What’s the scam with Snow Hydro 2.0 Chris – are they boring a secret bottomless money pit?

by Rex Patrick | Mar 6, 2024 | What's the scam?

It’s a document that purports to explain $6 billion in public expenditure. Yet Minister Chris Bowen is putting every hurdle in the way to stop public scrutiny. What’s the scam with this $2B, sorry $4.5B, sorry $5.1B, sorry $12B project?

The scam is the latest example of self-interested government secrecy.

In September last year, I asked Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen for access under Australia’s Freedom of Information law to the ‘Snowy Hydro 2.0 Corporate Plan Update’ that had been provided to him (and the Minister for Finance, Katy Gallagher) to justify a blow-out in the project’s costs from a massive $6 billion to an astounding $12 billion.

It wasn’t the first blowout. When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull first announced Snowy Hydro 2.0 in March 2017, it was a $2B scheme. By the end of 2017, it was an ‘up to $4.5B’ scheme. In April 2019, the price had risen to $5.1B.

And Australian taxpayers are now on the hook for at least $12 billion.

Dear Ministers – why do costs and timelines for Snowy 2.0 keep shifting yet are so readily approved?

The need for public scrutiny is obvious, and Minister Bowen’s 31 August media release said the Labor Government intended to be much more open than its predecessor, saying:

Unlike the previous Government, we are committed to being transparent and honest with the Australian people about the challenges and opportunities for Snowy.

So it was something of a surprise when I received the FOI response with all things meaningful redacted.

But that’s what happened. Bowen’s commitment wasn’t worth the paper his media release was printed on.

But that’s not the scam. Most readers wouldn’t bat an eyelid on finding that a minister’s commitment was worthless.

So what is the scam?

The scam is the complaint I’ve received from the Minister’s office as I tried to shift an FOI appeal of the flawed decision from the Information Commissioner’s office – which now takes 4 years to deal with an FOI review (the project is due for completion by then) – to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, where it will be dealt with swiftly.

Minister Bowen has baulked at this suggestion, with his office claiming that it would involve substantial legal costs.

It’s an absolute joke. Bowen’s OK signing off on a $6 billion increase in project price without any understanding of the quantum of the new taxpayer equity injection needed to underwrite the new project’s total cost. But he’s baulking at the cost of me seeking transparency around those billions of expenditures.

Bowen's lament

The Minister’s Complaint (Source: Ministerial FOI Submission)

Resolving this matter in the AAT may cost $40K. But it would cost nothing if he honoured his media release promise and just disclosed the updated corporate plan. But even if it cost $40K, that’s a drop in a lake compared to the waste that has occurred in this completely opaque program.

Bowen also claims that releasing the corporate plan will cause commercial-in-confidence harm.

But there’s nothing commercial about Snowy Hydro 2.0. It’s a project that was only possible – when the price was $6 billion – because of a $1.38 billion taxpayer investment. And vastly more taxpayers’ dollars are needed now that project blowing out further to an eye-watering $12 billion.

And it’s in no way a private affair. Snowy Hydro is 100% owned by the public.

Minister Bowen is on shaky ground. The High Court has already stated, in the 1995 case of Esso v Plowman, that commercial information about a public utility can’t be properly kept from the public. In the case that involved Victorian public utilities, Chief Just Mason stated,

“The approach outlined in [the High Court Case] John Fairfax should be adopted when the information relates to statutory authorities or public utilities because, as Professor Finn notes , in the public sector “(t)he need is for compelled openness, not for burgeoning secrecy”. The present case is a striking illustration of this principle. Why should the consumers and the public of Victoria be denied knowledge of what happens in these arbitrations, the outcome of which will affect, in all probability, the prices chargeable to consumers by the public utilities?”

That case was mentioned in the Senate by Senator Ross Cadell when the Senate sought access to the same document using its subpoena processes. In February estimates Senator Cadell complained,

“My concern is that the Senate asked for documents regarding the business case, and it was not given those. There is no private money at all in this. It’s either government-owned corporation debt and revenue or government funds. Why can’t we have a look at the business case? Why can’t we have a look at the reset document, given there is no private equity in this whatsoever?”

But the Minister seems to think the Senate, through its oversight processes, and Rex Patrick, through FOI processes, should not have access to this $6B expenditure justification.

The scam is that despite Minister Bowen’s stated claim, he’s not for openness, rather burgeoning secrecy.

Snow Job – Snowy Hydro 2.0 in a fathomless crevasse of costs


Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader - www.transparencywarrior.com.au.

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