CAROLINE JONES, PRESENTER: Hello I’m Caroline Jones. Tonight we visit a scenic valley where a bestselling author and a group of local residents have stared down a corporate giant. The setting is the spectacular Manning Valley in the mid-north coast region of New South Wales. When the electricity transmission company TransGrid decided to build a high voltage line through the valley the local community elected to fight. What they discovered has far reaching implications and it’s taken them and their cause all the way to the top. This is their story.
DI MORRISSEY, AUTHOR: I was born in the Manning Valley and I moved back here about five years ago and I chose this place because of its lifestyle, its beauty and it just holds such a special place in my heart. It’s one of those places I suppose that you find in special pockets all around Australia. It’s extraordinarily beautiful, it’s old dairy country of rolling green hills, a magnificent Manning River, it’s got the brush this extraordinary stand of old rainforest. I mean for me as a writer for anyone that is a painter or artistic or needs a place that is tranquil and special this was the place to be. But all of a sudden it did not work out ah the way I had anticipated. Things really changed 2011 at Christmas time and we got this announcement from TransGrid, it kind of leaked through the valley to various households that there was this proposal for this extraordinary massive powerlines
MICHAEL WEST, FAIRFAX MEDIA JOURNALIST: When I first heard about this story when Bruce first called me, what appealed to me about it was that it had the qualities of a David and Goliath type of battle.
TRANSGRID CORPORATE VIDEO: TransGrid provides the high voltage services for NSW. To do that we’ve got approximately 13000 kilometres of high voltage transmission lines.
MICHAEL WEST, FAIRFAX MEDIA JOURNALIST: I mean I usually do really boring stories as a business journalist but you had this industry structure which really needed to be investigated.
TRANSGRID CORPORATE VIDEO: Capital is scarce. We don’t want to invest in new plant unless we need to. So the backdrop was sharply rising energy prices affecting everybody every time you opened up your bill recoiling in horror at the 30 per cent rise or the 10 per cent rise and everybody in the country felt the impact of these rises.
SEVEN NEWS JOURNALIST: Sydney families are tonight working out how they’re going to pay for a shock rise in power bills.
NINE NEWS JOURNALIST: Soaring power prices are destroying your family budget in more ways than one.
MICHAEL WEST, FAIRFAX MEDIA JOURNALIST: I don’t think anybody thought this local issue would end up transcending to the national stage. I don’t think anybody would have anticipated that.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: We received a letter in the mail saying that TransGrid were proposing to build a 330,000 volt electricity superhighway down our valley. TransGrid is a wholly state owned transmission service provider, it’s the one in New South Wales that builds the big power lines. It was over a thousand properties were going to be affected depending on which corridor. A couple of months later we got a letter saying that we were in one of the proposed corridors and that really is when it sort of hits home.
(Bruce standing in valley)
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: One of the original proposals put forward by TransGrid was to have a tower on this hill and then on the hill where the cows are and then on across the river in that direction and it really would have been pretty ugly.
BELINDA ROBERTSON: When you start looking into some of the possible health effects of living so close to the power lines there are some concerns and I mean there is no way we would stay living that close to those power lines. So for us it was just going to completely uproot our lives and you look at the value of your property and it’s you can halve it.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: I’m a biodynamic beef farmer and that is basically a type of organic farming. We are trying to produce a natural product in a natural environment and being next to a piece of industrial infrastructure doesn’t do it for my customers. Most people including me said don’t waste your time trying to oppose it because the legislative power that these companies have is pretty much overwhelming, they can pretty much do what they want in terms of putting in infrastructure where they want it how they want it, how they want it.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: I moved to the Manning Valley with my wife Helen in 2007. We’d lived in the hectic pace of Sydney for all of our lives in fact and we wanted to rejuvenate ourselves by living in the clean air living in a pristine environment. The bulk of my career was working as a professional sports coach and a professional sports administrator. Working with sporting bodies gives you an opportunity to understand how to work with volunteers, how to motivate volunteers and how to maintain the momentum necessary to achieve results.
DI MORRISSEY, AUTHOR: Peter decided back in 2011 that what we needed was a community group to bring us all together so that became the Manning Alliance because we were at that point fighting the threat which is ongoing of coal seam gas. We were just moving ahead with our anti-coal seam gas mining campaign when this nightmare of TransGrid drops into our laps. Peter is passionate. He’s not a man to sit back down and go there’s nothing we can do. We just felt it was time for people to actually stand up and say “Enough is Enough” and we’re going to fight you.
(Community group meeting)
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: We all need to stand together we need to unite we need to work together as one group and we will prevail
(Applause from audience)
DI MORRISSEY, AUTHOR: The whole town you know was up in arms and the whole valley was so we were now geared up with armour on. Peter decided to invite the head honchos and he picked the team of Bruce and David and Rod and himself and he put them in suits and ties.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE(talking to board): Even at this early stage lots of people are talking about the fact that these high voltage power lines emit fields and people are scared of them.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: We drilled into every single element of the project and we grilled them on every aspect that we could consider at that time.
ROD OBERG, ENGINEER (talking to board): : I’ve got them all lines out on the management side of it I know exactly where they are
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: TransGrid’s main message to us was hand on heart they sat there and they said ah Mr Robertson Mr Epov you know if this project doesn’t go ahead and is not completed by 2016 the lights in the valley will go out and we cannot have that. I said well what goes into your forecasts and they said “oh you wouldn’t understand it.” And the hairs on the back of my neck stood up literally. Just before I left Sydney I was working as a fund manager for BT which is obviously a very large organisation managing many billions of dollars.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER (to board): It’s pretty easy for them to write a press release saying….
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: My expertise is in forecasting and industry analysis in trying to pull apart an industry and work out what is actually happening. So it kind of rang alarm bells when they said I wouldn’t understand something.
LEE OBERG: These are the corridors that they’ve proposed there’s no solid data telling us we do need this in our valley
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: So we started our campaign with a mass petition. We started to hit television and radio and the local newspaper and we were very encouraged by the support that we received from our local media.
(Media montage/newspaper headlines in clippings)
NEWS READER: The Manning Alliance has called for electricity company TransGrid to suspend its major upgrade project from Stroud to Lansdowne.
NEWS READER II: The Manning Alliance says the upgrade would be an overkill for the region’s population
DI MORRISSEY, AUTHOR: There was a sense that we know we don’t need these power poles because we know there has been a drop in people moving here. So you know the projections were not right but of course we had to prove that
(Peter and David talking through graphs)
DAVID RANKIN, AIRLINE PILOT: You go back to 2005 and the demand level now is less than it was in 2005.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: David Rankin found some remarkable statistics for us. We could see first hand proof that demand was falling in the country.
DAVID RANKIN, AIRLINE PILOT: It’s been a consistent fall and it’s still falling
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: One of the other key finds was a report by Brian Tamberlin QC into the electricity industry. In that report we found that Mr Tamberlin had identified the overinvestment in infrastructure.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE(to David): The fact that they get a 10 per cent return on their investment is an incentive for them to spend more.
MICHAEL WEST, FAIRFAX MEDIA JOURNALIST: This excessive spending this overinvestment has been going on for around about five years perhaps longer. It’s counter intuitive because you think in most businesses if you over invest then that’s wasted money.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: When companies like TransGrid invest into infrastructure they receive what’s called a regulated return on their investment. The critical question and the real issue is who then actually pays for that overinvestment and it’s us the people and we have to pay that through our electricity bills.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: Peter and David and actually a number of other people in the Manning Alliance as well were feeding me reports on the industry. There were just mountains of these reports that people sent me and basically I had to decipher and try and pull out the core arguments out of them and try and build on our case.
BELINDA ROBERTSON: When Bruce gets fired up about an idea he’s very single minded and will leave no stone unturned to find the truth of the matter. It was like one o’clock or two o’clock in the morning he’d come to bed really frequently because he would just be looking for something. He was really driven on by the excitement of what he was uncovering. For those months he was in his full on analyst mode and finding out that what in fact we were being told was perhaps a manipulation of the facts.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: Bruce’s work was quite crucial in this regard because he managed to forge the links and we effectively connected all the dots which showed that they were building a project that was unnecessary, and consequently we could show that this was gold plating. What we had to do was go to the next level and that next level meant we had to get attention and focus in Sydney and nationally.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: I rang up Michael West from the Sydney Morning Herald and told him I had this great story and how it involved the electricity industry and how it was really weird the way they were paid.
MICHAEL WEST, FAIRFAX MEDIA JOURNALIST: Bruce and I had worked together as stockbrokers together for a firm in Sydney in the 1990’s. Out of the blue I get a phone call “how are you going? I’ve got a story for you.” And I told him that I wasn’t huge on local issues but we chatted and it dawned on me that he was onto something really substantial. And so we did story after story and went deeper and deeper into it. And we were getting 100,000 hits on these stories. There was a couple of follow-ups from the commercial television current affairs shows.
