There’s no doubt about it Australians love a dam. Build one and the accompanying recreation area will be full of happy Aussies burning sausages while commenting sagely on rainfall and water levels. On our recent jaunt around the Tasmanian North West we stopped at Tarraleah to admire the hydro and the Art Deco cottages that were built to house the workers when being constructed. They are now part of a swank resort where you can admire massive pipes and electricity pylons as they cross the valley.
The building of the dams polarised the community and gave birth to Australian green politics and the conservation of the Tasmanian Wilderness. Sounds odd doesn’t it? Renewable energy is supposed to be good for the environment, but not when you destroy the wilderness and make entire species extinct in the process. The Hydro Electric Commission (HEC) was set up in 1914 to capitalise on Tasmania’s topography and high rainfall which made it eminently suitable for the generation of hydro-electricity. The whole thing progressed smoothly until the HEC wanted to build three dams on the Upper Gordon River with the aim of attracting industry to the State with the incentive of cheap energy. In December 1982, the Franklin River dam site was occupied by protesters, leading to widespread arrests and world-wide dismay and condemnation. The Hydro and the Tassie government were dismissive of any criticism and saw it as outsiders meddling in Tasmanian affairs. As happened in 1930’s America where the photographs of the High Sierras by Ansel Adams were paramount in changing public opinion and convincing politicians to do more to conserve the natural environment, the photographs of Peter Dombrovskis brought the spectacular Tassie wilderness to the attention of the wider public and they were used in a media campaign that helped bring down the government of Malcolm Fraser at the 1983 election. The new government, under Bob Hawke, had promised to stop the dam from being built. The resulting stoush between the Tasmanian State government and the Australian Federal government ended up going all the way to the High Court which ended up as landmark decision in favour of the federal government. The building of the dams gave birth to Australian green politics and the conservation of the the Tasmanian Wilderness.