stones & water
Dr Karen


Exposed bed of the Snowy River between Guthega Dam and Guthega Power Station. Photo: Karen Schamberger

Constructed between 1949 and 1974, the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme is widely promoted as ‘the birthplace of multiculturalism’ because 65% of the workforce employed to build it were migrants from 30 different nations. This presents a narrative of progress and brings personal stories into view against the drier background of shifting government policies that saw the gradual dismantling of the White Australia Policy between 1949 and 1973 and the introduction of multicultural policies from 1978. First Nations stone tools stored off Country in museums, river beds exposed, rivers dammed, and granite blasted away to make tunnels for the Snowy Scheme can be read as an archive that reveals the ways in which migrants, through their labour, are entangled in the dynamics connecting capitalism with colonisation, genocide, war and orientalism.

Commodifying humans, animals, plants and other elements of nature anchors capitalism in the sense that all these elements are exploited for someone else’s profit. We all commodify our own bodies by selling our labour. Migrant labour contributions to the Snowy Scheme are celebrated in popular culture and official histories because of the scheme’s engineering achievements: it provided irrigators in the Murray–Darling Basin with increased water supply and the ability to export produce in large quantities, and supplied the residents of eastern Australia – from Rockhampton in Central Queensland to Tasmania and Adelaide – with about a third of their renewable energy. But what are the scheme’s other costs?

In 1967, the completion of Jindabyne Dam cut off 99% of the Snowy River’s flow. It was the last of four dams affecting the Snowy River as a part of the Snowy Scheme. The diversion of montane rivers westwards for irrigation in the Murray–Darling Basin had far-reaching impacts on the ecological and human communities downstream from the scheme on the eastern side of the mountains, in the rain shadow of the Monaro plateau and further south into East Gippsland. People could not irrigate their crops; tap water was stained brown and stank. The chemistry of the water changed, reducing native fish, invertebrate and plant life. These effects are indicative of what Val Plumwood has termed a ‘shadowplace’ which are ‘all those places that produce or are affected by the commodities you consume, places consumers don’t know about, don’t want to know about, and in a commodity regime you don’t ever need to know about or take responsibility for.’ Since 2002 there have been environmental flows released down the Snowy River representing 11% to 21% of its original flow which have improved but not healed the river and its ecosystem.

Lake Jindabyne. Photo: Karen Schamberger

The completion of Jindabyne Dam also drowned a First Nations meeting place. Without realising it, migrant labourers became enmeshed in the colonial impulse to remove First Nations people and evidence of their existence: in other words, attempted genocide. Generations of First Nations people had camped in the valley of the Snowy River near Jindabyne for the purpose of ceremonies, making implements from the water-worn stones, and feasting on bogong moths collected from the mountain peaks each summer. By the time the scheme was being constructed, these activities had stopped. First Nations people had found ways to survive within and outside the colonial system in the pastoral industry and elsewhere. But the Ngarigo, Walgalu, Ngunnawal and Bidhawal peoples did not cede this land, nor were they consulted when the Snowy Scheme was planned and constructed.

One of the reasons that the Snowy Scheme was created after World War II was as an act of defence against a feared possible Japanese attack on east coast power supplies, recruiting New Australians into the old Australian war with an oriental enemy. According to Edward Said, orientalism is the process of the West defining itself as a superior civilisation in opposition to an ‘exotic’ but ‘inferior’ Orient. The ‘Orient’ is viewed as a civilisation and an eternal foreign threat to empire and to nation. The Commonwealth Government utilised the Defence powers of the Constitution to override the state governments of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia to create the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Power Act 1949 which enabled the construction of the scheme to go ahead. At the same time, the Chifley government commissioned a report which suggested that Australia needed a larger population for defence and development, recommending a population increase of 1% per annum through immigration. The Department of Immigration was established and the first minister, Arthur Calwell, promoted mass immigration with the slogan ‘populate or perish’. The migrants they most wanted were British, but they settled for people from the Baltic states, then northern and southern Europe. The intention of these migration policies was to prevent Australia being invaded by Asians through population increase and industrialisation. The Snowy Scheme workers’ stories share similarities with soldier narratives, emphasising brotherhood, sacrifice and the loss of 121 men during the construction of the scheme.


Snowy Mountains Scheme Workers Memorial, Cooma.
Photo: Karen Schamberger

In 1970, as the scheme neared completion, the Australian government created the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC) to utilise the skills of people who had worked on the scheme. SMEC then managed engineering projects in other parts of Australia, as well as in Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and other parts of the world, alongside the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, as a part of Australia’s international aid projects.

The dynamics of Australia’s settler-colonial society are held within the granite of the Snowy Mountains and stones and waters of the montane rivers if you want to read them, just as they are held in the rocks, soils and waters of the whole continent. The constant looming threat of an invasion from an orientalised enemy justifies the continuing dynamics of labour, capitalism, colonisation and genocide. Indigenous and migrant peoples are promised that they will advance economically and politically if they join Australian wars, enabling anti-Asian racism to continue through the generations. All non-Indigenous peoples are promised better lives if they continue genocide, enabling anti-Indigenous racism to be passed on. Everyone must commodify human and natural ‘others’ to avoid being over-exploited themselves, enabling fear of cheaper ‘immigrant’ labour and foreigners buying too much property to circulate. Exploitation is normalised.

The dynamics of Australian society described here are drawn from the work of Andrea Smith on the three logics of white supremacy (slaveability/ anti-black racism, which anchors capitalism; genocide, which anchors colonialism; and orientalism, which anchors war), as well as Deborah Bird-Rose on the connections between genocide and ecocide in settler-colonial nations. Information about the Snowy River, First Nations communities and the Hydro-Electric Scheme was sourced from Siobhan McHugh, Claire Miller, Michael Young and the Snowy Monaro Regional Council. 

*I would like to acknowledge that Andrea Smith has a history of self-contradiction and a lack of transparency around claiming Cherokee ancestry. Please see the following statement for more details HERE.

about the writer:

DR KAREN SCHAMBERGER is an independent curator and historian, who was born on unceded Dharug land with a Chinese Malaysian mother and an Austrian father. She is currently working with the Lambing Flat Folk Museum to develop a display about the goldfields. She has previously worked at the National Museum of Australia, Immigration Museum and Deakin University. She is interested in Australia's migration history, material culture and cross-cultural relations.

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