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Power policy running on wind and sun

By Barry Cohen - posted Thursday, 25 May 2006

There was a time when one's energy needs were satisfied by cutting down a tree and rubbing the proverbial two boy scouts together.

Then came the industrial revolution and coal and oil took over, thus ensuring tens of thousands died annually in mine disasters or from coughing up their lungs.

Oil created tensions between those who had it and those who didn't. Both fouled the air and were big contributors to greenhouse gases, global warming and climate change.


As federal shadow minister for the environment (1977-80) and environment minister in the Hawke Government (1983-87), I had to advise my colleagues about alternatives to this carbon scourge. Coincidentally, at the very moment Australia was getting excited about selling lots of uranium, the Soviet Union was having difficulty keeping up with the West both militarily and economically.

On cue, the Left decided there was no greater evil than the nuclear threat. It initiated an anti-uranium campaign with a fervour unmatched since its opposition to the Vietnam War.

With mining unions on one side and the Left on the other, the Labor Party found itself in a bind. After a prolonged debate it came up with a policy that would have tested Solomon. Three mines, it decided, was kosher, four mines a definite no-no. I had some difficulty explaining the logic of this to anyone with an IQ above room temperature. The present shadow minister for the environment, Anthony Albanese, is keeping the dream alive.

With coal, oil and nuclear energy off the agenda, Australia did not appear to have a lot of energy options available.

Fortunately, there was one that was clean, green and available. The Snowy Mountains Authority and the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission had shown that hydro-electricity was the perfect answer to our energy needs. There was one small problem. The most recent successful example of hydro-electricity generation had resulted in the drowning of one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in the world - Tasmania's Lake Pedder.

Nor were nature lovers impressed with the Tasmanian HEC's assertion that Lake Pedder was now much bigger and therefore much better suited to water sports and fishing.


They were even less impressed when the HEC announced shortly afterwards its plan to dam the wild Franklin River for more hydro-electricity that no one seemed to want. The battle to stop the damming of the Franklin River became the environmental cause celebre for almost a decade, climaxing with Labor's 1983 election victory. Labor lost all five Tasmanian seats while picking up green votes on the mainland.

I introduced the first legislation of the Hawke Government, the World Heritage Act, to stop the dam proceeding. Its passage ensured a High Court challenge, which the government won four to three.

Henceforth the words hydro-electricity and dam were not mentioned in polite society. From then on my discussions with leaders of the conservation movement were interesting.

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First published in The Australian on May 22, 2006.

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About the Author

Barry Cohen was Minister for the Arts, Heritage and Environment in the Hawke Government from 1983 to 1987. He currently runs an animal sanctuary in Calga, NSW.

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