The 70th anniversary of the Snowy Mountains Scheme prompted a debate recently in Parliament over which side of politics was responsible for the project — the biggest engineering feat in Australia’s history.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor gave credit for the scheme to the Liberal Party.
“[I]t is important to note that the Snowy Scheme is just another incredible achievement of Liberal government,” he said during Question Time in the House of Representatives.
But Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese interjected, dismissing the claim.
“Ben Chifley was no Tory,” he said, referring to former prime minister Joseph Benedict Chifley. “Your lot opposed it.”
The Prime Minister’s Office chimed in with a media statement: “Liberals deliver nation building infrastructure — from the Snowy Scheme, to Snowy 2.0, to major road projects and a new airport for Western Sydney.”
The statement was repeated in a Liberal Party tweet.
So, is either political party solely responsible for the Snowy Mountains Scheme? And did the Liberals oppose it?
RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Claims that one or other political party alone deserves credit for the Snowy Mountains Scheme are exaggerated.
The complex, nation-building project materialised after numerous reports, years of discussion and decades of construction.
Experts approached by Fact Check noted the key role of the Chifley government in setting up the scheme despite huge risks and amid the conflicting interests of NSW, Victoria and the Commonwealth.
But experts also commended former prime minister Sir Robert Menzies for becoming a fierce supporter of the scheme and for continuing the work of his predecessors.
La Trobe University Emeritus Professor Judith Brett told Fact Check:
“In the hyper-partisan atmosphere of today’s politics, such co-operation/bi-partisanship can be hard to recognise — hence Taylor’s claim to the Liberals’ exclusive ownership of the scheme.”
Sir William Hudson, commissioner of the Snowy Mountains Authority throughout most of the scheme’s construction also gave credit for the engineering feat to both sides of politics.
“[T]he introduction of the Snowy reflects the determined persistence of public-spirited men who were prepared to fight hard and long for something they believed would be of great value to this country,” he reflected towards the end of his career.
“Also the courage of the nation’s leaders who, for the same reason willingly accepted the responsibility for the risks involved.”
Tracing the history of the Snowy Scheme
In navigating the political landscape surrounding the planning and delivery of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Fact Check consulted historians and political experts, as well as Hansard transcripts.
Experts pointed to a number of books published over the years that touch on the complexity of the project and the politics of the time.
For a timeline, Stuart Macintyre, Emeritus Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne and Professorial Fellow of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, referred Fact Check to Struggle for the Snowy: The Background of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
Commissioned by the Snowy Mountains Authority, it was written by journalist and historian Lionel Wigmore and published in 1968, six years prior to completion of the project.
The then governor-general, Lord Casey, prefaced the book, while Sir William Hudson, the Commissioner of the Snowy Mountains Authority from its establishment until 1967, wrote the foreword.
Sir William, who died in 1978, is considered by many to be ‘the father of the Snowy Scheme‘.
He also happens to be Taylor’s maternal grandfather.
Unfortunately, Wigmore’s book does not exist in digital form, so Fact Check cannot hyperlink to excerpts drawn from its 200-plus pages.
Similarly, few digital sources exist of official reports of various commissions, as well as speeches given by public figures and officials at the time.
The Snowy Mountains Scheme
Widely acclaimed as one of the engineering wonders of the world, the Snowy Mountains Scheme is Australia’s biggest-ever engineering project.
The dream of harvesting the waters of the Snowy Mountains for irrigation and electricity production had been discussed for decades, but bringing it to reality became a focus of industrial development in the aftermath of World War II.
Located in southern NSW, close to the border with Victoria, the Snowy Mountains form the highest section of the Great Dividing Range, and feed some of Australia’s largest rivers: the Murray, Snowy, Murrumbidgee and Tumut.
The scheme incorporates 80 kilometres of pipelines, 13 major tunnels extending over 145 kilometres, seven power stations, eight switching stations, control centres and a number of big dams.
