Two non-resident multimillionaires are behind a slick ad campaign against a wind farm on King Island, off the coast of Tasmania, Crikey has learned. According to the minutes of last month’s No TasWind Farm Group annual general meeting, which have been seen by Crikey, president Jim Benn told the assembled members that the group’s major donors were BRW rich listers Bill James and Michael Crouch.
Bill James is one of three founders of travel giant Flight Centre and is worth $855 million, according to BRW. He has previously been linked with No TasWind, but his association had not been confirmed. His family is believed to own land on the island, but according to locals he does not live there.
Michael Crouch, the other major donor, is worth $310 million after founding Zip Industries. He owns Waverley Station, a cattle farm on the island. According to locals he does not live on the island.
In financial documents also seen by Crikey, No TasWind runs almost completely off donations, with $95,770 donated in the last financial year. The group had $61,590 in legal fees and recorded a profit of $36,326 for the year.
Under the $2 billion proposal by Hydro Tasmania, electricity from the 200 turbine, 600-megawatt facility would be transferred to the mainland power grid through an underwater cable. Despite the anti-wind farm campaign, which included an expensive PR firm and a speech to the public by controversial anti-wind farm campaigner Sarah Laurie, 59% of residents voted in favour of the feasibility study going ahead.
Laurie, founder and CEO of the Waubra Foundation, has campaigned against wind farms across the country and was invited by the No TasWind Farm Group to speak at a public meeting on King Island in April last year. The Waubra Foundation claims that wind turbines have negative health effects on people who live near them. The National Health and Medical Research Council last year examined her claims about the health impacts of wind farms, but the NHMRC dropped the matter because Laurie does not receive government funding.
Crikey revealed last year that the No TasWind Group was supported by PR company Wells Haslem in its bid to stop the wind farm going ahead. Wells Haslem was founded by ex-John Howard staffer John Wells and former press gallery reporter for The Australian Ben Haslem. Wells Haslem was responsible for a flyer campaign and the ntwfg.org website.
The group’s legal fees are believed to relate to a court case against Hydro Tasmania in the Federal Court in Hobart, where the group tried to force Hydro Tasmania to pay for costs No TasWind incurred while fighting the project. Justice Duncan Kerr found in favour of Hydro Tasmania and awarded the energy company costs.
Despite the feasibility study under way, doubt over the future of the Renewable Energy Target means that the project itself might never go ahead. In a submission to the Warburton review in May, Hydro Tasmania said: “If the RET was repealed or effectively ended, it would almost certainly terminate any further investment in large-scale renewable energy projects and put at risk the long-term viability of existing renewable energy assets.” Hydro Tasmania announced in June that it would would reduce its workforce by 9% in reaction to “financial and market challenges”.
Jim Benn was contacted but chose to make no comment on the claims.
Both Bill James and Michael Crouch were contacted for comment, but did not reply to requests.