Australian PrehistoryHistory - AustralianAustralian CultureAustralian IdentityCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other Countries


Share |

Relations between Aborigines
and colonists

Myths in History
Fabrications for politics

Should they be defined as part of a war?

Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?

Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence

The Stolen Generations
It's not so black and white

Jimmy Govenor
Not a good fence builder

Mary Anne Bugg
Female Bushranger

Justice or resistance?

1967 referendum
The myths

Convicts and their legacy

Convict legacy
How the past shapes the present

Convict life
Regrets and floggings

Convict crimes
Power and morality

Convict punishments
What purpose?

Larrikin Convicts
Breaking rules

Thinking different

Convict women
Moral diversity


Can Convict Creations be relied upon?

Cultural Integration and the Snowy Mountains Scheme

Damming a River to Change the Course of Australia

Originating in the rugged Australian high country, the Snowy River was once one the world's great waterways. Powerfully cascading over granite boulders and carving through gorges yet still finding time to meander along with peaceful eddies, it inspired a wealth of emotions, most notably expressed in the famous poem Man From Snowy River. Written in the 1890s, Banjo Patterson's epic poem, and the environmental imagery it was anchored in, helped forge a fledging national identity before Australia actually became a nation. On the back of its verses describing a man from its country, images of a mighty highland river filled the minds of outback fence builders from Queensland, factory workers from Sydney, and gold miners from Western Australia.

Then after World War 2, bloody refugees came along and dammed it! As well as depriving poets of their muse, the refugees deprived the native ecosystem of its water, with flows below Jindabyne dam reduced to a mere 1%. Resident bass and water bugs were particularly hard hit, a fact that still provokes some angry Australians into placard waving today.

In the interests of objectivity, it would probably be fair to acknowledge that there was a bit more to the Snowy story than depriving bass and bugs of water. Specifically, the damming of the Snowy River was part of an infrastructure project that acted as a flagship for a revolutionary migration program.

The migration program was conceived at the end of World War 2 after Labor Prime Minister Ben Chiefly felt that the Australian population of just 7 million people left it open to invasion. Chiefly wanted Britains to migrate and offered assisted passage to those who were willing to do so. This involved the Australian government paying for their travel to Australia and providing them with jobs upon arrival.

Although Chielfy wanted Britains, not enough Britains wanted Australia. As a consequence, the offer was extended to anyone from Europe, irrespective of whether they had been Australia’s war time friends or foes. By 1955, more than a million Europeans had arrived in Australia.

Importing a diverse range of traumatised Europeans who had century long traditions of trying to kill each other was fraught with danger. Not only was there a risk old hostilities flaring amongst each other, there was also a risk of hostilities flaring between migrants and local born Australians. Chiefly’s government implemented a number of policies that prevented the threat being realised.

The first successful policy was coining the phrase “New Australians” to refer to the migrants. It was a label that aimed to supplant the derogatory “Pommy” label used by Australians for the English and the derogatory “Wogs” that the English used in reference to mainland Europeans. Although neither Pommy or Wog disappeared from the Australian vernacular, the label of New Australians did create a sense that the migrants were coming to be part of the Australian family.

The second successful policy was a series of migration camps around Australia. The aim of the camps was to provide migrants with accommodation and English language classes while they awaited employment openings. A side benefit was that the camps gave migrants the opportunity to mix with other nationalities and form community links. Some migrants stayed at the camps for a few weeks while others stayed for years. It was at the Villawood camp in Western Sydney (now a detention centre) that Scottish migrant George Young met Dutch migrant Harry Vanda and together formed the Easybeats. The two would later produce the music for Young’s brothers in AC/DC,  the most significant band in Australian music history.

The Snowy Mountain Scheme was the third successful policy. Migration programs have traditionally been associated with conflict between local and foreign workers, with locals fearing that the foreign labour takes their jobs and reduces their work place conditions. By creating massive infrastructure projects, the Australian government was creating work for migrants and locals in a team environment, while stimulating economic development in associated industries. Not only did the Snowy Scheme produce renewable energy, it also redirected water heading for the ocean where it was not really needed to the west where water was needed for agricultural land.

Work commenced in 1949, and by the time it was completed in 1974, sixteen dams, seven power stations, a pumping station, 225 km of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts had been built by almost 100,000 men from 30 different countries. Around 65,000 of the workers were foreign born, while the remaining 35,000 were born in Australia.

Even though only a minority of the millions of migrants actually worked on the scheme, it acted as a symbolic flagship for the migrant program. This helped define national attitudes towards migrants and migrant attitudes towards others. This was particular useful in encouraging a forward looking mentality based on a sense of a shared future. In the words of German migrant Hein Bergerhausen:

“For the first few days I was worried (about hostility towards Germans) … but you could see almost straight away there was nothing to worry about. Everyone just seemed to be glad to be here…It was a happy time…. The war was behind us… we were all starting again.”

Likewise, in the words of Australian born Tom Little,

“I’d four years in the (Australian) army- I could have hated those German chaps as much as anyone, but I couldn’t see the sense in it. We were there to do a job. The war was over and they were there to kick off again and start a new life.”

Perhaps social harmony was a feature of the Snowy Mountains Scheme because it gave the migrants an opportunity to make a valued contribution to Australia in a way that that not only filled them with pride and purpose, but also allowed the local Australians to see them as assets not bludgers. Furthermore, it brought them together to create something, not armed them to destroy and oppose.

Admittedly, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the migrants. Initially they faced opposition from Australian unions who were concerned about foreign labour competing for Australian jobs. As the flow of migrants grew from a trickle to a torrent, the unions realised that keeping them out would have been more of a struggle than trying to dam the Snowy River using mud pies. Unions then decided if they couldn’t beat the migrants, they may as well invite migrants to join their unions. Greatly enhanced bank accounts on the back of membership fees soon had the union leadership realising that migrants were not so bad after all.

Once the project was complete, most of the migrants left the Snowy River to make homes in other parts of Australia. They left behind an infrastructure project that, 50 years later, contributed 67% of all renewable energy in the mainland National Electricity Market, virtually drought proofed the region that produced 40% of Australia’s agricultural output, created the infrastructure for the development of the Australia ski industry and a series of lakes that sustain the best trout fishing on the mainland. On top of that, their labour demonstrated what can be achieved when warring people’s work together rather than in opposition.

Despite the immense benefits of the scheme, some Australians still argue that native fish and water bugs in the lower reaches of the Snowy have more right to the water than do migrant trout and farmers. For this reason, they find it impossible to celebrate the project.

While the moral claims of native fish and water bugs deserve some consideration, perhaps the economic, social, environmental, and agricultural benefits of the Snowy Hydro Scheme warrant some applause. Furthermore, perhaps it is worth recognising that the scheme may even rival Patterson's poem in terms of its ability to inspire pride in a national identity. At the very least, the influence of the Snowy River in the national identity has been overstated. Truth be told, there wasn't a single line describing the river in Patterson's famous poem. There was, however, a theme of an underdog taking on a challenge and proving the doubters wrong. It was a theme many of the refugees certainly lived up to.



John Caesare
The first

Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered

Eureka Massacre
Dying for liberty

Post Convicts

Why is it not celebrated?

White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese

Baptism of Fire or Well of Tears

Simpson and his Donkey
A larrikin and a hero

Nancy Wake
A larrikin and a hero

The Depression
Australia's Greek Moment

World War 2
The eastern chapters

Cold War
The expression of transnational identities

Prime Ministers
Values and policies of Australian leaders


The Europeans
Building a new Australia

The Vietnamese
No longer "New Australian", now "Multicultural"




"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)