Today, it is run by Snowy Hydro, a company wholly owned by the Commonwealth government. According to the company’s website, the Snowy network has a generating capacity of 4100 megawatts and produces on average 4500 gigawatt-hours of renewable electricity each year.
Snowy Hydro 2.0, the scheme’s pumped-hydro expansion that will add a further 2000 megawatts of capacity, was announced by the Coalition government in 2017, although some energy experts have cast doubt on whether it represents value for money.
Apart from its contribution to the irrigation and electricity grid, the original Snowy project is widely regarded as a major contributor to Australia’s multinationalism and the shift away from British-only migration.
During its 25-year construction, more than 100,000 men and women from 32 countries worked on the project, nearly two-thirds of whom were displaced persons and migrants brought to Australia from Europe and employed directly by the Snowy Mountain Authority. Most of them remained.
In 1937, British engineering consultancy firmRendel, Palmer and Tritton prepared a report for the NSW government recommending the building of a 250-megawatt hydro-electric project on the Snowy River.
The outbreak of World War II, however, prevented it from being seriously considered at the time.
Ahead of the 1942 NSW election, state opposition leader William McKell promised to divert the Snowy River for water supply purposes as part of a 20-year construction program.
Upon being elected premier the following year, he appointed the NSW Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission to investigate the proposal.
The commission recommended a diversion of the Snowy into the Murrumbidgee River, “primarily for the purpose of irrigation and water supply”.
“Australia cannot afford to use the water of any of its rivers for hydro-electric power development where this would mean the loss to the sea of water which could be developed for rural production and settlement.”
However, the commission did not rule out the possibility of larger hydro-electric production from an interstate collaboration and a Snowy-Murray diversion.
The report triggered a near decade-long dispute between NSW and Victoria.
With an increased focus on industrial advancement, the Victorian government was concerned about power shortages, and started pushing for a Snowy diversion to the Murray, primarily for electricity generation.
The conflicting views were maintained for years, with multiple investigations into the competing proposals. Ultimately, the Commonwealth would be called upon to solve the impasse.
In his book, author Lionel Wigmore refers to a “prophetic suggestion” put forward by Sir Roland East, the chairman of the Victorian State Rivers and Water Supply Commission.
Wigmore quotes from an official memorandum written by Sir Roland in September 1941: “It is possible that the development of the ‘Snowy River Basin’ might be undertaken by a separate Authority comprising representatives of the Commonwealth and the two States concerned. A precedent of such action already exists in the River Murray Commission.”
Indeed, in 1945, prime minister Chifley openly acknowledged the challenge in striking an agreement on the Snowy when he confirmed that he and the minister for post-war reconstruction, John Dedman, had been approached by a deputation from the Murrumbidgee area regarding the Snowy diversions.
“It was pointed out to the deputation that the making of agreements between State governments was usually a very difficult matter, and in this instance the Commonwealth government would also be a party to the agreement,” Chifley told parliament.
At the time, Chifley had reservations as to the merits of the project, as well as its likely cost and the lack of an appropriate labour force to implement it.
The debate continued into 1946.
Answering a question about the progress of negotiations regarding the use of the precious Snowy waters, Dedman told Parliament: “As I see it, all three governments have rights to the water.”
The Commonwealth’s claim over the Snowy waters was supported under the Seat of Government Acceptance Act 1909 for securing the Australian Capital Territory electricity supply, while NSW and Victoria had obvious claims as the river ran through both states.
Dedman announced that the states had agreed “that the Commonwealth government shall investigate the relative costs of the two schemes and that a report be made to the three parties within six months”.
In 1947, the Commonwealth and States Snowy River Committee was established to investigate the project as a whole.
It was chaired by Louis Francis Loder, the director-general of the Commonwealth Department of Works, which was responsible for all architectural and engineering works for the federal government. His appointment proved decisive.
What the committee concluded
The committee’s recommendations — submitted in November 1948 — envisaged a plan much larger than previously considered, with water diverted to the Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers for both irrigation and electricity production.
