stones & water
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
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
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
*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: