Waubra Fights The Anti-Wind Bullies


It’s spring in the quiet sheep-farming hamlet of Waubra, an hour’s drive northwest of Ballarat in Victoria. With the shearing done and the crops in, local farmers have turned to a bit of springtime mending. Not fences, but the town’s image. After three years saddled with the negative legacy of the "foundation" that stole their name, local farmer, Karen Molloy, says the community is fighting back with a bumper festival.

Back in 2009, Waubra hit the news when powerful forces linked to mining interests, and Australia’s climate sceptic factory, the Institute of Public Affairs, used what was then the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere as an easy target for their anti-wind scare campaign. The establishment of the Waubra Foundation followed.

"For three years, we’ve lived here quite happily. We love the wind towers and love Waubra. But it is so much more than wind so we’ve dropped the word "Wind" from the Waubra Community Festival", Molloy said.

The festival, which takes place on Saturday 6 October, will showcase the positives of renewable energy as well as the fresh produce grown in its red volcanic soil. There’ll be a "Waubra Gift" running race, free rides, entertainment for the whole family, a free bus from Ballarat and a tour of the wind farm.

"So, come on guys, give us a fair go, give us some positive news", Karen Molloy pleaded.

Festival President and fifth generation farmer, Doug Hobson agreed. "Communities are forgiving, but we need to put to bed this urban myth about issues with wind turbines and start fighting back."

In November 2009, just one month after the Waubra Wind Farm was fully operational, wealthy mining investment consultant, Peter Mitchell, acting as Public Officer for the "Western Plains Landscape Guardians" took out a full-page advertisement in the Pyrenees Advocate. Guaranteed to provoke a backlash to the wind farm, it warned of "Waubra disease" — headaches, sleeping problems and increased heart rate.

Five months later, Mitchell angered locals when he stole the name of their town to create the Waubra Foundation. In spite of its claim to be independent from anti-wind advocates, the Foundation is predominantly run by the Pecksniffian-sounding "Landscape Guardians". (See my stories on the Landscape Guardians here and here.)

In July 2010, Sarah Laurie joined as its Medical Director, first listing her qualifications as an MD (Research) Degree but later changing it to a BM BS after the University of Sydney’s Professor of Public Health, Simon Chapman, revealed her actual qualifications.

The Guardians, established by Mitchell, are a powerful, well-resourced and rapidly expanding anti-wind astroturf group.

The Australian Landscape Guardians, Waubra Foundation and Mitchell’s investment company, Lowell Resources Funds Management Limited which, lists "coal in various forms" as the "stand out" investment performer, all share the same address and P.O. Box in South Melbourne.

The pressure group appears to be modelled on the UK climate-sceptic-run and nuclear-funded Country Guardians, set up by Sir Bernard Ingham, consultant to the nuclear industry and an acknowledged "black belt" in the art of spin.

The foundation has no Waubra residents on its board or any connection to the town of Waubra other than having hijacked its name — then stigmatised it further with its cause célèbre, the medically debunked "Waubra disease".

Karen Molloy tried to get the Waubra Foundation name changed through the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, without success.

"My children go to Waubra Primary School, my husband, Steven and I are in the Waubra Football Club. This is our town, use another name!" she said.

But when you Google "Waubra", the Waubra Foundation is near the top of the search results.

According to Doug Hobson, the term "Waubra disease" was first used in an ABC report in 2010. It was based on a sample of just half a dozen people out of some 500-600 residents in the Waubra district. One is known to have had his symptoms before the wind farm was built.

The "alleged" disease is now more commonly called "Wind Turbine Syndrome" (WTS). According to Simon Chapman, the self-published book by Nina Pierpont, Laurie’s counterpart, and her anti-wind activist husband, "appears not once in the US national Library of Medicine’s online PubMed library of over 21 million biomedical papers".  Chapman compiled a list of 17 reviews of the international research literature on wind farms and health. All concur that while turbines might annoy a small number of people, they don’t make them ill.

Karen Molloy and Doug Hobson are among 37 hosting wind turbines. All live within one kilometre of the turbines but not one of them has experienced WTS.

In spite of the 2011 Senate Inquiry finding no link between wind turbines and illness, the scaremongers (together with a complicit Victorian government that prefers brown coal to renewables) have sent an estimated $3 billion in wind investment into free-fall.

On the face of it, the Guardians’ modus operandi has been devastatingly effective. Whenever a regional centre is earmarked for wind farm expansion, media releases go out from the "local" Guardian groups. Provocative advertisements guarantee some local attendance at the town hall meetings although, revealingly, most are non-local.

At the Yass meeting in July 2011, locals reported being outnumbered three to one by the rent-a-crowd climate skeptics and anti-wind supporters. Laurie delivered her usual scary evidence with her medical badge of authority. This she does with impunity as only registered GPs need comply with the AMA Code of Ethics.  No one from the wind industry or proponents of wind farms was invited.

Similarly, Karen Molloy described the first Waubra public meeting as "stacked with outsiders". "It was our community meeting. It should have been a meeting of the Waubra community but we had these anti-wind people coming from as far afield as Gippsland. What gave them the right to barge into my community?" she asked.

Wherever the Guardians go, the scene turns ugly. At Waubra, the venue was moved after a bomb scare. Property was also damaged. In Colac in 2009, former energy minister Peter Batchelor, had his leg slammed in a car door. It’s reminiscent of the scenes which follow Koch-funded astroturfers in the US.

More recently, another resident near Waubra who toyed with the idea of hosting wind turbines five years ago, discovered his property had been trashed.

At Leonards Hill, cars were beaten with placards and shaken. Simon Holmes a Court’s children heard a man yell: "I hope you all die of cancer." A woman who had been a pillar of the local community was "stood over as the vile words were spat in her face: ‘F… off back to Melbourne, you sanctimonious middle class c…!’".

At the Senate Inquiry, Holmes a Court, Chairman of the Hepburn Wind Farm submitted a leaked running sheet from the Australian Environment Foundation (AEF). It was addressed to the Guardians detailing the strategy for a protest at Leonards Hill including the signage held by the thug-like crowd of predominantly outsiders later captured in a photo.

The AEF is a known astroturfer, funded by vested interests, and whose use of a lookalike name and lookalike logo was the subject of a legal challenge by the Australian Conservation Foundation. AEF’s Executive Director, Max Rheese, was guest presenter at Trawool last month at the proposed Cherry Hill wind farm public meeting. Rheese is also Executive Director of another anti-renewables group, Australian Climate Science Coalition, one of over a hundred climate skeptic astroturfers allegedly funded by Exxon (see Exxonsecrets).

The New South Wales and South Australian governments are currently reviewing guidelines for wind farms. Neither government is likely to ignore a recent poll that 77 per cent of Australians support wind farms.

There are positive financial benefits for communities hosting wind farms. For example, PricewaterhouseCooper’s analysis of ACCIONA’s Waubra wind farm forecasts an increase in Victoria’s Central Highlands gross regional product by $346 million (6.0 per cent) over the long run with employment increasing by an average of 2.7 per cent (1680 FTE jobs). ACCIONA Energy continues to contribute $64,000 (plus annual CPI increases) each year to the Waubra Wind Farm Community Benefit Fund.

But are the financial benefits getting out to those regions slated for future wind farms?

Sarah Laurie, her Guardians and skeptics roadshow and the anti-environment misnamed Australian Environment Foundation, have now made it all but impossible to explain the positives of wind power at a town hall debate. What have they got to fear from a balanced debate? Isn’t it time the Australian public was given a fair go?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.