Our immigration policy is not advancing Australia fairer
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Our immigration policy is not advancing Australia fairer

In 1939 a young, stateless refugee stepped off a ship in Australia, seeking work as a researcher at Sydney University. Five years later he had a country – for the first time in his life – had served in the RAAF, had wed an Australian girl and had started on a career that would reward him with the world's highest science honour, the Nobel Prize, for explaining how the human brain works.

If Bernard Katz tried to get into Australia today, we'd probably lock him up on Manus Island or Nauru and forget about him. Instead of earning a Nobel Prize and advancing human wisdom, he would go quietly insane, be beaten and brutalised, remain stateless, homeless, hopeless, become an un-person.

The Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme recalls a different sort of leadership.

The Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme recalls a different sort of leadership.

Katz is far from the only refugee to have made a mighty contribution to this country and humanity: during the 1950s and '60s, tens of thousands of people fleeing scores of war-ravaged lands helped create our nation-building masterpiece, the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme. Half a century on, Snowy Hydro continues to quietly churn out clean, safe energy for the national grid while Australia and its leaders cling desperately to the climate-wrecking, planet-polluting, child-poisoning, farm-despoiling fuels of yesterday: coal, oil and gas.

Clean energy isn't the Snowy's only legacy. As author Brad Collis reminds us in his history Snowy: The Making of Modern Australia, released on May 1, "The construction of the Snowy Scheme changed Australia from a country that was agricultural and British to a country that was industrial and multi-cultural ... The Snowy was unique in bringing together people of every creed and culture and calling them all Australian. The lesson of the Snowy is that when the dispossessed are given the chance to rebuild their lives, they enrich and advance their host society."

Australia in the 1950s wasn't short of racists, xenophobes and people who didn't like 'reffos'. The White Australia policy was still in force, not to be utterly dismantled until the early 1970s. A 1955 Gallop Poll found that 45 per cent thought there were "too many migrants coming in". But though its population was a mere 9 million, Australia was a far bigger country then, in its heart, its mind and its leadership. The Australians who drove the scheme – such as Prime Minister Ben Chifley, his Minister for Works Nelson Lemmon and chief engineer William Hudson – thought carefully about the issue. They saw clearly the necessity of building a stronger Australia – and if opening our borders to refugees and immigrants from many cultures would achieve this, then that's what they'd do.

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The Snowy Scheme also recalls another sort of leadership: in those days politicians had no trouble at all with the idea of using renewable energy to power national development. Or perhaps they just weren't the handmaidens of the fossil fuels lobby. Nowadays, while China, India, America and Europe, Asia and Africa vie to see whose economy can switch to renewables fastest and conquer world markets, Australian governments forge doggedly ahead with their plan to recreate a 19th-century rustbucket economy, powered by yesterday's uncompetitive, dirty, dangerous and costly energy sources. And, in the process, offshore most of our jobs and industries.

The Snowy men were leaders in another sense, too. They understood that, in an arid land, the future of Australia depended more than anything on water – for power, food and cities – so they found a way to store and harness that water. Such vision is palpably absent in the current generation of politicians. As Professor Craig Simmons pointed out in a recent article in the Canberra Times, we don't even know how much water we've got, above and below ground, let alone how to manage it sustainably using cutting-edge technologies like aquifer recharge.

But Collis argues that the most enduring legacy of the Snowy Scheme was less its world-class engineering, water and clean power than the complex, brilliant alloy of cultures from which it forged, moulded and tempered our modern nation. If nothing else, it taught Australians how to eat … and how to get along.

Those escaping from conflicts in Asia in our time are not so different to those fleeing the ruin of Europe post WWII. They all want a better, safer life – and that is not a crime. Like Bernard Katz, they have the courage and brains to reach for it. To earn it, most are willing to slog their guts out for their new homeland. After making it, many will open restaurants, sing songs, rejoice, philanthropise and celebrate life in forms that enrich us in countless ways.

Snowy: The Making of Modern Australia is a timely reminder that political maturity and vision are possible in Australia, that social maturity and cohesion are real, that water can be saved and put to better use, that power can be clean and renewable for as long as the rain still falls, the wind blows, the sun shines and the waves heave. It reminds us that Australia doesn't need to be small, cruel, intolerant and shrivelled in our outlook.

"The old Snowy Scheme was a triumph of physical and engineering prowess," Collis writes in an analysis of the often tortuous water and rivers debate of the mid-late 1990s. "The new Snowy is a monument to a nation coming to terms with its most challenging socio-economic and environmental issues."

In the 1950s, Australians still sang "God save the Queen". Today it's "Advance Australia fair" – but every time we sing it, it's a reminder that this contemporary Australia of ours is a lot less fair than the one we inherited from the last generation. Less fair in the terms that they understood, as in 'a fair go'. Less fair in terms of its lost soil, degrading 'nature's gifts' such as the Great Barrier Reef and our eucalypt woodlands. Less fair when it comes to rewarding toil with wealth. Less young and, since your parliament voted to spy on your metadata, less free. Also, with coal-driven global warming, we're girt by more sea than ever.

Our national anthem has become a black satire on all we are losing, instead of a hymn to our aspirations. The women and men of the Snowy Scheme are a gallant reminder that there is another way.