Two blue-chip Sydney PR operatives that represented the Exclusive Brethren, Scientology and James Hardie have sailed into a bitter fight over a $2 billion wind farm development on King Island.
Wells Haslem — the firm spun out of Jackson Wells last year by its principals, former Australian press gallery reporter Ben Haslem and ex-John Howard staffer John Wells — is supporting the No TasWind Farm Group in the sleepy Bass Strait community to scuttle a planned 200-turbine, 600-megawatt facility planned by Hydro Tasmania. Cashed-up pastoralists drafted in Haslem over concerns their multimillion-dollar properties would dive in value if the project proceeds.
The island’s 1400 residents are currently being polled over the plans and a “TasWind Consultative Committee” has been set up to oversee the process. If 60% of respondents are found to be in favour, Hydro Tasmania will launch a fully fledged feasibility study.
Wells Haslem split a year ago from the former Jackson Wells, co-run by NSW Labor central branch member Keith Jackson. Jackson Wells had courted controversy a year earlier when Crikey revealed the firm was spruiking for notorious climate change deniers the Galileo Movement, which had sponsored Lord Christopher Monckton’s Australian tour.
A spokesman for Friends of the Earth, Leigh Ewbank, says by engaging Wells Haslem, “the anti-wind farm movement has shown its true colours that it is not a ‘grassroots’ movement, but rather an ‘astro-turf’ campaign backed by wealthy donors”.
Trailblazing local publication the King Island Couriercarried an account this week of a recent No TasWind meeting that discussed the PR strategy to defeat the project. Local resident Julie Arnold wrote to the paper saying a mail-out and personal contact campaign would aim to “amuse then scare” the community.
Haslem denied issuing the edict when contacted by Crikey, but confirmed he had been “asked to assist” with the campaign, which “is rolling out at the moment”. He says he wasn’t physically at the meeting and the account was “wrong”. However, an observer who has recorded audio of the plans told Crikey scare tactics were openly discussed: “The first communication piece was going to amuse people … and then they were going to ‘wobble’ the doubters.”
The first set of PR fliers hit mailboxes on the island this week urging residents not to “kill the golden goose”. A range of softer tourism alternatives to the wind farm were floated like bird watching and golf:
“In a rapidly developing world, people yearn to escape to the natural world … Let Hydro Tasmania know: we don’t need a feasibility study to tell us a giant wind farm would destroy King Island’s bright future.”
UPDATE, Monday 4PM: Wells Haslem have uploaded a campaign website in the name of the No Tas Wind Farm Group at ntwfg.org. An IP lookup reveals that the site was registered by Wells Haslem founding partner Alexandra Mayhew last week. It provides Wells Haslem’s Neutral Bay postal address as a contact and says Mayhew is the site’s administrator:
Registrant Name:Alexandra Mayhew
Registrant Street1:PO Box 223
Registrant City:Neutral Bay
Registrant State/Province:New South Wales
Registrant Postal Code:2089
Registrant Phone Ext.:
Registrant FAX Ext.:
NoTas Wind deputy Donald Graham confirmed to Crikey Haslem’s advice is “very expensive … but we have our assets to protect”. He disputed the account of the strategy meeting reported in the King Island Courier.
Graham’s group recently engaged well-known anti-wind farm activist Sarah Laurie to present on the health impacts she attributes to wind farms. Crikeyreported last month that Laurie is being examined by the national peak body for medical research over claims she breached ethical codes of research conduct. The National Health and Medical Research Council confirmed it had received a complaint over Laurie’s research used by anti-wind groups to campaign against turbines.
University of Sydney health professor Simon Chapman has also weighed into the debate, describing “scare tactics” as having the potential to cause a “nocebo” effect among locals. Ratcheting up fear and stress may produce “communicated health problems” as symptoms that get confused with the health impacts of the turbines themselves.