(A Current Affair, August 13, 2012)
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: It’s very hard for people to stomach. It’s a national scandal a system gone mad.
NEWS READER: It’s a national scandal, a system gone mad.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: Once we had the, what I would term the economic data in play it then became much easier to speak to people in authority and people with influence.
(A Current Affair, August 13, 2012)
NEWS READER: The Manning Alliance has been invited to send its submissions on future energy policies directly to key decision makers
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: One of the turning points I think for our campaign was our meeting with the Australian Energy regulator. I think they realised that this was a big issue and it was far bigger than just our little area now.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: And they agreed to then write to TransGrid and to investigate what they were planning to do
(NBN News, June 2012)
NBN NEWS READER: Electricity giant TransGrid has been reviewing its $100 million upgrade project.
PETER EPOV: Each year TransGrid have to publish an annual planning report and within that they have to identify demand. It was the first real breakthrough because in that report they admitted that they had to review the justification of the project as demand was falling.
HANNAH DUNN, TRANSGRID: The review determined that building a smaller single pole 132 kv power line in the 2020’s would now be a sufficient option to meet the region’s electricity needs.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: We had won a little battle we hadn’t won the war. We had to build on that platform, we had to continue building until we totally stopped the project.
DI MORRISSEY, AUTHOR: Peter decided that we should take this straight to our political leaders now that we had the facts and the figures.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: MLC John Kay who was tremendously helpful to us organised a power prices forum in NSW parliament House and we went down there and presented to some parliamentarians.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: I think we touched a very raw nerve when we went to Parliament House because it was quite audacious.
(NSW Parliament, Legislative Council, 6 September, 2012)
HON. DUNCAN GAY, MINISTER FOR ROADS AND PORTS: So here we have it organisations like the Manning Alliance and the Greens that are in lockstep across this State stopping sensible things happening.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: Rob Oakeshott was genuinely concerned about spiralling electricity prices and their impact on our local community. We staged a series of briefings for him we engaged with him, and he started to communicate on our behalf with members of parliament.
ROB OAKESHOTT, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR LYNE: It has real social consequences…
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: The fact that we’re a lot poorer around here it’s about a third of people are actually struggling to pay their energy bills.
ROB OAKESHOTT, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR LYNE: The work that Peter and Bruce had done was impressive. What the Manning Alliance’s work actually did was help to separate where the real costs are in your quarterly power bill so it was a really important contribution at the time otherwise I think everyone would have just fallen over and accepted yes it’s all about the carbon tax when in reality it’s not.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: Peter wrote to the Prime Minister and Rob delivered the letter. She ended up using some of our terms that we had popularised such as gold plating.
(Press conference Canberra, ABC Archive, 29 October, 2012)
JULIA GILLARD, FORMER PRIME MINISTER: Something that I explained to the Australian nation last year which is the real drivers of cost in electricity including the extraordinary levels of investment we have seen in the poles in wires the so called gold plating of the system that then feeds through to the prices that family and businesses pay.
ROB OAKESHOTT, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR LYNE: Inspired by Bruce and Peter and the Alliance we pulled together a private member’s bill that I introduced last year to the Australian Parliament.
ROB OAKESHOTT, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR LYNE (to press): It’s really important that the detail of why the market failure and what we as a parliament can do about it on part of consumers, that’s why I’ve brought these two guys down, that’s why we’ve put the bill into parliament.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE(to press): Thank you Rob all I’d like to say is that in this country now we’re facing a major electricity price crisis.
ROB OAKESHOTT, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR LYNE: And we all fronted a press conference to explain everything that is going on in the energy market and trying to get a community based voice through the likes of Bruce and Peter to really provide some third party support to saying this actually matters for all Australians.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER (to press): We’ve uncovered many facts about this industry using reputable industry data and sources that astounded us, and I think has astounded the Australian public.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: Later in the year the Senate announced an inquiry into electricity prices and we put in a submission to this inquiry.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: Grid Australia also which is the peak body for the transmission companies in Australia. It put in a submission. What I particularly objected to was the fact that they stated that peak demand was rising and that is why they are building more infrastructure.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: I did an interview on Sydney radio on ABC 702 with James Valentine.
(Excerpt of interview)
JAMES VALENTINE: Bruce what are you going to do with all this?
