6. Populate, parch and panic: two centuries of dreaming about nation-building in inland Australia

Dr Robert Wooding

Table of Contents

Part 1 — Raising the ghost of Bradfield
Part 2 — Bradfield’s ‘hydraulic dreaming’
Part 3 — ‘First parch, then panic!’


In February 2007, then Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, made reference to an old idea of diverting water from the upper reaches of some of the major coastal rivers of tropical North Queensland towards the drier parts of Western Queensland. This idea was most famously promoted in the late 1930s and early 1940s by the retired New South Wales Government engineer JJC Bradfield, who was the principal designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The ‘Bradfield Plan’, inspired by major hydraulic engineering projects in the self-proclaimed ‘modern economies’ of the United States and the Soviet Union, represented the apotheosis of a century or more of misconceptions and imaginings about inland Australia. This chapter will examine the Bradfield Plan and related proposals in the context of the history of the policies adopted by colonial, State and Federal governments towards inland Australia — particularly the western parts of the Darling Basin (or West Darling) — over the past two centuries, and will demonstrate that the intermittent revival of these ideas is a symptomatic of a pervasive policy-making climate of unrealistic optimism about nation-building and regional development which is interspersed by bouts of desperation and panic, typically triggered by external shocks such as droughts or falling export prices. The dream of an inland Australia with a strong population base continues to play a subtle, but critical role in shaping governmental thinking about key issues about the economy, environment, immigration policy and international relations.