Last Monday morning, two weeks before election day, journalists in Toowoomba began calling and emailing the Labor candidate for the seat of Groom, Gen Allpass, to ask whether she supported the expansion of the controversial New Acland coalmine.
“I had all the media after me that day, and some online trolling as well,” Allpass said.
The calls were prompted by a press release sent by the “Friends of New Acland Coal Mine”, which claimed to be a “4,000-strong member organisation”.
The statement, headed “Does the Labour [sic] candidate for Groom support New Acland Stage 3?”, sought to put pressure Allpass to publicly state her position on the New Acland expansion. It had no contact phone number and instead directed newsrooms to an email address and Facebook page. There has been no response to Guardian Australia’s questions sent to the email address.
Guardian Australia reported in 2018 that the same Facebook page was at the time moderated by the head of media and communications of the mine’s foreign-owned parent company, New Hope Group.
A 2018 report by the Australia Institute claimed the page was part of an “astroturfing” campaign by New Hope which was “designed to superficially appear like grassroots community-led organising rather than orchestrated commercial marketing”.
“To the casual observer, these online groups appear to show a great deal of community-led organisation but are actually run by New Hope Group to give the impression of widespread public support for their [expansion].”
New Hope Group was contacted but did not respond to questions.
The Friends of New Acland Mine statement claims the group is “a 4,000-member strong community group comprising of farmers, landholders, families, business owners and community members”.
The claim of 4,000 members appears to relate to the number of followers of the Friends of New Acland Mine Facebook page.
The page’s privacy settings obscure a complete list of followers, but 19 “top fans” who are most active on the page are able to be viewed by the public. Of these top fans, more than half do not appear to live in the local area.
Four appear to be New Hope employees, including one who lives in Brisbane.
Guardian Australia attempted to ask the group about its funding and membership, including whether it could back up the claim of 4,000 community “members”, but received no response.
Paul King, the secretary of the Oakey Coal Action Alliance – a local group campaigning against the expansion – said he believed that the Friends of New Acland Mine was “masquerading as a genuine community organisation”.
The Friends of New Acland Mine page has previously run paid advertisements on Facebook criticising Labor politicians. These were taken down by Facebook because they were posted “without a disclaimer”. Some of those advertisements link to a website that was registered by New Hope Group.
The Australian Electoral Commission said it “does not regulate the content of political messages” such as press releases and that Friends of New Acland Mine was not a disclosure entity that would require an authorisation on its statements.
On Tuesday, the group released another statement, “seeking clarity” about whether the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, supports the mine expansion.
Allpass said she refused to play the game – approvals being sought for the New Acland mine were a matter for the state government.
The Labor candidate said she visited the New Acland site a few weeks ago but was surprised at the attempt by the Facebook group to pressure her to publicly support the mine expansion.
“I’ve never ever seen anything else from that group other than that,” she said. “Had they wanted to come and have a conversation, they could have at any stage done that.”