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Issue #1770      March 22, 2017


More than a river, more than a scheme

To put the Turnbull government’s latest on-the-run energy policy stitch-up involving manipulation of the Snowy Mountains Scheme in some context, a brief reminder of the nature and origin of the scheme is required.

In 2013 the eastern state governments cut their contributions to the jointly-funded Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), thereby abandoning their responsibility to rescue the ailing Murray-Darling river system.

The Authority is responsible for the river system’s infrastructure, including the dams and weirs that control the river flow, but it also plans the long-term use of the rivers and improvement of the river environment.

The Authority’s initial draft plan for the Murray Darling Basin had recommended severe cuts in the use of river water, and also made recommendations concerning subterranean ground water use and agricultural water storage.

This enraged the big irrigators and many members of farming communities, leading to ceremonial public burning of copies of the report. The NSW and Victorian governments also objected that the cuts were too severe. In contrast, the South Australian government complained, quite rightly, that the cuts would still not rescue Adelaide’s threatened water supply from the Murray River, which was blocked at its exit point because of inadequate flows.

The then Gillard Labor government retreated, disowning its own report, and the head of the Authority resigned in disgust. A new report was produced, which included recommendations for less severe cuts to water diversion than were needed to restore the river’s health. That still wasn’t good enough for the NSW or Victorian governments. They wanted greater diversion of river water, not less, especially for irrigation.

Damning the Snowy

Four years ago the Victorian and NSW governments abandoned any commitment to impartial scientific advice regarding the Snowy Mountains Scheme and its environment. Under federal legislation one of Victoria’s two representatives on the six-member Snowy Scientific Committee must represent Snowy Mountains environmental groups.

Although Snowy Hydro is owned by the NSW, Victorian and federal governments, it’s a thoroughly commercial enterprise. In 1992 the NSW, Victorian and federal governments agreed to release 70 gigalitres of water per year to improve environmental flows.

In 2006 the federal, NSW and Victorian governments attempted to sell off their shares in Snowy Hydro, but public pressure forced the then Howard Liberal government into a hasty retreat and the scheme collapsed.

Saving water

The NSW government also removed scientific advisors from the Sydney Water Catchment Authority. The former government-owned corporation Sydney Water also removed water efficiency rebates in order to increase its profitability.

The actions of the NSW and Victorian Liberal/National state governments demonstrate they serve the interests of the big agricultural companies, irrigators and industrial enterprises, even if that means giving them so much water that the native fish, birds, and animals from the Snowy river and the Murray/Darling river system diminish in number or disappear altogether.

The refusal by the state governments to support the Murray-Darling Basin Authority clearly demonstrates that the federal government should take over the river system.

In addition, state governments’ policies of running water institutions on a profit-maximisation basis clearly indicate that they are setting them up for privatisation.


In 2006 the Howard government announced that it had decided against selling off its share of the Snowy Hydro Scheme. At the time, the back-down on the future of the jointly-owned scheme obliged the NSW and Victorian governments to scuttle their privatising plans. The turn-around was caused by public opposition: the rapid mobilisation of public indignation was the source of the sudden change of heart on the part of the arch-privatisers.

“I’m not a zealot about privatisation; that you sell everything under the sun, irrespective of the circumstances”, Howard told the ABC at the time. He tried hard to put this gloss on the decision despite the fact that he and his ministers had been hyping the sale and attempting to neutralise the obvious objections to it. The government had inserted a 35 percent cap on total foreign ownership in the sell-off legislation.

The headquarters would have stayed in Cooma. The 2002 legislation corporatising the Snowy Hydro scheme would have remained in effect and (the Minister claimed) mean that flows to users downstream would be regulated on the same basis as is currently the case. Negotiations had been underway with the Australian Stock Exchange to see whether a ban on individuals owning over 10 percent of the Snowy shares could be enforced for more than four years.

However, while about 100,000 people registered their interest in buying the shares, few others were buying the reassurances. Farming communities were concerned about the effect of a private operator’s commercial interest on access to vital water supplies.

During the 25 years (1949-1974) of construction more than 100,000 workers gave their all to this amazing project; 121 one of them gave their lives. Many were new immigrants and felt it was their contribution to building Australia, and still do today. They made lifelong friends, and those who are still alive today feel pride in what they have done.

For decades school students have been studying and visiting what is one of the most complex and largest hydro electric operations in the world.

In a move against privatisation, a group of 56 prominent Australians – including former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, poet Les Murray and actor Cate Blanchett – put a powerful appeal to the federal, NSW and Victorian governments on behalf of their sidelined electors. Protests against the sale took place in the Jindabyne, Tumut and Cooma areas. These townships had the additional fear of the loss of jobs and purchasing power in their local economies hanging over their heads.

The Mayor of Cooma announced that a celebration of the decision would be held in place of a planned protest rally.

People’s power has triumphed, for the time being, over some very long-term plans to privatise the Snowy scheme. Howard had been left to reassure prospective buyers of other assets that it is business as usual. He hinted heavily that investment banks involved in preparations for the Snowy sell-off would be given something for their trouble.

Next article – Penalty rate stand at Webb Dock

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