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By Philip Hopkins - posted Thursday, 5 July 2018

Federal Government MPs pushing for a new coal power station, government-owned if necessary, have been strongly criticised for calling their group the Monash Forum.

The group is named after Sir John Monash, who was the leader of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, which built the state's electricity system on the back of brown coal from the 1920s onwards.

Critics maintain the MPs are misusing the name of the Great Man. However a look at Monash's career suggests otherwise.


The SEC was state-owned and operated. Its engineers planned and ran the power stations, and the transmission and distribution system. The SEC was essentially independent with ultimate decision-making that still had to be approved by the Government.

Monash was no "socialist". His biographer Geoffrey Serle notes that Monash had the broad political views of an Old Scotch boy, university graduate and militia officer. He read the conservative Argus, not the radical Age, was conventionally free trade and anti-socialist. He remained a conservative voter, but joined Alfred Deakin's Liberals in 1912.

As an engineer, he believed in material progress through technological advance in a free enterprise system. In principle a free trader, but in Australia's circumstances, he believed moderate protectionism, and centralisation of essential industries like energy, was justifiable.

On being appointed SEC general manager and chairman, Monash promised cheap power through a mix of brown coal and hydro, with brown coal dominant.

Serle says that given the complexity and cost of building the first Yallourn power station using German technology, the responsible minister, Eggleston, believed private enterprise could never have done it.

Monash concluded that SEC had to acquire a monopoly of generation and distribution. It needed to control retailing, not just wholesale power. Dozens of existing municipal and private electricity suppliers were absorbed and their varying systems standardised and modernised. "The economic arguments of scale and efficiency were overpowering," says Serle.


A key reason for Monash's military success was his profession as an engineer. He planned meticulously so that all parts of the operation were perfectly co-ordinated.

He took this approach to create an electricity supply that was centrally controlled, cheap and efficient. Monash fought the politicians and took the SEC far along the road to independence.

Ultimately in operating and planning the expansion of Victoria's electricity system, the SEC successfully liaised with Alcoa, irrigation authorities, the Snowy Mountains Authority, the NSW and SA electricity commissions, Esso-BHP, and Victoria's Gas and Fuel Corporation.

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About the Author

Philip Hopkins is a retired journalist. He has degrees in languages and politics.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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