In 1949 Australia embarked on one of its biggest ever infrastructure construction projects, the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme which between 1949 and 1974 saw the construction of sixteen major dams, seven power stations, a pumping station, and 225 kilometres (140 mi) of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts in the Snowy Mountains (New South Wales).
Such a mammoth undertaking needed an enormous workforce. European misfortune in the form of large numbers of displaced people and high post-war unemployment turned out to be a godsend for Australia. The then Prime Minister of Australia, Ben Chifley, agreed to take 100,000 displaced persons into Australia. Between 1947 and 1952 170,000 were actually taken and of these around 70,000 descended on the Snowy Mountains/Cooma and were employed on the Snowy Mountains Scheme. In addition to those from Europe many more came from the US, South Africa and New Zealand. In total people from 28 countries were employed.
In 1959, to mark the 10th anniversary of the commencement of the Snowy Scheme, an Avenue of Flags was erected in Cooma. Its aim was to celebrate the diversity of nationalities that worked together on construction of the dams, power stations and associated infrastructure.
A key feature of the Avenue of Flags is that the flags thereon are those of the 28 nations as they were in 1959. Given this it should come as no surprise that many of the flags on display are no longer the current flags of the countries represented – e.g. the United States, South Africa, Canada and Spain – while some countries represented, most noticeably Yugoslavia, no longer exist. The former Yugoslavia is now seven separate nations each with its own flag. Of the 28 countries represented in 1959 only 17 remain intact and have the same flag as they had in 1959.
Herein lies the controversy referred to in the title of this review. For years South Africa has taken exception to what it refers to as the “offensive apartheid” flag which flies to represent those workers who came from South Africa and continues to demand that it be taken down.
The Cooma Council has resisted this demand on the basis that the Avenue of Flags is a historical record and should stand.
“They’re historic flags; this is nothing about politics,” said Mayor Dean Lynch in 2015.
Continuing Mayor Lynch explained “They’re the flags that people lived, worked and died under while the Snowy scheme was being built.”
While very few people, including myself, would support the politics of the government behind the former South African flag, I am of the view that the display should remain as an historical record of 1959. Perhaps not surprising, the Yugoslavian flag has similarly stirred anger in the past, with opposition from the local Croatian population, in particular.
By way of compromise, a second Avenue of Flags has been inaugurated where countries can choose to provide, and have flown, an alternative flag. While Bosnia-Herzegovina (part of the former Yugoslavia) has chosen to provide its current flag for display, at the time I visited, South Africa had chosen not to provide a new flag, preferring to continue its dispute instead. As I update this review in November 2108 the county’s current flag may have been provided – I will verify this in a couple of weeks when I have occasion to visit Cooma next.
Isn’t it amazing how heated people can get about flags? Coming from Northern Ireland I should know about that! As my Reader may know, I have a particular interest in North Korea. If the situation there was not so serious the role and use of flags, essentially for propaganda purposes on the border with South Korea (the DMZ), would be seen as farcical. I have explored this in a couple of reviews elsewhere in this blog -‘ Mine is bigger than yours – The Flagpole War!‘ and ‘Little flags and naughty soldiers?‘ Do feel free to have a look before rejoining me as we continue our tour of Cooma!
Address: Centennial Park, Sharp Street
Directions: In the centre of town beside the Tourist Office
My next Cooma review– HERE
Return to the beginning of my Cooma reviews – HERE