Revealed: TasNetworks’ $1 million covert PR campaign for Marinus Link

Campaign team includes senior advisers to the Morrison, Turnbull, Rudd and Howard governments and Tasmanian Liberal Party strategist
 September 26, 2022
Published:  September 26, 2022
Extract from TasNetworks contract with 89 Degrees East. Image: Tasmanian Inquirer

A Tasmanian government power utility has hired a national network of lobbyists and PR firms as part of a $1 million campaign to “positively influence perceptions” towards the proposed Marinus electricity transmission link with Victoria.

Right to Information (RTI) documents released to Tasmanian Inquirer reveal TasNetworks, the government-owned business that owns the state’s electricity transmission network, hired political lobbyists in Canberra, Victoria and Tasmania as part of a two-year campaign to win support for the $3.8 billion Marinus project.

TasNetworks entered into a two-year contract in late March 2021 with the Canberra-based PR firm 89 Degrees East which heads a consortium that includes two lobbying firms: Canberra-based DPG Advisory Solutions and the Hobart-based Font PR.

TasNetworks has refused to disclose the original cost of the contract, but the documents show it was increased to $1,075,000 just before Christmas last year.

They reveal the campaign included TasNetworks staff suggesting how to counter media coverage of a critic of the Marinus Link, lobbyists brokering meetings with politicians and proposing to “subtly activate influencers” in support of the project.

A spokesperson for TasNetworks defended the contract, saying “it is commonplace for large national infrastructure projects to utilise consultancies for strategic advice”. They said the contract may be extended for a year, to the end of March 2024, “should it be required.”

Ruth Forrest, an independent member of the Tasmanian Legislative Council, said she had repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, asked for details of the costs and benefits of the link, the potential impact on power prices and who would pay for the project. Forrest chairs a committee that scrutinises government businesses, including TasNetworks.

“It seems to me that they have been tasked to promote a product without any substance to back it up, and that is concerning,” she said.

Assembling a pro-Marinus team

TasNetworks has been promoting the construction of the Marinus Link to Victoria since 2017, but the project is politically divisive. The Liberal government has enthusiastically backed it, but the state Labor opposition has queried the financial impact of the link. The Greens have opposed the project on economic and environmental grounds. On Tasmania’s northwest coast and in the central highlands, residents that object to proposed wind farms and transmission connections that are reliant on Marinus Link are also highly critical.

The biggest constraint for the project is the uncertainty of how it would be funded. The prospect of Tasmania negotiating a cost-sharing agreement with Victoria appears slim, with the Victorian government indicating its priority is constructing the KerangLink between northeast Victoria and New South Wales. Victoria’s lack of support raises other problems for TasNetworks, which wants the process for obtaining environmental approvals coordinated between the states.

Without Victorian government support, TasNetworks has pinned its hopes on federal government funding. The new federal Labor government has indicated its in-principle support for the project, but has not committed to back it financially.

To boost political support for the project, TasNetworks released a request for proposals for “strategic advocacy services” in October 2020. The utility wanted PR firms to pitch a plan for a “targeted” advocacy and lobbying strategy to support the project’s successful delivery. It said the winning bidder should provide “ongoing analysis of the political environment”, build “support from key influencers” and increase “positive engagement with the project by media”.

TasNetworks argues the project would deliver jobs and significant other economic benefits to regional communities in Tasmania and Victoria. It wanted the selected consultancy to develop “bespoke strategies for engaging and gaining support from key influencers, including those in key regional areas of north-west Tasmania and Gippsland in Victoria.”

“It makes me angry… Tasmanians are scrimping, saving and going without to pay electricity bills,  not to cover the costs of producing energy but for secret propagandists”.

Christine Milne

Christine Milne, former leader of the Australian and Tasmanian Greens, now energy spokesperson for the Bob Brown Foundation, accused TasNetworks of aiming “to con us into thinking that we should all pay even higher bills for a project that can’t stand on its own merits”.

“It makes me angry… Tasmanians are scrimping, saving and going without to pay electricity bills,  not to cover the costs of producing energy but for secret propagandists,” she said.

Tasmanian Inquirer asked Guy Barnett, the Energy Minister and one of the two shareholding ministers in TasNetworks, whether he was briefed on the plan before the request for proposals was issued. He did not give a direct response, but a government spokesperson defended the contract.

“As a nationally significant project with benefits to Tasmania and the entire National Energy Market, it is appropriate that the Marinus project team engages with key stakeholders across the nation and is appropriately advised in this regard, and this is a matter for the Marinus management team,” the spokesperson said.

Milne disagreed. She said “it was the minister who should engage with key stakeholders” and “full responsibility for this Marinus propaganda debacle” lay with Premier Jeremy Rockliff and Barnett.

Plugged in

Five firms submitted bids for the contract: Tasmanian-based Corporate Communications, the 89 Degrees East, the global advisory firm FTI Consulting, SEC Newgate and Clifton Group Communication Strategists.

