Tasmanian Dam Case

The Tasmanian Dam Case is the most famous and influential environmental law case in Australian history. It was also a landmark in Australian constitutional law.

In it, the Commonwealth Government succeeded in stopping

a large hydro-electric dam proposed to be constructed in South-West Tasmania. The seven judges of the High Court split 4:3 in deciding (amongst other matters) that the Commonwealth had power under section 51(xxix) of the Australian Constitution to stop the dam based on Australia's international obligations under the World Heritage Convention.

It rose out of a proposal in 1978 by the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission, owned by the Tasmanian Government, to construct the Franklin Dam or the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam on the Gordon River. The dam would have flooded a large section of the Franklin River in South-West Tasmania.

In 1981 the area in which the dam was proposed was nominated for listing under the World Heritage Convention. The World Heritage Committee declared the area a World Heritage site in 1982.

However, the listing of the area as a World Heritage site by itself would not have prevented construction of the dam. To stop the dam required incorporation of the protection of the area under international law into Australian domestic law.

In the midst of a growing national controversy in 1982 the Tasmanian Government passed laws allowing the dam to proceed and the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission commenced preliminary works for the construction of the dam.

During the Australian federal election of 1983 the Labor party under Bob Hawke promised to intervene and prevent construction of the dam. This helped Labor win the election and it subsequently passed the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983 (Cth), which, in conjunction with the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 (Cth) enabled them to prohibit clearing, excavation and other activities within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

The Tasmanian Government challenged these actions and refused to halt construction of the dam. It argued that the Commonwealth Government did not have power under the Commonwealth Constitution to stop the dam.

The Commonwealth Government commenced proceedings in the High Court for an injunction and declaration of the validity of its laws on 4 April 1983.

The case was heard in May and June 1983 and the High Court delivered its judgment a few weeks later on 1 July 1983. In a 4:3 split decision the High Court largely upheld the validity of the Commonwealth laws, thereby preventing the dam proceeding.

Key documents* for this case are:

  • Writ filed by the Commonwealth of Australia to commence proceedings in the High Court.
  • Photographs of dam site and preliminary construction works for an access road taken from an RAAF plane dispatched by the Commonwealth Government. These were tendered in evidence in the High Court.


* Thankyou to the High Court Registry for providing copies of the original documents filed in these proceedings.



Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, South-West Tasmania. This became an iconic image in the political campaign to stop the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam.

Photograph by Peter Dombrovskis

used with the kind permission of Liz Dombrovskis, West Wind Press Pty Ltd



The High Court of Australia


Photograph of dam construction site in 1983 taken by an RAAF aircraft and tendered in evidence in the High Court.

Photo courtesy of the High Court Registry.