The Guardian 7 December, 2005

Snowy scheme — privatising an icon

Bob Briton

NSW Premier Iemma denies having made any decisions but the plan to sell off Snowy Hydro has been well and truly launched. The Snowy Mountains Scheme was begun in 1949 during the Chifley Government and finally completed in 1974. Its construction involved over 100,000 workers, including immigrants from over 30 countries. They built 16 major dams, seven power stations (two of them underground), 145km of interconnected tunnels and 80km of aqueducts. The scheme covers an area the size of Switzerland. It currently generates a whopping 4,500 gigawatts of electricity a year. In all, 121 workers lost their lives during its construction — about half of those in tunnelling accidents.

Last week, Snowy Hydro Managing Director Terry Charlton announced that the company was entering an "exciting period of growth". However, he insists that the three governments that own the company are unlikely to put up the capital needed to release all this excitement and, as a result, the company has been looking at its options.

"We have over the last 12 months put forward a number of proposals that include listing on the ASX, issuing new shares, thus raising additional equity", Mr Charlton said.

Snowy Hydro is currently owned by the governments of NSW (with a 58 per cent share), Victoria (29 per cent) and the Commonwealth (13 per cent). As Mr Iemma pointed out last week, any decision to sell off some or the entire iconic scheme must be taken by the three governments unanimously. He could have added that the times could not be better for such a proposal to get the official go ahead, given that all three governments have shown themselves to be arch-privatisers and supporters of corporate welfare since taking office.

Following Mr Charlton’s announcement, NSW Opposition Leader Peter Debnam called on the State Government to release details of the equity raising proposals. He sought to ride the wave of public indignation about costly private infrastructure schemes, claiming that the opposition would only support any privatising proposals if it was shown to be in the best interests of the people of NSW. "Based on the Lane Cove Tunnel, the Cross City Tunnel and the desal [desalination] plant, it’s unlikely to be", he said.

Coincidentally to the current debate, a new novel by Judy Nunn was released last month. Heritage is set during the early years of the Snowy’s construction. One of the characters, a migrant who had fled Europe, makes the following observation about his new homeland and the genuine excitement about the future they were building together. The connection between work, freedom and dignity is clearly understood. Its collective vision is light-years away from the neo-liberal agenda of today’s governments and chief bureaucrats who would sell of this heritage:

"This was a new world where they could build new lives and create a new heritage for future generations, a heritage that meant that their children’s children would be born into a society free from hatred and intolerance."

Back to index page