s not just irrigation, it is also the lifestyle that comes from living in a beautiful place like that and being able to be a working artist living there. But sadly with the changes over the last 20 years in water flows and allocations, we all know that there’s been less water during the millennium drought and so there is a big change in our district, especially in places like Merbein where families that have been farming for a long time have had to look for other streams of income and there are lots of dead vineyards and things like that. There are hard times, and it’s not an easy thing to navigate - we all know that.
What we’ve done is we’ve tried to really focus on the positives and see those challenges as opportunities. Apart from just using more sustainable practices, reducing our water requirement and reducing the chemicals we’re using, which is all good stuff, we’ve also invested a lot of research into finding out what grapes actually grow better in these hot areas. We all got a bit excited in the 1970s and 1980s and decided to plant all the French varieties of grapes everywhere because that’s what was popular but actually, if you think about it, places like Mildura are hot and dry and they’re much more similar to Spain or Sicily than they are to Bordeaux or Burgundy.
My family over the last 10 to15 years has done a lot of research and development and we actually imported about 70 new grape varieties into the country with a real focus on grapevines that actually love the hot, dry conditions. This is another way that we can reduce the amount of inputs that we’re having to put in to our farms to create a commercial outcome - so turning challenges into positive things. Basically these Sicilian varieties and southern Italian varieties are able to grow and thrive in conditions where other grape varieties perhaps don’t and where you need to obviously treat them very differently.
We’ve spent the last ten years working out which ones do best and making wines from those, and then going out and telling our story to the country one to one. My sister and I sell the wines ourselves. We go into the bars and restaurants in Melbourne. These are fancy restaurants that are well awarded and well reviewed. People are in there spending their hard-earned money every weekend, and they want to hear our story. They want to know that we are using less water. They want to know that we are growing varieties which suit the country better. Our brand is built on that.
It’s a good news story. There are other people that are also investing time and money into these varieties now. In the 15 years since we started doing it, a number of varieties of grapes that we grow are now being grown commercially all over warm inland Australia - and not only by small people like us but by the big companies that actually guide the way that the world perceives Australian wine like Treasury Wine Estates and brands like Jacob’s Creek and things like that.
This is just an example of one of the Italian varieties we grow [image shown]. Places like Merbein, Sunraysia, the Riverina and the riverland in terms of grapes have always been seen as a factory-style grape production with big crops and lots of water and lots of grapes and a lot of cheap product. I read the other day that the average value of wine exported from Australia is around $1 a litre. If you think about what goes into that dollar, the water, the manpower and all those people that have to make a living from that, that’s unsustainable. What we want to do is we want to improve the value of this product. We have put a lot of effort and time and a lot of natural resources that go into making the wine that we make so we want people to respect that.
We’ve done projects like this little project [image shown] which we like to affectionately call the ‘bucket wine project.’ This year we made about 40 different very small batches of handmade wine. When I say ‘handmade’, there was no chemicals, there was no instruments, we had no lab equipment and we used a bucket, a sieve, a jug, a few beer bottles, a crown sealer and a texta to write on the bottles. We actually drove down to Melbourne with all this wine in our car and we had a sale in a restaurant there where we invited a very short list of the top restaurants and wine bars around Melbourne to come and see what we’d done. We had made these wines from grape varieties that love the sun in a region that is not specifically well known for premium wine but we put a lot of love in and we wanted to show people you can create really beautiful, unique things with less inputs. In 17 minutes we sold every single bottle of wine that we took there.
People want to hear the story. They want to know what we’re up to. This is just an example of a little piece of press that we got in Brisbane about those bucket wines [slide shown]. You can see the journalist here has actually said he thinks it’s probably the best Pinot Grigio that he’s ever tried from Australia - and we made it in a bucket. That’s pretty exciting.
This is our Chalmer’s brand [slide shown] and these are the kinds of varieties that we grow. We have taken ten years to build our brand to a point now where there is a real level of trust in the community about what we do. They know our story and they know the way that we approach our role as farmers and as custodians of the land in a way as well - we have a responsibility of stewardship and we take that very seriously. People know that, when they buy a bottle of Chalmer’s wine, we’ve thought about all of that before that wine got in that bottle and went to their table.
We’re not resting on our laurels now. We’re also looking at bringing in more new grape varieties, also from hot areas, to try to really change the way that we do things and make business more sustainable.
What I really want to be able to achieve is for people to understand that irrigators and the environmentalists are not enemies - they’re allies - and some of us are wearing both hats. We want balance. We want a healthy future. We want a green and prosperous future for everybody - for communities, for cultures and for the land as well. This is just one example of how we can save water, we can make a greener future, and we can make successful businesses and healthy communities all at the same time. [applause]
MALCOLM McKINNON: Thank you very much, Kim. That was really inspiring. We wanted to end on a moment of inspiration, and imagination as well, which is the other thing I’d say about that. It’s a terrific story. There are, I’m sure, a whole lot of stories like that. Why don’t we ever hear more of them is a question I’d like to ask.
Speaking of questions, I was hoping that there would be time for some people here to ask questions but, because Moogy spoke for so long. He was on a roll, and I couldn’t stop him. It was good but it means that we’ve got no time for questions now because now it’s half past 12 and it’s lunch time. But that’s OK, because we’re back here this afternoon and there will be scope for some questions in the sessions that Barbara and George are running.
There’s lunch downstairs in the hall that we’re happily providing for all of you. There’s also some films of mine that are playing on a screen if anyone wants to have a look at those. There’s also an opportunity to go outside and visit the PS Enterprise which is conveniently moored at the gate of the museum here and to have a look at that down by the lake.
There’s also going to be a little musical moment that will happen at the end of lunch that will be a cue for you to come back inside and come back here for two sessions this afternoon facilitated by Barbara Paulson and by George Main involving a group of artists who have been involved in the One River Project talking about their work but also talking about that in relation to some themes suggested by particular artefacts from the Museum collections. We hope there’ll be some time for some questions from the floor in the course of those two sessions. We’ll look forward to it. Thank you.
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Date published: 01 November 2013