Part 2 — Bradfield’s ‘hydraulic dreaming’

Advocacy on the part of politicians and enthusiasts of the idea of bringing water from the north of Australia to the inland, and of the related idea of permanently filling Lake Eyre by fresh or sea water, dates back to the 1870s and 1880s. Interest in such massive hydraulic projects appears to have been originally inspired by contemporary French proposals to using seawater to flood inland depressions in the Sahara desert. The proposal to build a canal from the Upper Spencer Gulf to flood Lake Eyre with seawater was seriously considered by South Australian Parliament in 1883 and was raised again in 1905, but was rejected on the basis of impracticality and cost.[6]

In this same period, a young engineer named Jack Bradfield was working for the New South Wales Government Engineer for Water Conservation, Hugh McKinney, on a proposal to build a network of locks and weirs along the Barwon and Darling Rivers. An experimental, and rather leaky, wooden panel weir was constructed at Bourke in 1897, but the New South Wales Government eventually abandoned the scheme for a number of reasons: in particular, because it considered that the improvement in navigation on the rivers would benefit South Australian paddle steamer operators over the NSW Railways, and that the commercial prospects for irrigated farming in western NSW were slight, given the time and cost involved in transporting produce to major markets. Bradfield later claimed that he began to contemplate the broad outline of his inland water scheme while he was working on the Barwon-Darling project during the 1890s.[7]

Bradfield retained his enthusiasm for hydrological projects, and moved on to work on the construction of Burrinjuck Dam on the Murrumbidgee, which enabled the establishment of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area during the 1910s. He then left the field of water engineering to work on the Sydney underground railway, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Story Bridge across the Brisbane River. While working on the latter project in the late 1930s, he formed a friendship with John Douglas Story, the senior Queensland public servant after whom the bridge was later named.[8]

Through his friendship with Story, Bradfield was able to gain the ear of the Labor Premier, William Forgan Smith, and was given a brief to work clandestinely on a proposal to divert water from the northern coastal rivers to the inland. Bradfield’s assistant, Jack Snowdon, later recalled a day in 1937 when Bradfield (who was now 70) was enjoying his normal post-lunch nap at his desk when he suddenly jumped out of his chair and said:

Snowdon, I want you to drop everything and work on this water scheme for Queensland! He produced a map that he had drawn on in blue pencil. There was a ring around the watershed of the Herbert River in the north linked to Wairana on the Burdekin and the Clarke rivers, through the Great Dividing Range to the Flinders, under the railway line at Jardine Valley railway station and into the Thompson River which ran into Lake Eyre. This was Bradfield’s inland water scheme.[9]

Snowdon was required to travel incognito across the entire region that would be affected by the proposed scheme; a task which he completed through a combination of rail travel, hitchhiking and on foot. In February 1938, Bradfield presented Story with a ten page paper entitled ‘Queensland, The Conservation and Utilisation of her Water Resources’ for the Premier’s perusal. Forgan Smith was then in the middle of an election campaign but, once this was concluded, he arranged a face-to-face meeting with Bradfield. According to Jack Snowdon, Forgan Smith’s first question to Bradfield was ‘How much?’

Bradfield did a double shuffle and said ‘£30,000,000’. That was the end of the inland water scheme from an official standpoint.[10]

Bradfield continued to push his ideas for watering the inland through all the public and private avenues available to him, which — given his celebrity status as the chief engineer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge — were many and varied. In 1938 he gained the ear of Treasurer Robert Casey, who opened the way for him to present his plans to Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. However, following Lyons’s death in April 1939, his successor Robert Menzies politely dismissed both Bradfield and his Scheme. Bradfield pressed on, devising ever grander versions of his Scheme, which incorporated not only the waters of tropical north Queensland, but also those of most central and northern Australian rivers, in order to create a network of water-filled gorges leading south to a permanently-filled Lake Eyre.[11]

