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.