The Blue Wedges Coalition heads back to the federal court today contending that Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett could not have properly considered the 50,000 pages of reports in the three days he took to approve Victoria’s channel deepening project. As the controversy grows exponentially, both Brumby and Garrett have resisted all attempts to modify or abandon the project.

Crikey can now reveal that in April 2005 the Port of Melbourne Corporation paid for its staff to attend a workshop on how to spy on and discredit critics of massive development projects. At the time, the Blue Wedges Coalition was the principal critic of the channel deepening project.

Speaking exclusively to Crikey, journalist Katherine Wilson, who attended the workshop, says that the PoMC’s Environment Effects Statement had just been savaged by a panel convened by the Victorian Government’s to hear submissions on the EES. The Panel conducted the initial hearings into the project in 2004. It later made 137 recommendations for changes to the project and in February 2005 recommended further research into the project.

Corporate and government employees paid to attend workshops by controversial Canadian PR consultant Ross Irvine, his trip part paid for by the Institute of Public Affairs. The Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) was the hosting body. ABC radio’s Jon Faine has described him as the “the anti-activist-activist.”

Journalist Katherine Wilson wrote a detailed account of one of these workshops.

In this workshop, I’d learn how to create bogus community groups, false statistics, and links with “far-right-wing nutso activists”. I’d learn to conflate “activist” with “terrorist” and “security threat”.

His adversarial and aggressive approach to activists was too much for even one of the PoMC staff: “You’re presuming all activists are wrong. Sometimes they’re not”.

Wilson’s frustrations stemmed from the PoMC spending $12 million on an environmental impact statement, that, in its own words, “didn’t get the result that we wanted”. Referring to the PoMC’s contentious plans to undertake test dredging, Wilson made the point that unless you go ahead and channel-deepen, “you can’t demonstrate entirely that nothing will go wrong”. To this, the PRIA’s David Hawkins responded: “The challenge, I think, from what Ross is saying, is … we need to work out how we can break the law to do these things.”

Since that time Brumby has become Premier and the hapless Peter Garrett the federal Environment Minister. Both may have been advised by Labor and Liberal staffers who attended this workshop. The original Panel was dumped and their recommendations all but ignored. A new Panel was appointed and duly approved the project.

It seems some of the ideas raised in the workshop have come to fruition. On Monday, The Age reported that:

Anti-channel deepening group the Blue Wedges Coalition has joined Somali pirates, Peruvian raiders and Gulf terrorists on the US Office of Naval Intelligence’s international threat list.

Blue Wedges is included in an Office of Naval Intelligence’s worldwide threat to shipping document, which details active violence against shipping, credible threats to vessels, or situations that have the potential to develop into direct threats.

For a large well organised group that does not even have police attending most of its family day rallies it seems an extraordinary over-reaction.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey