The Federation Press

The Tasmanian Dam Case 30 Years On

An Enduring Legacy


In one of the great contests between State and federal power, the Tasmanian Dam Case pitted the immovable object of Tasmania’s commitment to a massive hydro-electric project against the irresistible force of the Commonwealth’s determination to protect the environment.

Who would prevail? Was it more important to create jobs and provide cheap power, or to preserve the natural beauty of the Tasmanian wilderness? On whom did the Australian Constitution confer the power to decide this question?

By the narrowest of majorities, the High Court decided in 1983 that the Commonwealth had the final say, and upheld legislation that prohibited the construction of a dam on the Gordon River below the Franklin.

Because of the passions aroused by the case, the Court took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement explaining that its job was not to decide whether the proposed dam was a good idea or not, but to determine whether this was a matter of State or federal power. Yet this issue was just as hotly contested. Could any subject be brought within federal power merely by the presence of an international treaty on that subject? Would affirming this proposition destroy the intended balance between State and federal power? Would denying the proposition disable Australia from full participation in international affairs?

Three decades after the High Court’s decision, these and other questions of law and policy remain of vital importance. This book brings together a fascinating collection of commentaries on the impact of the decision, and how the hopes and fears following the decision have played out.

This stimulating and timely book contains reflections from then Commonwealth Attorney-General Gareth Evans, then High Court Justice Sir Anthony Mason and leading Indigenous lawyer Professor Mick Dodson. The book also examines some novel questions, such as whether the outcome of the case was inevitable, how similar issues have played out in Canada, and whether better conservation outcomes are more likely to come from the Commonwealth or the States. These and other chapters offer fresh perspectives on one of the most important cases in High Court history.

Table of Contents

The Background Politics of the Tasmanian Dam Case
The Hon Gareth Evans AC QC

Prelude to the Tasmanian Dam Case – Constitutional Crises, Reserve Powers and the Exercise of Soft Power
Anne Twomey

The Tasmanian Dam Case
The Hon Sir Anthony Mason AC KBE GBM

Precarious Federalism: The Tasmanian Dam Case, the Corporations Power and the ‘Inevitable’ Drive Towards Centralism
Alison Hammond

The Tasmanian Dam Case – An International Lawyer’s Perspective
Bill Campbell QC

The Tasmanian Dam Case and Australia the Good International Citizen
Donald R Rothwell

Treaty Implementation in Canada – A Comparative Perspective on the Tasmanian Dam Case
Rosalind Dixon, Nesha Balasubramanian and Melissa Vogt

Human Rights and the Tasmanian Dam Case
George Williams

Indigenous People as Linked to Place, the Race Power in the Tasmanian Dam Case
Mick Dodson and Siobhan McDonnell

Tasmanian Dam Case and the ‘Green Commonwealth’ Hypothesis
Andrew Macintosh

Of interest...