In the north, it proposed diverting both the Tooma (a tributary to the Murray) and Eucumbine rivers into the Tumut River, itself a tributary of the Murrumbidgee, firstly for power generation before flowing into the Murrumbidgee for irrigation.
In the South, to compensate for the Tooma, an equal amount of water would be diverted from the Snowy to the Murray River, as first proposed by Victoria.
The expanded plan would “provide for the production of hydro-electric power with a maximum firm capacity of 2,620,000 kilowatts”, according to the annual report for 1948-49 of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission.
How Chifley and Lemmon ‘came through’ for the Snowy
In the foreword of Wigmore’s book, Sir William Hudson wrote: “The Prime Minister of the day, Ben Chifley, and his trusted Minister, Nelson Lemmon, were quick to appreciate the national value of the committee’s proposals.
“Nevertheless, the adoption involved risks which most governments would prefer to avoid.”
These risks focused on the issue of states’ rights and whether, in fact, the nation had the financial capacity to take on a project of such magnitude.
Amid clashes with the states, Lemmon feared the scheme would take too long, so he proceeded to take it out of the states’ control. His approach also reflected the post-war mindset of the time.
“I went to Chifley … and I said, ‘There’s only one way to handle this … Put the whole thing under the Defence Act… and we’ll be boss,” he recounted to Siobhan McHugh, Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Wollongong, for her book The Snowy: A History, published earlier this year.
Chifley had been sceptical at the outset but, according to Lemmon, he was persuaded when his minister pointed out most of the existing power stations on Australia’s east coast were vulnerable to hostile acts, similar to the Sydney Harbour attack launched by Japanese submarines in 1942.
“It is a plan for the whole nation, belonging to no one State nor to any group or section… This is a plan for the nation, and it needs the nation to back it.”
In the same month, Lemmon, with Chifley’s full support, introduced to parliament the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Power Act 1949, establishing the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority under the defence powers of the Commonwealth to research, organise and carry out the scheme.
“The bill is not a complex one,” he told parliament.
“It is simple, and has the clear and definite purpose to set up an authority with adequate powers to construct the largest public works undertaking ever conceived in this country.”
Doubts about the constitutionality of the bill, the scheme’s funding arrangements and the power of the Commonwealth in regard to the project were a focus of the opposition’s response.
In Wigmore’s book, Sir William noted triumphantly: “These and other fears were courageously thrust aside by Chifley, and the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Power Act of 1949 was passed.”
Did the Liberals oppose the Snowy scheme?
In his recent interjection during Question Time, Albanese claimed that the Liberals had opposed the Snowy Mountains scheme.
It is correct that the Liberal Party, led by Robert Menzies, did oppose the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Power Act 1949.
However, Hansard transcripts of June 22 and 23, 1949, make clear that the objection was not to the scheme itself but, rather, to provisions contained in the bill giving absolute power to the Commonwealth over the states.
Menzies told the parliament the development of a hydro-electric scheme in the community was “very important and very urgent”.
But he was critical of the manner in which it had been framed.
“It is designed to generate electric power for industrial purposes in the two principal industrial States, and it is only by an abuse of language that it can be described as an exercise of the Commonwealth’s defence power,” he continued.
“My point is that the States, which are bodies entitled to their own place in the Commonwealth, ought to be regarded as co-operating on full and equal terms with the Commonwealth in carrying out this work.
“It is a very unhappy position that in a matter such as this the Commonwealth should say, in effect, to the States, ‘You keep out. You can be customers some day. You can buy this ‘power from us when we have generated it, but as far as the generation of the power and the designing or execution of the work are concerned, those are matters for us and for nobody else’.”
Menzies also homed in on the financial aspects of the proposed project.
“[T]he government proposes to finance this undertaking at its own sweet will by overdraft from the Commonwealth Bank, the policy of which it can completely control under the Banking Act of 1945. Thus, there will be no longer parliamentary control of expenditure on the project.”