Bradfield gained support for his Scheme from other public figures, most notably Ion ‘Jack’ Idriess, the journalist and bestselling author who is now best remembered as the author of a number of overwritten but entertaining semi-histories of inland Australia such as The Red Chief and Lassiter’s Last Ride. Idriess had devised his own plan for watering the inland which he presented in a national lecture tour, a newspaper and magazine articles, and in a book entitled The Great Boomerang (the title of which refers to the shape of the large inland area which Idriess believed would be ‘made bloom’ by the diversion of the water.) Another supporter of both Bradfield and Idriess was Fred Timbury, then Mayor of Roma in South-West Queensland, who — like both Idriess and, most recently, Peter Beattie — wished to extend the Bradfield Scheme further south to bring the water not just to the Thompson river but into the Murray-Darling system. Two further contemporaries, Brisbane engineer LBS Reid and his advocate, former policeman Alfred Noakes — proposed a rival version of the Bradfield Scheme in which water would be drawn, not from the east coast of tropical Queensland, but from rivers flowing north and west into the Gulf of Carpentaria.[12]

These advocates received significant publicity in the press and other public forums during the 1940s, and Idriess’s The Great Boomerang reached a large readership. Bradfield’s plan, along with the rival Ord River Scheme proposed for the Kimberleys, even gained the attention of British Government officials, who saw it as a possible mechanism for opening up hitherto unoccupied territory for the resettlement of the Jewish population of central Europe.[13]

After Bradfield’s death, the scheme was given serious consideration on a number of occasions both by the Queensland and Commonwealth governments. In 1945 it was examined by the Chifley Government in the course of its intensive policy deliberations on post-war reconstruction, but was found to be inferior to two other proposals; the Snowy Mountains Scheme and the Ord River Scheme.[14]

In 1947, intoxicated by visions of rapid post-war development, the Queensland Government directed a reluctant bureaucracy to re-examine the Bradfield Scheme in the light of the results of surveying and mapping work undertaken by defence forces in North Queensland during World War II. Once again, the Scheme was found to be overwhelmingly expensive and unlikely to provide anywhere near as much water for irrigation as Bradfield had claimed.[15]

In the early 1980s, the Bjelke-Petersen Government in Queensland proposed a revised version of the Bradfield Scheme as a potential Bicentennial project, and Malcolm Fraser’s Federal Government pledged $5 million to support a feasibility study, a pledge which was not fulfilled due to Fraser’s defeat in the 1983 election. Preparatory work undertaken by a consultant for the Queensland Government, which was not released at the time, found that the Scheme was viable in engineering terms at a cost of over $3.5 billion in current prices; however, the consultant made no recommendations as to the extent to the project could ever be expected to provide an adequate return on such an investment. The then Queensland Minister — and now independent Federal Member for Kennedy — who commissioned the consultant’s report in 1982, R. F. Katter Jnr, continues to promote the Bradfield Scheme: calling for it as recently as mid-February 2008, in a speech to the Federal House of Representatives.[16]

The Bradfield Scheme was also briefly examined by the New South Wales Government in the late 1930s, and by the South Australian Government in the late 1980s as a potential solution to Adelaide’s water supply problems. During the 1990s and 2000s, it has been propounded by prominent broadcaster Alan Jones, Melbourne businessman Richard Pratt, former National Party Leader Ian Sinclair and various Coalition backbenchers in Federal Parliament, by remnant elements of the One Nation Party and — as we noted at the beginning of this chapter — by former Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie.[17]

It would seem that, despite the periodic floating of the Bradfield Scheme by politicians and other opinion leaders, its massive fiscal weight inevitably causes it to founder among the shoals of bureaucratic resistance. Its fundamental problem is its enormous up-front cost, as appears to have been immediately obvious to Premier Forgan Smith when he rejected Bradfield’s first proposal in 1938. The huge investment of taxpayers money in the Scheme could only be recovered over many years through direct charges to water users and indirect economic benefits arising from population growth and increased economic activity in inland areas. Most reliable estimates indicate that these returns would almost certainly fail ever to cover the enormous expense required to implement the Bradfield Scheme.

