The Liberal Party’s views on the Snowy (1949)

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In 1949, the Chifley Government introduced the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Power Bill into Parliament. In response to the Minister’s second reading speech, the Opposition Leader of the Liberal Party –Robert Gordon Menzies — spoke against the legislation.

Now part of the objection was the somewhat amusing way the Government had tried to smooth over the issues of State’s rights and constitutionality. What I was interested in (and yes, I don’t just read Hansard for fun) was what information was presented in support of the scheme. For instance, was there debate about a cost-benefit analysis?

The Opposition leader acknowledged that development of Snowy Mountains resources was desirable and there was a need to diversify power away from coal. In particular, he drew attention to the idea that in NSW, coal mining unions held control over that power and that weakening that would be a good thing. Of course, he intimated that perhaps it would be cheaper to tackle the union rather than spend money on a new venture.

When it came to the costs of the scheme, here is what he had to say:

… all I want to say about costs is that these are very early days in which to make a firm estimate of costs. When we begin some great national work of this kind, that is by common consent vital to the real industrial development of this country, we must accept some risks in regard to costs, and we cannot be expected to work out in advance the rate at which we shall same day have to provide hydroelectricity.

This suggests that, like the NBN today, there was considerable uncertainty regarding the costs of the Snowy but also the demand for hydropower. However, the Opposition was more accepting of that uncertainty than they appear to be today. Nonetheless, this was followed up by the usual ‘management motherhood’ statement:

But that is no reason why there should not be competent management, and I hope that the highest degree of competence will e shown in relation to this scheme. It is also no reason why there should not be the closest control of costs. We should realize, however, that this great development will not be a cheap one. We are not going to obtain this enormous scheme “on the cheap”. As a matter of fact, in all such proposals there are great hopes expressed at times that are doomed to disappointment, and sometimes early results lead to misapprehensions.

There were no specifics so it is not clear that this was an issue of dispute as opposed to cautionary posturing. Then Menzies tried to debunk the notion that the scheme should be compared to the Tennessee Valley Authority that the Government had invoked to support the scheme. See how some things don’t change?

I did some skimming of other sources and there was dispute as to whether Menzies supported the scheme or not. This would certainly be instructive for some enterprising journalist to look into – in particular, whether Menzies tried to kill the scheme in 1953 before basking in its success in 1955. But in my brief exploration, in contrast to what has been stated in the media, it is far from clear that the Snowy received a cost-benefit analysis or that anyone really cared. And like today, politics drove the debate rather than economics.

3 Responses to "The Liberal Party’s views on the Snowy (1949)"
  1. There is another fascinating parallel between the Snowy scheme and the NBN that you allude to:  the politically untenable breakup of the Telstra monopoly and the earlier power of the NSW coal unions. As you have pointed out before the NBN may be worth the investment (whatever that number turns out to be) just because it will weaken Telstra’s vice grip on telco.
    Its a shame that its so politically difficult to tackle these vested interests directly – but thats what we get with a representative democracy.

  2. William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.
    If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of xx will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for xx….

    We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. ..

    We choose to go to the xx. We choose to go to the xx in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too…

    The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of xx and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school. Technical institutions, such as Rice, will reap the harvest of these gains…

    To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. This year¹s xx budget is three times what it was in January xx, and it is greater than the xx budget of the previous eight years combined. That budget now stands at $5,400 million a year–a staggering sum, though somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. xx expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in xx, for we have given this program a high national priority–even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us….

    However, I think we’re going to do it, and I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job. And this will be done in the decade of the xx. It may be done while some of you are still here at school at this college and university. It will be done during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. But it will be done. And it will be done before the end of this decade.

    http://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm

    TEXT OF PRESIDENT JOHN KENNEDY’S RICE STADIUM MOON SPEECH

    We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. …

    We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

  3. Using the Apollo Program as a defense of expensive national infrastructure projects, such as the Snowy River Scheme or an NBN, is particularly ironic. This was a Cold War struggle in which the USA out-spent and out-engineered the Soviet Union in a proxy demonstration of politcal credibility and strength. Any technological or economic benefits to civil society were secondary to the poltical and military imperatives that funded and drove the results. I suppose it provided gainful employment for large numbers of people for a decade or so before the tax-payer funds ran out.

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