Several members of the Liberals and the Australian Country Party (a forerunner of the Nationals) also addressed aspects of the bill, while declaring overall support for the project.
The Liberal Party member for Parramatta, Oliver Beale, told the House of Representatives: “Honorable members opposite, I suppose, are so blinded by the desirability of having a Snowy Mountains scheme, a proposal with which we all agree, that they are oblivious of the possibility that unconstitutional action on the part of the government may nullify all their efforts.”
Country Party member for Barker, Archie Cameron, also declared: “The challenge [in the High Court] will come from the States … It is my belief, although I am not a lawyer, that the High Court will never agree to this proposal.”
In his federal election campaign speech as opposition leader in 1949, Menzies said: “The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme is one which we all support as a great national developmental work … [I]t clearly should have been put in hand by the combined authority of the Commonwealth, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.”
“But the present Commonwealth government wants power, not co-operation. So, it proceeds with the job itself!”
So, who gets the credit?
Experts approached by Fact Check said it was indeed the work of Chifley and his works and housing minister, Lemmon, that secured the establishment of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, but they also gave credit to Menzies for undertaking the work and seeing it through.
Professor Macintyre told Fact Check: “The Chifley government played a key role in resolving disputes between NSW and Victoria over the allocation of irrigation water, and it was for this reason that the Liberal-Country Party opposition initially opposed it — Menzies insisted that it was a misuse of Commonwealth powers.
“The Chifley government also made it possible by agreeing to take a large number of refugees — that is, displaced persons — from Europe; they formed a large part of the labour force.”
Associate Professor McHugh told Fact Check that Albanese was correct insofar as the Liberals had boycotted the launch of construction, with Menzies refusing to attend the ceremony “out of pique”, she told Fact Check.
“But Menzies did become a big supporter, even before the unconstitutionality aspect was ratified in 1959.
“They came round and they did support it from December 1949 through to when they lost office in 1972,- by which stage most of the infrastructure was in place.”
La Trobe University Emeritus Professor Judith Brett agreed that the Chifley government started the project, but Menzies continued it.
“In fact, most of the scheme was undertaken during the period of coalition government,” she told Fact Check in an email.
“That Menzies continued with it showed that there was then a bi-partisan commitment to nation building. His government also continued the post-war immigration scheme inaugurated by Labor.
“In the hyper-partisan atmosphere of today’s politics, such co-operation/bi-partisanship can be hard to recognise. Hence, [Angus] Taylor’s claim to the Liberals’ exclusive ownership of the scheme.”
In Lionel Wigmore’s history, Sir William Hudson also acknowledged Menzies’ contribution to the engineering behemoth.
“[Menzies] accepted Parliament’s decision for the enterprise to proceed and, in doing so, had to deal with the constitutional issues which seriously threatened the construction of the Scheme,” the commissioner wrote.
“He ably found a solution and throughout the long period of his Prime Ministership gave unstinted support to the Scheme.”
Principal researcher: Christina Arampatzi
- Commonwealth of Australia: House of Representatives, Hansard transcripts, October 15, 2019
- Liberal Party: Twitter, October 20, 2019
- Australian Government: Department of Environment and Energy, Snowy Mountain Scheme
- Snowy Hydro website: Power Stations
- National Archives of Australia: Land of Opportunity: Australia’s post-war reconstruction
- National Archives of Australia: State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, June 1946
- Australian National University: Australian Dictionary of Biography, Sir Louis Francis Loder
- Victorian Parliament, State Rivers and Water Supply Commission 44th Annual Report
- National Archives of Australia: Decisions, Announcements, Important Speeches by Prime Minister J.B. Chifley (page 12)
- Commonwealth of Australia: Hansard Transcripts, Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Bill 1949
- Commonwealth of Australia: Hansard Transcripts, Lemmon, May 26, 1949
- Commonwealth of Australia: Hansard Transcripts, Menzies, June 22, 1949
- National Archives of Australia: Snowy Mountains Scheme, articles, reports, books