Bradfield himself recognised this drawback, and consequently sought to justify his scheme not just as a means of bringing additional irrigation water to inland areas, but also as a mechanism for promoting favourable climate change across a vast area of the inland. Bradfield, drawing on the 1920s work of E.T. Quayle, a former employee of the Commonwealth Meteorological Bureau, claimed that a permanent increase in the area of the interior covered by surface water — possibly including a permanently filled Lake Eyre — would raise the humidity of the atmosphere through evaporation, leading to a higher average rainfall across the inland. Quayle’s work purported to show that farms lying to the south-west of large bodies of water receive, on average, three inches more rain per annum than other parts of the same regions, and Bradfield used these findings to contend that his Scheme would bring greater fertility to vast areas of the inland that were not directly watered by his proposed river diversions.

Quayle’s theories were derived from those that had underpinned the nineteenth century proposals to flood the Sahara and Lake Eyre, which I have already discussed. Such ideas were also put forward in relation to the plan to lock and weir the Barwon and Darling Rivers in the 1890s, when they were debunked by the esteemed NSW Government Astronomer, Henry Chamberlaine Russell, who observed that — as the upper atmosphere shifts at the rate of hundreds of miles a day — any water evaporating from inland lakes and pools is over the Pacific Ocean by the time it might develop into rainfall. Quayle’s theories, as they were re-presented by Bradfield, were comprehensively dismissed by other prominent meteorologists in the 1940s. A recent study looking specifically at Lake Eyre has suggested that its permanent filling may slightly raise the average level of precipitation directly above the lake itself, but would have little or no effect on rainfall levels across the surrounding region.[18]

Wherein lies the explanation for the continuing support for the Bradfield Scheme, in spite of the strong criticisms that have been made by scientists, economists and other experts? Historians and other writers have generally interpreted the ongoing interest in the Scheme in the manifestation of a longstanding tendency for Australians to identify the idea of ‘nation-building’ with major hydraulic engineering schemes such as dams and irrigation works: the Mulwala Canal, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the Ord River Scheme and so forth. This ‘water dreaming’, as Tom Griffiths and Tim Sherratt have termed it, has led Australians to have faith that hydraulic engineering schemes will return a form of psychic income over and above any tangible commercial and economic benefits. This attitude was perhaps typified in the comments made by New South Wales parliamentarian E.W. O’Sullivan in the early 1900s in relation to the proposal to construct Burrinjuck (then ‘Barren Jack’) Dam:

I would like to say that I consider it is a terrible mistake to attempt to reduce land settlement to a commercial basis. You have something far more important than the obtaining of profit out of the people to consider when promoting land settlement. You are making homes for them, and adding to the resources of the country, and incidentally to the revenue of the country, and above all you are giving the people something which they can cherish as their own, whether it is theirs by leasehold or freehold.[19]

Historians have identified this attitude towards economic development as lying at the heart of many of the major irrigation and water supply schemes constructed in twentieth century Australia. The Bradfield Scheme is seen as having a particularly romantic appeal due to its evocation of the ‘quest for the inland sea’ that helped to inspire the nineteenth-century exploratory expeditions across the Murray-Darling Basin and northwest into Central Australia led by John Oxley, Thomas Mitchell and Charles Sturt. It has been suggested that the emotional legacy of the quest for the inland sea influenced the post-World War I flowering of the ‘Australia Unlimited’ school of writing that promoted the rapid development of the ‘red centre’ (a term used in preference to the more negative ‘dead heart’) and the tropical north.[20]

By the 1930s and 1940s, it has been argued, the idea of ‘opening up’ and irrigating the dry interior of Australia had gained further inspiration from major ‘nation-building’ hydrological schemes in the emerging world superpowers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union: in particular, Franklin Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Scheme and Stalin’s Dnieper River project. The intellectual climate underpinning the advent of the Bradfield Scheme was then topped off by the southwards military push by Japan after Pearl Harbour which promoted the ‘populate or perish’ imperative to develop rapidly the unoccupied central and northern areas of the continent or risk losing them to Asiatic invaders.

It would appear that all of these influences were important in firing the enthusiasm of the two Jacks — Bradfield and Idriess — and their like-minded contemporaries for inland hydraulic engineering activities. However, there was another, somewhat darker strand to their thinking that appears to have been neglected by other historians, but which is tied crucially to the limbic tendencies of our national perceptions of the inland described in Part I.