The passage of the Native Title Act 1993
(Cth) brought with it much anticipation—though in reality, quite limited means—for recognizing and protecting Aboriginal peoples’ rights to land and water across Australia. A further decade passed before national and State water policy acknowledged Aboriginal water rights and interests. In 2015, the native title rights of the Barkandji Aboriginal People in the Australian State of New South Wales (NSW) were recognized after an eighteen-year legal case. This legal recognition represents a significant outcome for the Barkandji People because water and, more specifically, the Darling River, or Barka
, is central to their existence. However, the Barkandji confront ongoing struggles to have their common law rights recognized and accommodated within Australian water governance regimes. Informed by literature relating to the politics of recognition, we examine the outcomes of government attempts at Indigenous recognition through four Australian water regimes: national water policy; native title law; NSW water legislation; and NSW water allocation planning. Drawing from the Barkandji’s experiences in engaging with water regimes, we analyze and characterize the outcomes of these recognition attempts broadly as ‘misrecognition’ and ‘non-recognition’, and describe the associated implications for Aboriginal peoples. These manifestations of colonial power relations, whether intended or not, undermine the legitimacy of state water regimes because they fail to generate recognition of, and respect for, Aboriginal water rights and to redress historical legacies of exclusion and discrimination in access to water.
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