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The Snowy Mountains Scheme

Originating in the rugged Australian high country, the Snowy River was once one the world's great waterways. Powerfully cascading over granite boulders and carving through gorges yet still finding time to meander along with peaceful eddies, it inspired a wealth of emotions, most notably expressed in the famous poem Man From Snowy River. Written in the 1890s, Banjo Patterson's epic poem, and the environmental imagery it was anchored in, helped forge a fledging national identity at a time before Australia was a nation. On the back of its verses describing a man from its country, images of a mighty highland river filled the minds of outback fence builders from Queensland, factory workers from Sydney, and gold miners from Western Australia to bind them as one.

Then after World War 2, bloody migrants came along and dammed it!

As well as depriving poets of their muse, the migrants deprived the native ecosystem of its water, with flows below Jindabyne dam reduced to a mere 1%. Resident bass and water bugs were particularly hard hit, a fact that still provokes some angry Australians into placard waving today.

In the interests of objectivity, it would probably be fair to acknowledge that while migrants composed almost 70 per cent of the Snowy Mountain workforce, they were not completely to blame for the damage they caused. Furthermore, perhaps there was some good in what they achieved and this good compensates for the loss. Specifically, after World War 2, Australian governments were guided by a mantra of ‘populate or perish’ but to populate, Australia needed massive infrastructure projects in order to provide migrants with jobs. The NSW, Victorian and Federal Governments subsequently conceived of a massive Hydroelectric Scheme in the Australian High Country, which would not only generate renewable energy, but could also redirect the waters of the mighty Snowy River the prime agricultural land to the west where water was always short.

Work commenced in 1949, and by the time it was completed in 1974, sixteen dams, seven power stations, a pumping station, 225 km of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts had been built by almost 100,000 men from 30 different countries.

Most of the workers arrived in Australia under the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme. This involved the Australian government paying for their travel to Australia and providing them with jobs upon arrival.  Initially, the Federal government had only wanted Britains but soon expanded the program to welcome anyone from Europe, irrespective of whether they had been Australia’s war time friends or foes.

While there was a definite self-interest in Australia’s desire for migrants, there was also a degree of compassion. Due to the war, millions of displaced persons sat in European refugee camps with little hope. Some sections of the Australian community wanted to give them hope so they worked with international aid organisations to create a future for them in Australia.

There was a significant risk that bringing together diverse populations who had spent the last five years trying to kill each other; however, it seemed a forward looking mentality prevailed. In the words of German migrant Hein Bergerhausen:

“For the first few days I was worried (about hostility towards Germans) … but you could see almost straight away there was nothing to worry about. Everyone just seemed to be glad to be here…It was a happy time…. The war was behind us… we were all starting again.”

Likewise, in the words of Australian Tom Little,

“I’d four years in the (Australian) army- I could have hated those German chaps as much as anyone, but I couldn’t see the sense in it. We were there to do a job. The war was over and they were there to kick off again and start a new life.”

Perhaps social harmony was beause the Snowy Mountains Scheme gave the migrants an opportunity to make a valued contribution to Australia in a way that that not only filled them with pride and purpose, but also allowed the local Australians to see them as assets not bludgers.  Furthermore, it brought them together to create something, not armed them to destroy and oppose.

Admittedly, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the migrants. Initially they faced opposition from Australian unions who were concerned about foreign labour competing for Australian jobs. As the flow of migrants grew from a trickle to a torrent, the unions realised that keeping them out would have been more of a struggle than trying to dam the Snowy River using mud pies. Unions then decided if they couldn’t beat the migrants, they may as well get migrants to join their unions.  Greatly enhanced bank accounts on the back of membership fees soon had the union leadership realising that migrants were not so bad after all.

While union opposition was short lived, prejudice from professional associations endured in the form of opposition to the recognition of foreign qualifications.

Once the project was complete, most of the migrants left the Snowy River to make homes in other parts of Australia. They left behind an infrastructure project that, 50 years later, contributes 67% of all renewable energy in the mainland National Electricity Market, virtually drought proofs the region that produces 40% of Australia’s agricultural output, created the infrastructure for the development of the Australia ski industry and a series of lakes that sustain the best trout fishing on the mainland.

Despite this, some Australians still argue that native fish and water bugs in the lower reaches of the Snowy have more right to the water than do migrant trout and farmers. For this reason, they find it impossible to celebrate the project.

While the moral claims of native fish and water bugs deserve some consideration, perhaps the economic, social, environmental, and agricultural benefits of the Snowy Hydro Scheme warrant some applause. Furthermore, perhaps it is worth recognising that scheme may even rival Patterson's poem in terms of its ability to inspire pride in a national identity. At the very least, the influence of the Snowy River in the national identity has been overstated. Truth be told, there wasn't a single line describing the river in Patterson's famous poem.

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