The Landscape Guardians and the Waubra Foundation

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This is the third part of Independent Australia environment editor Sandi Keane’s trilogy on the role of deception in the public debate on global warming. 

CASE STUDY: The Landscape Guardians and the Waubra Foundation

It began early last year, when a mate who likes to argue the toss with me on enviro-issues tipped me off about the anti-wind group, the Landscape Guardians.

The first hint that these people were not the self-appointed protectors of the landscape they claimed to be was the name. No dinky di greenie group would knowingly jump into bed with the notorious UK Country Guardians,with its links to both climate skeptics and the nuclear industry. The pressure group was set up by Sir Bernard Ingham, who was a former press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, consultant to the nuclear industry and an acknowledged “black belt” in the art of spin.

The Guardians’ chief climate skeptic is the discredited, former environmentalist, David Bellamy, who many will remember helped temporarily scuttle the Bald Hills Wind Farm in 2004.

Sir Bernard and his Supporters of Nuclear Energy claimed in 2004 to have killed off 80 per cent of applications, thanks to Ingham’s political influence. But the group’s credibility took a hit later that year when its scare-tactics about the Whinash Wind Farm were ruled by the Advertising Standards Authority as exaggerated.

Links to conservative politics, skeptics, mining interests, exaggerated claims?   Sound familiar?

It’s no secret the wind industry in Australia has powerful political and corporate enemies. That was evidenced in September 2004 when the leaked memo from the Lower Emissions Technology Advisory Group’s (LETAG) – comprising Prime Minister Howard’s handpicked group of 12 high level fossil fuel users and generators – signalled the Howard government’s intention to follow LETAG’s advice and kill off the wind industry.

Like Ingham, Peter Mitchell – who set up the antipodean version of the Guardians – had vested interests, as well as a lifelong career in the mining industry. Fellow Guardian, Paul Miskelly, worked for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) for 32 years. The chief climate skeptic down under was Randall Bell, President of the Victorian Landscape Guardians, well known for his claim that man-made climate change was headed for the “Y2K dustbin”.

I mentally ticked several boxes.

Mitchell popped up as spokesperson for multiple branches of the Guardians and was founder of the Guardian’s front group, the Waubra Foundation — all with a central mailing address.

A visit to several of the Guardians’ websites aroused my curiosity. Under the heading “threats” was listed “mining and quarrying”. This was the first evidence of spin, since the resource material on a separate web page was exclusively anti-wind. No mention was made of the toxic chemicals involved in harvesting coal seam gas and its potential permanent damage to aquifers. The coal seam gas issue had been boosted to national prominence by the genuine grassroots group, Lock the Gate. At Independent Australia, we’d followed the campaign. I’d personally interviewed several farmers as well as campaign director, Drew Hutton. The Guardians were clearly missing in action on CSG.

No resource material was to be found either on the worst polluter of all — coal fired power stations. A new one was planned just over 1 km from the Anglesea Primary School in Victoria — a short distance from the Victorian Landscape Guardians’ official address. I’d grown up with chronic bronchitis as child living near a coal-fired power station. It’s the reason I joined the environment movement. So much for concerns about “mining and quarrying”.

Lastly, there was also that time-honoured clue to all great mysteries: the dog that didn’t bark! The curious omission in this case was “solar”.  Why no promotion of solar as the solution, if you were concerned about mining, quarrying and wind farms? Likewise, geothermal.

So, just who were the beneficiaries of the Guardians’ campaign? Nuclear? Not likely in Australia, as our own history shows. OK for Australian uranium to fuel the Fukushimas of the world but not in our backyard. Coal and coal seam gas? The evidence appeared overwhelmingly in its favour with the then new Baillieu government’s plans to turn Victoria dirty brown and the frenzied issuing of coal seam gas licences in NSW.

Exploring the Guardians’ history, their MO was to spring up spontaneously wherever a wind farm was planned. This is not unusual in itself, but in in all my years working with community environment groups, we never achieved that degree of organization and financial support in such record time. I counted 26 Landscape Guardians groups in March 2011 – which rapidly grew to 70 within a couple of months – each named after the town nearest to the planned wind farm to simulate “local” roots. It didn’t take long to discover that there were more Guardian groups, each bearing its own geographical moniker such as the Spa Country Guardians of Hepburn or the Waubra Landscape Guardians than there appeared to be members.