The winning pitch by the 89 Degree East consortium said one of its first tasks would be to “craft a dedicated government relations strategy (informed by the stakeholder and communications plans) including navigating upcoming federal and state elections to best advantage”. As part of this strategy, the consortium suggested the need to “provide public platforms for ministers, shadow ministers and MPs supportive of the project to champion it”.

It proposed to continually review the national, state and local political environment “to identify risks, emerging threats and influence strategic plays and advice”. It would also “initiate positive advocacy” to “improve public sentiment” in northwest Tasmania and Gippsland in Victoria.

The consortium has strong political connections. It is headed by Alister Jordan, who was chief-of-staff to former prime minister Kevin Rudd and is now the chief executive of 89 Degrees East. Fleur Anderson, a former Australian Financial Review journalist, leads the account for the firm with assistance from others, including Kerry Pinkstone, a former senior adviser to Malcolm Turnbull when he was prime minister.

For national lobbying work, 89 Degrees East partnered with DPG Advisory Solutions, a firm owned by David Gazard, a former News Corp journalist with ties to the Liberal Party, including as an adviser to senior members of the Howard government, including the prime minister John Howard.

The consortium also included the three partners of the Hobart-based Font PR: Becher Townshend, Brad Stansfield and Brad Nowland, who has since left the firm. Stansfield was a chief-of-staff to former premier Will Hodgman and worked on the Liberal Party’s 2018 and 2021 state election campaigns.

TasNetworks signed off on a two-year contract for the 89 Degrees East consortium shortly before the then premier, Peter Gutwein, called the 2021 state election.

Dr Tom Baxter, a corporate governance expert, said the overlap between 89 Degrees East’s contract and state and federal election campaigns raised many questions. They included whether the contract was suspended while the Tasmanian government was in caretaker mode last year and whether sub-contracted lobbyists also worked on party-political Tasmanian and or federal election campaigns.“If so, how was that declared and managed in terms of caretaker conventions and conflicts of interest?” he said.

Shortly after the consortium won the TasNetworks contract, Sasha Grebe, an associate at DPG Advisory Solutions and a former adviser to treasurer Scott Morrison, registered as the Canberra-based lobbyist for Marinus Link. Lindsay Tanner, the minister for finance and deregulation in the first Rudd Labor government and who now runs his own lobbying firm, registered as Marinus Link’s Victorian lobbyist in July 2021.

A political focus

The minutes of a fortnightly steering committee of the TasNetworks campaign team in mid-August 2021 provides a window into the utility’s campaign. In the course of the committee discussion, the campaign team discussed meetings or contact with 13 state and federal MPs.

Font PR was asked to provide background information for a forthcoming meeting with Tasmanian Liberal Senator Wendy Askew and 89 Degrees East was to give a briefing to the Victorian Liberals’ renewable energy spokesperson, Brad Rosswell. The document also flagged meetings with the NSW Energy Minister, Matt Kean, and the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews.

The minutes note a briefing of Tasmanian Labor Party’s spokesperson on energy, Dean Winter, by the Marinus Link chief executive, Bess Clark, and a briefing of then Liberal senator Eric Abetz. One task reported as completed was “informal outreach” to federal Liberal MP from Braddon, Gavin Pearce, Barnett, the chief executive of the Tasmanian Small Business Council, Robert Mallett, and the chief executive of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Michael Bailey.

Other documents reveal Stansfield was the go-between to organise an October 2021 meeting between TasNetworks staff and Liberal Senator Clare Chandler. On another occasion, Katherine Halliday from TasNetworks emailed Stansfield and Townshend requesting they contact state Liberal MP Madeleine Ogilvie to set up a meeting about the Marinus project.

The steering committee meeting minutes reported a “4-week federal election work plan” had been completed. It noted that in a meeting with Labor’s climate change and energy spokesperson, Chris Bowen, he had committed the federal ALP to support the project and “agreed to find opportunities over the coming months to do so publicly”.

Not all attempts by the TasNetworks campaign team to broker meetings with politicians were successful. The then Victorian Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, rebuffed a request for an appointment. The steering committee minutes noted he “formally requested a briefing via his Tas counterparts in Minister Barnett’s office”.

Baxter said the TasNetworks campaign raised important questions about the appropriateness of a government business running a campaign to win political favour. “In my view, advocacy for a project such as this should be done government to government, through traditional inter-governmental channels, not by a government business enterprise paying former political advisers and ministers turned lobbyists this much public money,” he said.

Baxter noted that the TasNetworks contract spanned Tasmanian and federal elections and would overlap with the upcoming Victorian and New South Wales elections.

“This risks inappropriate interference before and during election campaigns,” he said.

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based author, researcher, editor and freelance journalist. He is the Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments for the US-based non-profit group Global Energy Monitor. His freelance journalism has been published in a wide range of news outlets from the British Medical Journal to the US-based PR Watch.

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