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Research Guides

Commonwealth Government Records about Tasmania


Michael Roe has written of a 'pervasive change that came upon Tasmania around 1970' and which introduced three decades of 'post-modern flux'. There were four prime ministers between 1970 and 1979, but by any measure the governments of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser dominated. Both believed in Commonwealth power and action to, if necessary, force solutions. They had large legislative programs and established innumerable new agencies. There were almost 70 new Tasmanian branches of Commonwealth departments and agencies (a reasonable number, admittedly, replacing combinations of earlier agencies), reflecting new Canberra priorities and programs.

The flooding of Lake Pedder in support of yet another hydro-electric power station dominated Tasmanian–Commonwealth relations as the decade opened, and at its end the Gordon-below-Franklin scheme loomed potentially as equally divisive. The Gorton and McMahon governments in the earlier years argued the flooding was a state matter, though Gorton in particular had authorised funding to help dam the Serpentine and thus cause the flooding of Lake Pedder. By the time Whitlam won the December 1972 election, the development was a fait accompli. In 1978, the HEC proposed a power scheme involving the Gordon, Franklin and King rivers. During the third Fraser government (1977–80) the federal attitude to new dams was more complicated, reflecting efforts to balance support for development, the environment, international commitments and states' rights.

Transport was another 'usual suspects' theme in the 1970s – and another issue which, regardless of who controlled the Treasury benches in Canberra, was accepted as something in which Tasmania suffered disadvantage. In 1974, the Whitlam government established a Commission of Inquiry into transport to and from Tasmania. It led the new Fraser government in 1976 to establish the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme, described modestly by its ministerial champion, Peter Nixon, in his book An Active Journey: the Peter Nixon story (Connor Court, 2012) as 'one of the greatest pieces of legislation ever introduced to assist the development of Tasmania'. Reminders of another constant in Tasmanian transport history came in 1978, when ownership of Tasmania's rail system changed. Australian National Railways took over from Tasmanian Government Railways, ending regular passenger train services.

As explained in Chapter 6, the decade also saw the first signs of a resurgent Tasmanian Indigenous voice at a state Aboriginal conference in Launceston in 1971, followed a year later by the opening of the Aboriginal Information Centre there and in Hobart. One early campaign was to secure the return of Truganini's remains, then held in a Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery vault. In 1976, the centenary of her death, the campaign succeeded and there followed a ritual cremation and scattering of ashes in the D'Entrecasteaux Channel. Any thought this thereby ended Indigenous activism was disabused when Michael Mansell presented Queen Elizabeth II with a petition and artefacts during her visit to Hobart in 1977.

An event which shocked in other ways unfolded just before 9.30pm on Sunday 5 January 1975, when the MV Lake Illawarra, with a cargo of 10,000 tonnes of zinc concentrate bound for the Electrolytic Zinc Company, collided with the Tasman Bridge and sank. Twelve people were killed and, because of the way Hobart had developed on the east and west of the Derwent River, years of quiet and deeply felt social dislocation ensued. There were several inquiries, considerable Commonwealth involvement in the recovery, and voluminous records.


Chapter 1
The Commonwealth and Tasmania, 1901–2000