I obtained a number of copies of the Guardians’ Applications for Incorporation as well as Annual Financial Reports from the various business registries in each state. These proved to be a mine of information.

A minimum number of between 5-6 members is required to incorporate, depending on the State. On the Victorian Landscape Guardians’ application signed by the climate skeptic, Randall Bell, the original number of 3 had been crossed out and substituted with 6. Could the membership double in the few minutes it took to complete the form?

I checked the contact for each website site on Internic, read the various submissions to different enquiries, stopped by Sourcewatch and Envirowiki, did the usual Google search and rang a few mates in the environment movement to finally come up with a list of people associated with the Guardians.

What I found was that some members were spokespersons of multiple Guardian groups. “Phantom” or “multiple groups” is a classic device by astrotrufers to gain disproportionate media coverage. It was also blatantly obvious that the Waubra Foundation was set up, chaired and run predominantly by Landscape Guardians, counter to its claim in Objective No. 12 that it had no association with anti-wind groups. (Professor Simon Chapman’s later public revelation that the Foundation’s Medical Director’s bogus claim to a medical research degree saw the qualification quickly amended to a bachelor’s degree.)So much for the Foundation’s credibility!

The point that struck me most was that the key issue was clearly not aesthetics or nimby’s – given Peter Mitchell’s successful appeal in the case of the Stockyard Hill Wind Farm in his own backyard – but the so-called Wind Turbine Syndrome.  So here was the strange thing, none of the Guardians on my list lived anywhere near a wind turbine nor did any of them appear to have fronted up to the 2010 Senate Inquiry with this affliction. The Spa Country Guardians were a case in point. The Public Officer and spokesperson lived in Smeaton at least 10 km away from the small, 2 turbine, Hepburn Wind Farm. What was their agenda? The proposed wind farm near them at Tuki had been abandoned on 22 April 2010, but the application to register the Spa Country Landscape Guardians was dated 19 May 2010 and received by Consumer Affair on 1 June 2010. Unlike Lock the Gate campaigners, whose very properties were threatened by 100s of drilling rigs and poisoned aquifers, these Guardians were under no threat that I could see.

I tried contacting the Guardians. As is typical with astroturfers, there was no telephone number, no address. Just the classic astroturfer’s “blind”:  a box that I duly filled in, asking if I might come to a meeting. I pressed the “submit” button.  No response ever eventuated. They were not looking for members nor holding meetings.

Likewise, there were no logos nor thanks on the websites to those who funded the glossy websites, the media monitoring, bussing in of protestors, travel, accommodation promo materials or newspaper adverts.

There were further links to skeptics — and the Liberal Party.

At the Senate Inquiry, Simon Holmes a Court, Chairman of the Hepburn Wind Farm had revealed a leaked running sheet from the Australian Environment Foundation (AEF). It was addressed to the Guardians detailing the strategy for a protest at Leonard’s Hill including the signage held by the thug-like crowd of predominantly outsiders later captured in a photo. The AEF is a known astroturfer. Its use of a lookalike name and lookalike logo was the subject of a legal challenge by the Australian Conservation Foundation. It was set up by the mining funded, right wing, climate skeptic think tank (or “sceptic tank” as Clive Hamilton likes to call it) Institute of Public Affairs. The IPA has known links to the Liberal Party and, like the Guardians, hides its financial affairs behind a smokescreen. More on the IPA here.

The tone of the Guardians’ protests was depressingly similar to the 100s of mining-funded astroturfers in the US that I had been following for many years: thuggish and loud, designed to scare off any community members with an opposing view (and sadly preventing genuine concerns getting aired). Like the protest at Waubra where the Minister’s leg was jammed in his car, the Leonards Hill one was just as ugly. Cars were beaten with placards and shaken. A woman who was seen as a pillar of the community was, in Holmes a Court’s evidence,

‘…stood over as the vile words were spat into her face, “F off back to Melbourne you sanctimonious middle-class C”.’