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: Well look there is a Senate inquiry and I hope that they take this on board. I put in a submission to Grid Australia’s submission in which I called it misleading and deceptive, which is pretty strong language but I used that advisedly because it simply is. The facts are that demand has actually fallen.
(End of excerpt)
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: That criticism of Grid Australia landed me in a lot of trouble. I was arguing much like Galileo he argued that the Earth was round when the common thought of the day was that it was flat and for his trouble he was dealt with very harshly.
BELINDA ROBERTSON: In early November Bruce received an extremely threatening legal letter from a very large law firm and it was very, very scary.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: It’s not every day that a $10 billion industry backed by state governments using one of the leading legal firms in the world sends you a legal letter. It’s more than a little bit intimidating.
BELINDA ROBERTSON: It just eats you because you know that if you go to court you will never win regardless of who is right or wrong and it was also such a threat against free speech.
ROB OAKESHOTT, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR LYNE: Bruce rang me and was pretty concerned about it and was trying to weigh up what to do about it. Well the decision that was taken was not to step back and it was not to go to water if they were going to play ball in a hard way they were going to have to do it with the full sunshine of newspapers, TV, and right in the middle of the public square.
MICHAEL WEST, FAIRFAX MEDIA JOURNALIST: First of all we basically reproduced the legal letter the threat and there was a deluge of emails and responses. Shortly afterwards the most crazy thing happened.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: We found that Grid Australia was not a company. It didn’t have a company structure it didn’t appear to be an association and then we progressively discovered that they potentially weren’t in a position in fact to sue Bruce. When we delved into the situation further we found that they actually were using the ABN of a company in Melbourne which was unrelated to them.
MICHAEL WEST, FAIRFAX MEDIA JOURNALIST: So I wrote an article exposing this bizarre turn of events and the ABN number. So two weeks after Grid Australian sent their threatening legal letter they backed down.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: I received an email from Grid Australia apologising to me for the legal action and saying that they had withdrawn. I finally breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn’t going to be forced into penury
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: The only conclusion you can draw is that they were trying to muzzle me because I was becoming too effective a spokesperson for the ordinary punter out there who has to pay his electricity bill. It’s been a pretty tough year for Belinda and my children, it’s the whole TransGrid experience is not one I’d wish on anybody.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: We knew were in a box seat. We knew we had touched the chord, a very raw nerve and it was a response to the fact that they were in a hopeless position and they were going to lose.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: The senate inquiry reported and they basically backed up what we were saying about gold plating and it was the single largest cause of the electricity price rises that consumers had experienced in Australia. So we had the New south Wales government Rollinson Report come out and say he failed to see the reasons for the planned upgrade. Then we had the Australian Energy Regulator come out and say that they could not justify the upgrade and finally TransGrid read the writing on the wall.
(NBN, April 2013)
NBN REPORTER: TransGrid has confirmed it’s abandoning its Stroud to Taree transmission line for the time being. The Manning Alliance says the decision is a victory for people power.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: We had achieved a 100 per cent victory. This was not a 98 or a 99 per cent victory, we had got 100 per cent of what we were after.
DI MORRISSEY, AUTHOR: We had no money, we had no backing we had no infrastructure we just had a bunch of people that were determined and passionate and led by Peter guided into a campaign that from a grass roots level grew to be quite powerful.
PETER EPOV, CHAIRMAN MANNING ALLIANCE: I felt a great deal of relief because it was a very long battle. Personally I had spent the entire 15 months working on this campaign. I was elated for the community, and more importantly I was elated in the fact that we could demonstrate to people that if people worked together and if they combined together that democracy works.
BRUCE ROBERTSON, FARMER: If you stick together you’re well organised and you come up with a decent argument you can get somewhere and the result we’ve got is not just good for the people of the Manning Valley, it’s good for every electricity consumer in the nation.
Grid Australia and TransGrid preferred not to be interviewed for tonight’s program but provided detailed statements which can be found on our website www.abc.net.au/austory
In summary, Grid Australia denies misleading the Senate Inquiry and says the incorrect use of an ABN was ‘an administrative error which has been rectified.’
After apologising to Mr Robertson for the lawyers’ letter, Grid Australia offered to meet with him and that offer ‘remains open’.
TransGrid has acted on the Rollinson Report and is improving community consultation. Load forecasting is ‘ complex’ which is why TransGrid reviews data regularly and ensures projects are deferred or cancelled when appropriate.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding