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Windfarm plans in choppy waters as Coalition and One Nation whip up doubts

Frank Future didn’t expect to find an ally in Peter Dutton over his concerns that the offshore wind farm proposed for the Hunter region could have an irreparable impact on the environment.

“He came out with a group of us on that one over there,” he says, pointing to a boat floating metres from the whale watching vessel that he’s run in Nelson Bay for nearly 30 years. “He really saw that there was limited community consultation before that zone was declared.”

Related: How a false claim about wind turbines killing whales is spinning out of control in coastal Australia

Traditionally a Greens or Labor party voter, he says he’s clear-eyed about the involvement of the opposition and One Nation in fighting the wind farm proposal. But when he heard members from both sides speak at a rally in September, they echoed his concerns.

“Most of us feel very custodial about our waters, and there’s a deep foreboding feeling that something could happen here,” he says. “I’m on the side of whales and dolphins and seabirds. These animals don’t have a voice and we don’t stand up for them.”

But others in the community are more skeptical of the motives of politicians weighing into the debate, saying it has continued to escalate and removed the chance for a nuanced discussion on the proposals.

“I think the whole thing has been weaponised for political gain for political agendas,” says Iain Watts, president of Econetwork Port Stephens. “They’re looking for another issue to wedge communities on now the voice is done, and are using the same sort of tactics to seed doubt.”

Last month, a pamphlet from One Nation appeared in the letterboxes of properties that overlook Merewether Beach in Newcastle.

On the front was a link to a petition to “save” the Port Stephens coast from the “proposed installation of towering wind turbines”. On the back it said tourism, property values, marine life and whale migration were threatened if the offshore windfarm zone 20km from the coast was allowed to go ahead.

Watts says political parties have whipped up local opposition and people want to derail the proposal before any of the environmental studies have been carried out.

“We totally support the windfarms, insofar as they are going to ameliorate climate change,” he says. “We need to wait to see the results of the environmental impact statement.”

On Thursday, a “reckless renewables” rally organised by Barnaby Joyce was held outside the New South Wales parliament in Sydney.

Joyce, who skipped federal parliament to be at the rally, said he was no longer running the group because he wanted it to be open to people of all “political persuasions” rather than being a “Nationals show”.

“This is not a pro-climate change rally or an anti-climate change rally, it’s got nothing to do with that,” he said. “This is about overseas companies wringing Australian taxpayers and using our better nature to get their commercial gain.” When asked what the alternative might be, he suggested nuclear power.

A large number of the 300 or so people at the rally were from the Hunter and Illawarra groups opposed to offshore windfarms.

Ben Abbott, one of the founders of the No Coastal Wind Farms Port Stephens Facebook group and who met the climate change minister, Chris Bowen, on Monday, says he is concerned for the region’s tourism industry.

“[Port Stephens] is a coastal tourist town – there’s somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 jobs directly with tourism in our area. So why did I take it up? I’ll tell you now I took it up for my kids,” he told the crowd.

But a number of current and former politicians who joined community speakers at the event took a much harder line. This included NSW One Nation upper house member, Tania Mihailuk, who said Australia’s emissions were too low to have to pick up the “heavy burden”, warning that taxpayers would foot an exorbitant bill to pay for the transition.

The former UAP member Craig Kelly, who also spoke, said “net zero” was “nonsense”. The NSW Liberal Democrats upper house member John Ruddick said he didn’t believe in “global boiling”.

Abbott says he doesn’t agree with the anti-climate change and pro-nuclear rhetoric spruiked at the rally, but says his biggest concern is that the proponents of the project are “in charge of their own environment study”.

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He also says his group, which uses a whale tail as its branding, has stepped back from the claim that windfarms could cause mass whale deaths.

The risk to whales has formed a core part of local campaigns against the windfarm zone, with some posters and placards showing a lifeless whale on the beach. Members of the Port Stephens fishing industry paid for a billboard for three months on a roadside showing a beached whale with turbines in the background.

“It [has] been disproven; we’re not taking the whale thing up anymore,” Abbott says.

But Nathan Clements of the Hunter Jobs Alliance says the damage by the messaging has already been done.

The group have been delivering leaflets and speaking to people to counter misinformation, with a mixed response: some that support, others that don’t, and some confused on what it means for the community.

“The jobs alliance can recognise there are environmental concerns, but our message is: let’s figure that out through a feasibility process,” Clements says.

The proposal has also split environmentalists across the community. Future, who backs onshore windfarms, is hesitant to say whether he would support the offshore version if environmental studies showed marine life would not be harmed and feels there could still be “unknown” harmful effects not unearthed by research.

Shelley Wright, who runs Blue Water Sailing in Corlette, says she’s “cautiously supporting” the proposal because she’s worried about climate change, particularly after a thick blanket of smoke shrouded the Hunter during the black summer bushfires.

“It’s still early days,” she says. “People think the government has approved a windfarm, when that’s not the case – we’re still early in the process.”