In the US the Pulitzer Prize winning website Politifact tests the truth of politicians, pundits and propagandists with a truth-o-meter. In Australia, our very own “pants on fire” B.S. detector could be the indefatigable Simon Chapman, Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, who comes out swinging with a bagful of unassailable rebuttals every time the Guardians try to put one past him. Reviewing Simon’s excellent reports on the alleged Wind Turbine Syndrome, delivered with his customary wit, was always the most enjoyable part of my research.

Finally, in the week before I wrote the story, I took myself along to a Melbourne symposium on wind energy at the University of Melbourne where I found a number of first-rate interviewees across the wind, science and acoustics industries who proved a valuable source for my story.

As public debates went, this one reminded me of the climate debates. The medical reviews debunking Wind Turbine Syndrome were out there in the commentariat but failing to cut through in the regional centres earmarked for wind farm expansion, where the town hall debates were dominated by Dr Laurie and her scaremongers.

TV scare campaign:

Ordinary community members with real grievances and concerns were not given an opportunity for a full and frank debate, especially on the issue of health effects. Many people disliked the idea of wind turbines spoiling the pristine country vistas. Understandable. Those living close to turbines had genuine cause for complaint. Community consultation left a lot to be desired judging from the Senate Inquiry. Understood. The wind industry accepted the Senate Inquiry’s concerns. But the public deserves to hear ALL the facts and those facts needed proper scrutiny. I saw little of that.

Just before publishing my piece, Bloomberg Energy Finance put the cost of a new coal-fired power station at the same as wind power. Wind farms were now an attractive proposition. Was this fact getting out to Australian communities?

I looked into the benefits of the Waubra Wind Farm. The construction provided a one-off boost of $58.4 million to the local economy just through the economic activity associated with the 160 jobs that were sourced locally. Ongoing employment at Waubra adds a further $7.79 million to the local economy each year just from the jobs. Was the financial benefit getting out to those regions slated for future wind farms?

The answer was “no”. The aggressive campaign by the Guardians helped by those sections of the media who whipped up a frenzy of negative sentiment made it all but impossible to cut through with the positives. The Australian public deserved better.

At the time I wrote the story, I had (and still have) no vested interest in wind power other than I believe it an important part of the renewable mix in our energy plan. I had (and still have) no shares nor have ever been employed by the industry. But as a journalist, my allegiance is to the public and at Independent Australia we are dedicated to seeking out the truth and informing the public.

We published the story several days before the ABC Four Corners investigation “Against the Wind” in July last year. Since then, we’ve seen both the Victorian and NSW Coalition governments run the Guardians’ disinformation campaign as a reason to close down the wind industry. No similar legislation has been applied to coal fired power nor have alternative renewable energy sources been suggested.

The question we, the voters, need to ask is:  ‘how did such a sorry lot with such a transparent and dishonest agenda succeed in bringing the wind industry to its knees thus depriving the public of a chance to reduce our carbon emissions?’

The answer is that no government could have been so easily duped unless it was complicit.

It is clear that the scuttling of the wind industry in Victoria was a deliberate political ploy to appease the coal industry, with the Guardians’ scare campaign simply serving as window dressing to dupe the public into thinking it was all in our interest.

Australia’s hopes for a better deal for renewables now lie with the Federal Labor Government which, thanks to my story, recently turned the political spotlight on the Landscape Guardians. We hope now to see proper scrutiny of its claims and an investigation into its web of vested interests so that future debates on wind are conducted in an open, honest forum, free of vested interests and their spin.

The first part, Deception is our Product, looked at the role of clever PR practitioners hired by the mining oligarchs to trick the unsuspecting into sacrificing their interests for those of their clients.

The second part was the handy guide: The Practical Guide to Trickery & Fakery in the Digital Age.

This third instalment is the actual case study - Landscape Guardians and the Waubra Foundation  - a look behind the scenes of Sandi’s investigation, the 'Ugly Landscape of the Guardians', published in IA in July 24, 2011.

IA was the first to expose the political and vested interests behind the Landscape Guardians and the Waubra Foundation.

Sandi's investigation is now in Hansard after being used as a speech to the House of Representatives in Canberra by Labor's John Murphy MP.

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