Decided in 1983, Australia’s Commonwealth vs Tasmania is one of the most significant High Court rulings in Australian history because of its implications for conservation efforts in this Southern Hemisphere nation.
At issue was a proposed hydroelectric dam that was to be built on the Gordon River by the state government of Tasmania. Because the dam would have flooded a vast and delicate wilderness area downstream, the project was vehemently opposed by environmental groups. The Australian federal government joined the environmentalists in their suit against Tasmania.
At the centre of the action was the Hydro-Electric Commission, an arm of the Tasmanian state government. It proposed the dam be located at a point where the Gordon River had a confluence with the Franklin River. The latter would have essentially been flooded out of existence, including destroying delicate river life. The proposal resulted in numerous protests and occupation of the downstream land by activists. Multiple arrests were made. The incident made frequent national news.
In 1982, UNESCO upped the pressure to nix the dam project by declaring the area a World Heritage Site with the support of the Australian Labor party. The Labor Party won the national election in 1983 and created the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act, 1983. This gave the new Labor government authority to prohibit the construction of the dam.
This prompted the famous Australia vs Tasmania case. The Tasmanian government argued that what the federal Labor Party did was unconstitutional. The claim was accepted for review by the Australian High Court in June of 1983.
Taking on the case involved brought into play a number of constitutional issues, the most significant of which was the authority granted by the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act. The bottom line was that the state of Tasmania argued that the federal government had been overreaching and did not have the authority to regulate how local states enacted public infrastructure projects within their own borders.
In a narrow 4-to-3 victory, the High Court ruled that the federal government had legitimately prevented the construction of the dam. It also deemed that the World Heritage Act was authorized under the federal government’s “external affairs” power. Tasmania had argued that “external affairs” should apply to foreign entities and not Australian state governments.
The lasting significance of the case is the influential new role the Australian federal government could enjoy in protecting national wilderness areas and others issues of environmental concern.