We are told that the COVID pandemic is like a ‘war’, and just as wars past were often followed by infrastructure projects, so the age of Coronavirus will be followed by boomtime construction projects, one of which is Snowy 2.0.

The original Snowy Mountains Scheme, created by Labor PM Ben Chifley in conjunction with the states, was launched in 1949, four years after WW2. The scheme was designed to divert water for irrigation and create hydroelectricity with 16 dams and seven power stations connected by 145 kilometres of tunnels and 80 of pipelines; it took 25 years to build at a total cost of $820 million, on time and on budget.

To construct the scheme, which covered almost all the area of the Kosciusko National Park, several towns and new roads were built throughout the NSW high country. The largest, Cabramurra, to be used for the updated scheme, was largely destroyed in the recent bushfires. 

By contrast, Snowy 2.0 will have just 26 kilometres of underground pipeline connecting the existing dams of Tantangara (high) and Talbingo (low). The 850m of fall will drive only one underground power station, although its immense size is equal to 50 percent of the capacity of all 16 existing power stations.

The design is not new: it revives an old idea from the original scheme, which had been long dormant as the tunnel length between the two existing dams was considered too long for the available technology. Even though almost entirely underground, the environmental impact from the deposition of the excavated rock will have considerable impact on the surface.  

When launched in 2017 by then LNP PM Malcolm Turnbull the cost estimate was $2bn, which has now blown out to $5.1bn (NBN-like) with barely a hammer struck. The final cost is likely to be north of $6bn, which was the cost of the whole original scheme when updated to today’s dollars.

But the big difference is in employment, particularly pertinent with the current mania for jobs, jobs, jobs. The federal government would like it to be ‘Jobmaker’, which it’s not.

100,000 workers were employed in Snowy One, 70 percent of whom were immigrants from over 30 countries, predominantly escaping the post WW2 European disaster. The technology was as sophisticated as it could be: from 1960 to 1966 the scheme operated Australia's first transistorised computer, called ‘Snowcom’. The physical work involved huge diesel machines and rough, hard labour, and tragically 121 workers lost their lives working on the scheme.

If Snowy 2.0 is ever fully built (it has NSW but not federal approval) it is likely to employ just 2000 people – of which 500 are already working today. The reason for the low numbers is the modern, highly sophisticated tunnel boring machinery that replaces labour. It won't reduce costs, rather it will increase them, but it will drastically reduce the amount of labour, and hopefully increase safety on site.

Despite the local National politicians spruiking its value as a post-bushfire employer, it turns out to be more like the Adani mirage, where 10,000 employees were promised, and it turned out to be only 500.

It is worth recalling the impact of the original Snowy Mountain Scheme was really threefold: irrigation, power and multiculturalism. The workers, many refugees, developed trades and skills that influenced construction in the cities for the next 50 years; it is the single greatest reason Australia is a concrete (as opposed to steel) nation.

The growth, literally and figuratively, was immense, but it wasn’t always sweetness and light, many ethnic fights broke out, particularly amongst the various races from the former Yugoslavia. Nowhere is this diversity and culture clash more beautifully conveyed in a song, the ‘Cooma Cavaliers’, by ‘The Settlers’, a band of various nationalities drawn from the Snowy workers, led by a fiesty Irishmen Ulick O’Boyle.

Their first album, ‘Songs of the Snowy Mountains’, had a number of folk ballads celebrating the beauty of the mountains, the glory of the work, the alcoholism, and the sadness of the death of comrades and more. And this one very charming humorous piece highlighting the difficulties amongst this multicultural population. The words are a beautiful reminder of a time of mass labour, and its rambunctiousness, which is now gone with political correctness:

From Jindabyne tunnel and 'round Island Bend
Us boys come to Cooma, our money to spend
And we'll buy you's one beer there if you happen to see
Four Italians, three Germans, two Yugoslavs and me

We may not be diggers but we'll have you know
We're digging thee tunnels up here in the snow

It's dark in that tunnel and the work she is rough
By the time it is payday we've all had enough
So we rush in to Cooma to have us one spree
Four miners, three fitters, two chippies and me

We pull up in Sharp Street by the Alpine Hotel
If you've been to Cooma you'll know the place well
Before we get inside our order rings out
Four vinos, three schnappses, two slivovitz, one stout

Well I guess a we got a noisy no a harm did we mean
Singing "O Solo Mio" and "Lilly Marlene"
Some Aussies went a crooked, they didn't agree
With four singing, three marching, two dancing and me

We may not be diggers but we'll have you know
We're digging your tunnels up here in the snow

The barman stood up then with a snarl on his face,
Saying (in posh accent)
"You Europeans, you're a flipping disgrace,
Stop drinking those queer drinks if you want to stay here
Become integrated, drink our Aussie beer.

So, we switched on to schooners and to the bar's cheers
Sang "Waltzing Matilda" and "Click Go The Shears"
For hours and hours without any cease
'Till the sudden arrival of the Cooma Police

We may not be diggers but we'll have you know
We're digging thee tunnels up here in the snow

We may not be diggers but we'll have you know
We're regular swingers up here in the snow

In a furious moment the whole bar was cleared
And no sign remained of those Aussies that cheered
So the coppers lock us in, unfair you'll agree
Four Italians, three Germans, two Yugoslavs and me

Now we're back in that tunnel as broke as can be
For it cost us a fortune to bail ourselves free
But before you start laughing let me make it clear
It was worth it Australia for the sake of your beer

We may not be diggers but we'll have you know
We dig digger beer up here in the snow.

‘Cooma Cavaliers’, 1966, sung by The Settlers, written by Ulick O’Boyle, 1932-2011.

plus 1 / plus one / +one is a collective of designers and artists promoting sustainability and Australian design. You can contact +one at [email protected].