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A common reaction from people when told about plans to build 200 giant wind turbines on King Island off north-west Tasmania is: “What will happen to the cheese?”

That says a lot about people’s perceptions of the wind-swept island, home to the world-famous King Island Dairy.

Think of King Island and images of brie and clotted cream spring to mind. Friesian cows grazing on green grass, watered by clouds delivered across thousands of miles of pristine ocean.

It’s this image and the island’s location at the bottom of the world that is being used by developers to market two luxury golf courses planned for King Island.

Courses that will tap into a growing global golf-tourism market, dominated by cashed-up retirees and empty-nesters hungry to experience links-golf on exotic and rugged dunes courses.

What the developers had not counted on was this image being tarnished by 200 wind turbines towering more than 150 metres into the air at blade tip, dotted across nearly 20 per cent of King Island’s 1100 square km.

Last November, the State Government-owned Hydro Tasmania announced it wanted to conduct a feasibility study into the construction of a wind farm on King Island, which it branded TasWind.

All the electricity generated by TasWind will be transmitted via a yet-to-be-built undersea cable to Victoria.

Hydro Tasmania was big on community consultation, promising:

“It’s important to know what the King Island community thinks about the concept because Hydro Tasmania will not proceed with the project if it does not have their support”.

The utilities giant promised a community survey (or vote) to see if King Islanders were happy to proceed to a feasibility study into the project.

The TasWind website, set up by Hydro Tasmania, promised:

We believe 60 per cent support for the project moving to the feasibility stage is a very fair measure. We continue to work with the community on the best way to measure support and have proposed an independent survey of all island residents.” [Emphasis added]

If locals agreed to feasibility, that would not necessarily lead to construction, with Hydro Tasmania promising further testing of community support before erecting the first turbine. Interestingly, there was no promise of another survey.

For many locals, TasWind promised a lifeline for King Island’s economy, reeling at the closure of the local abattoir in September 2012, which costs 70 jobs.

The island had been suffering economic and population decline for years and Hydro Tasmania was promising up to $1 million a year would be paid into a community fund to pay for whatever Islanders wanted.

Hydro Tasmania spruiked that the “forecast economic benefit to the community is in the order of $7m-$8.9 million a year”; up to 60 long-term full-time jobs would result.

Land owners who agreed to place turbines on their properties would receive generous annual lease payments; payments would be made to neighbours.

For many locals it seemed manna from heaven.

But for a group of locals, many whose families had lived on the island for generations, it spelt disaster.

It would ruin the Island’s unique lifestyle and some feared it could compromise their health. The fact much of the area mooted as turbine sites was on property owned by off-island superannuation funds and a large Japanese agribusiness meant most of TasWind’s money would flow off shore.

Opponents, quick to emphasise they are not against renewable energy per se, rallied around and formed the No TasWind Farm Group (NTWFG) to encourage locals to vote no to a feasibility study.

With the assistance of a local land owner who has family living on the island, the NTWFG engaged Wells Haslem Strategic Public Affairs to help promote a no vote.

During a two-day visit to King Island and extensive discussions with locals, it became apparent to the author and the NTWFG that the only way to defeat Hydro Tasmania was to convince locals there was a bright future for the Isle without a giant wind energy factory.

What was needed was a positive campaign that tapped into the pride many islanders felt for their home and for their resilience. 

Citing the planned golf courses and the 25,000 extra tourists they would generate each year (based on the hugely successful Barnbougle golf course development in north-east Tasmania) the NTWFG argued that King Island could position itself as major global tourism destination.

It wasn’t all about golf. By leveraging its image for clean food and its relative global isolation, King Island would be home to the best restaurants and cooking schools, a magnet to bird watchers (the island is home to the rare Orange-bellied parrot and six endemic bird sub species), bush walkers, scuba divers and surfers.  

The NTWFG argued the wind farm would destroy King Island’s image and with it any hope of growing the Island’s economy through tourism.

When locals argued they were only being asked to support a feasibility study, the NTWFG argued that would place an already fragile economy in suspended animation for more than two years. No-one would be able to sell property and at least one of the golf developers would struggle to attract investors.

Wells Haslem designed pamphlets that were either posted to locals or inserted in the King Island Courier newspaper. A local car dealer donated his advertising space on the paper’s front page, where we placed a different ad each week.

Wells Haslem Partner, Alexandra Mayhew, designed and administered a NTWFG website, to communicate the no vote message.

Hydro Tasmania appeared rattled by the NTWFG campaign and just days before the vote promised to invest $500,000 in a new abattoir for the island.

The utility provider also echoed the NTWFG message promising “we will work with local industries and community groups such as tourism, golf, accommodation, the cider brewery, abattoir, beef, dairy and the Scheelite Mine to ensure TasWind supports future development”.

The magic 60 per cent support figure vanished; in the final TasWind community bulletin, Hydro Tas CEO Roy Adair wrote:

“As we have said many times, this project will only proceed with the majority support of the King Island community”. (It was bolded for emphasis).

On the morning of Monday 24 June Hydro Tasmania announced 58.77 per cent of voters supported going to feasibility.

The NTWFG immediately called on Hydro Tasmania to abandon its plans as the magic 60 per cent figure had not been reached. A Hydro Tasmania Board meeting was brought forward two days to effectively decide whether to break its promise to King Island.

At 2pm, Hydro Tasmania said 58.77 per cent was close enough and the study would proceed.

Its spokesman Andrew Catchpole made the remarkable comment: “I know some have implied that the figure of 60 is a number that will determine if the project goes ahead or not, however, we have always said that 60 per cent would be a good indication of broad community support. We got 59 per cent and that is a very good result”.

Asked by reporters is there would be a second survey to test support for construction, Mr Catchpole was equivocal, saying: "This is one of the things we want to talk to the community about".

The NTWFG condemned the decision as a broken promise and warned Hydro Tasmania could never be trusted again.

Interestingly, and ominously for Hydro Tasmania, supporters of the feasibility study expressed anger at the power utility’s actions.

On a Facebook page set up to discuss the project a yes supporter wrote: “I am happy we are going ahead to find out best options, yet upset that trust is already broken. I ask that only honesty comes from Hydro instead of half-truths to keep investment we can find elsewhere”.

At the time of writing the NTWFG was considering its options.