1981 Tasmanian power referendum

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The Tasmanian power referendum was a one-question referendum held on 12 December 1981, and intended to determine the location of a proposed hydroelectricity dam to be built on the Gordon River in Tasmania, Australia.


In 1978, the Hydro-Electric Commission (HEC) proposed the construction of a hydroelectricity dam on the Gordon River. The location of the proposed dam was below the Gordon's junction with the Franklin River, and the flooding caused by damming the river would have destroyed the environmentally sensitive Franklin River valley area. Responding to community concern over the proposal, Premier Doug Lowe ordered a moratorium on dam construction and an environmental impact study.[1]

With the community polarised over the proposed dam's environmental impact and Tasmania's economic and employment needs, Lowe proposed a compromise: to construct the dam at a different point on the Gordon, above the junction with the Olga River (Gordon-above-Olga). Lowe was successful in getting the Gordon-above-Olga plan through the Tasmanian House of Assembly, however the more conservative upper house, the Tasmanian Legislative Council, voted to block the legislation and insisted on the HEC's original Gordon-below-Franklin plan.[1]

With a parliamentary deadlock over the issue, Lowe was left with no option but to call for a referendum. When announcing the referendum to the media, he was questioned as to whether it would include a 'No Dams' option and he indicated it would. The President of the Labor Party in Tasmania wrote to all Labor MHAs instructing them to withdraw that option, and Lowe was forced into an embarrassing backdown.[1]

About a month before the referendum was held, Doug Lowe lost a no-confidence motion, and stood down as Premier. He was replaced by Harry Holgate.

The 'No Dams' campaign[edit]

A determined campaign against a Franklin Dam by the Tasmanian Wilderness Society was underway, and Lowe hoped to get the support of the society's director, Bob Brown, for the Gordon-above-Olga proposal, also offering to set up a Wild Rivers National Park. Brown refused to support Lowe's alternative unless the "No Dams" option was reinstated on the ballot paper, and when Lowe was unable to comply with this request, the Wilderness Society encouraged its supporters to make their own option by writing "No Dams" on the ballot paper themselves.[2]


Initial count[edit]

Location Votes Percentage
Gordon River above its junction with Olga River 20,184 7.94%
Gordon River below its junction with Franklin River 119,875 47.17%
Informal (including ballot papers containing "No Dams") 114,060 44.89%
Total 254,119 100.00%

Seat breakdown[edit]

Seat Enrolled Gordon above Olga Gordon below Franklin
Bass 55,584 4,392 (16.58%) 22,095 (83.42%)
Braddon 53,938 4,175 (13.73%) 26,241 (86.27%)
Denison 54,887 3,515 (14.14%) 21,335 (85.86%)
Franklin 56,568 3,820 (13.76%) 23,934 (86.24%)
Wilmot 55,189 4,282 (14.02%) 26,270 (85.98%)
Total 276,166 20,184 119,875

In the initial count of the ballot papers, a significant protest vote was evident, with tens of thousands of electors writing "No Dams" on their ballot papers. The Tasmanian Electoral Office initially disregarded all these votes as informal, even if the voter had indicated one of the legitimate options. Subsequent legal advice indicated that these votes should be counted, and 23,839 votes were reclassified as formal votes.[3]


Location Votes Percentage
Gordon River above its junction with Olga River 24,844 9.78%
Gordon River below its junction with Franklin River 139,054 54.72%
Informal 90,221 35.50%
Total 254,119 100.00%
N.B.: Total ballot papers endorsed "No Dams" from all sources 84,514 33.25%

Seat breakdown after recount[edit]

Seat Enrolled Gordon above Olga Gordon below Franklin
Bass 55,584 5,261 (17.17%) 25,379 (82.83%)
Braddon 53,938 5,057 (14.37%) 30,131 (85.63%)
Denison 54,887 4,364 (14.96%) 24,800 (85.04%)
Franklin 56,568 4,952 (14.91%) 28,271 (85.09%)
Wilmot 55,189 5,210 (14.60%) 30,473 (85.40%)
Total 276,166 24,844 139,054

Turnout: 92.01%


Despite the success of the 'No Dams' campaign demonstrated by the significant protest vote, the original Gordon-below-Franklin proposal was carried with a majority in the referendum. Holgate, who had prorogued the House while the referendum was conducted, pledged the government would proceed with the dam construction. Almost as soon as the House reconvened, Labor lost a no-confidence motion, forcing an election for May 1982. At that election, Tasmanian Labor was roundly defeated by Robin Gray and the Liberal Party. Gray also pledged to build the dam.

On 5 March 1983, federal Labor won power, with new Prime Minister Bob Hawke promising to halt the dam project. The Commonwealth Government legislated to prohibit construction of the Franklin Dam, and the legislation was reinforced in the Commonwealth v Tasmania case before the High Court of Australia.[4]


  1. ^ a b c Kellow, Aynsley (1996). Transforming Power: The Politics of Electricity Planning. UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47122-2.
  2. ^ Thompson, Peter (1984). Bob Brown of the Franklin River. Sydney: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-86861-673-7.
  3. ^ Referendums in Tasmania, Parliament of Tasmania, 5 August 2002.
  4. ^ Commonwealth v Tasmania, High Court of Australia, 1 July 1983.