Tilting at windmills as the Greens take on power

STONE the Crows! Bob Brown is believing his own bunkum. On the weekend, Brown told Dennis Shanahan the Greens are set to become a major political party, likely to replace Labor.[i] To which the Crows just caw. Certainly the senator now has nine colleagues with him in the upper house and the Greens have done what the Democrats never managed – win a lower house seat.

But being a real political party requires more than a platform (built of sustainable plantation timber of course) that asserts trees are good, green energy is better and capitalists, especially coal miners, are responsible for everything awful.

It means acting in the national interest, understanding that politics is not a morality play and accepting that economic growth is essential, even if it upsets special interest pleaders.

To understand how real politics is tougher than green, grizzling Senator Brown need only observe changing attitudes to wind farming.

In 2003, The Australian published a leader on growing opposition to wind farms on the Fleurieu Peninsula south of Adelaide, making the unremarkable point that just because locals loathed whirring towers that intruded on their views this was not an adequate reason to stop the development, “at least not until its opponents come up with a better alternative energy source than their own outrage”.[ii]

It was an unremarkable editorial, which the hack who wrote it remembers generating a few angry letters and a couple of the abusive phone calls which are the leader writers’ lot, but nothing out of the ordinary.

But as wind-farming expanded so did the anger they generated. Last year The Australian’s environment editor Graham Lloyd wrote a feature setting out opposition to turbines among the gentry (including ABC chairman Maurice Newman and union leader John Coombs) of the Southern Highlands.[iii] It was Lloyd’s usual astute effort, but his neutral report of what the opponents of wind farms, at least next to their back paddock think, generated a force-12 gale of agreement that they made people sick and were generally a very bad idea. Another Lloyd story, on opposition to wind farming in South Australia, generated a similar response. [iv]

And the seeds of the Greens’ destruction are blowing on that wind. On the one hand, the Greens lose all reason to exist if they oppose alternative energy – like wind power. On the other their support base includes a left-wing of deep-green and red-green activists and a right-wing of generally conservative populists who oppose everything, especially if it involves change they fear might affect them and who use “the environment” as a synonym for their own perceived self-interest.

Holding this coalition together, now the Party has the balance of power in the Senate, will make being Green very hard indeed.

The report on wind farms by the Senate’s Community Affairs References Committee, released last month, explains why.[v]

The inquiry set the Greens’ two wings against each other, with scientists and wind farm developers caught in the middle. (GE picked a spectacularly stupid time to run double page newspaper image advertisement promoting its wind farm work). [vi]

It must have made the inquiry all sorts of fun for the committee chair, Greens senator Rachel Siewert

To have any credibility as responsible advocates of emissions reduction, the Greens are locked into wind for the time being. According to estimates quoted by the Productivity Commission on the levelised cost of electricity model, wind requires $150 to $214 per MWh, compared to $400-$473Wh for “medium sized solar” (coal-fired electricity is $78-90). [vii]

But this cut no carbon for opponents of wind farms, who variously complained to the committee that wind turbines reduce their property values and neither government nor companies consulted them.

In particular, people were upset that the National Health and Medical Research Council did not accept American doctor Nina Pierpont’s diagnosis of Wind Turbine Syndrome as a disease, when they know wind turbines are making them ill (Crows 33[viii]).

But Professor Simon Chapman, from the Climate and Health Alliance and the University of Sydney, was not having Pierpont’s work:

… on a number of grounds. He considered that the sample used was too small and unrepresentative in terms of the medical history of the respondents to the survey; that the respondents had not been medically examined; that Dr Pierpont’s book had not been peer reviews; and that Dr Pierpont did not have any other publications in the field. [ix]

Surprisingly, Dr Pierpont is equally unimpressed by her critics.[x]

But, as well as illness, there is a lot of anger among people who feel powerless when wind farmers arrive, people who feel the bush is paying for green whims. Thus, Max Rheese writes:

There is no escaping the fact that wind power is little more than a mechanism to transfer wealth from electricity consumers to multi-national energy companies, falsely disguised as environmental benefit. [xi]

There is also a hint of Hansonite bush revolt in the push against wind farms that led the Baillieu Government to deliver on its opposition promise to make it harder to establish them.[xii]

The Senate report summarised a smart submission from British acoustics consultant Dick Bowdler:

If people feel that they are not being treated fairly, they will perceive, rightly or wrongly, that: their lives will be blighted by these developments, they will gain no benefit, they pay subsidies in the form of Tax (sic), they pay more for electricity, developers make all the money. [xiii]

Labor MLA for East Ballarat Geoff Howard nailed the nature of the debate after a Senate Committee hearing in his town was dominated by wind opponents:

At events such as this, people who want to say something positive about wind would feel threatened and people generally get on with their lives unless they have a significant issue that they want to push. [xiv]

So, what’s a Green to do when wind supporters expect her and her comrades to fix the problem while community activists denounce the party’s policies? In the end, Senator Siewert’s committee weasel-worded the health issue calling for more research and claiming wind farms were good for regional economies.

But while the party line was buried it was still there in the “Committee’s view” that:

The public good , i.e. greenhouse gas abatement, which is produced by the wind industry, should be taken into account. [xv]

It’s the sort of dilemma that politicians who attempt to represent the national interest have to deal with all the time. Wind is just one tiny example of the sorts of issues the Greens will now have to address.

The test of whether they can become a real political party will be their capacity to make decisions that upset some of their constituents. And for once they will not be able to blame the people in power.


[i] [i] Dennis Shanahan, “Greens will supersede ALP: Brown” The Australian, July 2

[ii] “Protestors blowing hard against wind,” The Australian, July 19 2003

[iii] Graham Lloyd, “The great wind rush,” The Weekend Australian, November 27 2010

[iv] Graham Lloyd, “Doubt over green energy’s clean bill of health,” The Weekend Australian, March 5

[v] The Senate, Community Affairs References Committee, “The Social and Economic Impact of Rural Wind Farms,” June 23 @ www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/clac_ctte/impact_rural_wind_farms/report/ recovered on July 2

[vi] “Two letters can turn more wind into watts,” The Australian, June 30, The Australian Financial Review, July 1

[vii] Productivity Commission, Carbon Emission Policies in Key Economies (May, 2011) 81@ www.pc.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/109830/carbon-prices.pdf recovered on July 2

[viii] Stone the Crows 33, July 12 2010 “Not in my back paddock” @ www.thesydneyinstitute.com.au/issue-33/ recovered on July 2

[ix] Community Affairs Reference Committee, op cit 21

[x] Graham Lloyd, “Wind turbines report ‘pitiful’ ” The Weekend Australian, March 26

[xi] Max Rheese, “Wind policy failures,” Quadrant Online March 24 @ www.quadrant.org.au/blogs/doomed-planet/2011/03/wind-energy-policy recovered on July 2

[xii] Pia Akerman, “Noise level blow for wind farm,” The Weekend Australian, June 25

[xiii] Community Affairs Reference Committee, op cit 9

[xiv] Margaret Burin, “Wind farm criticism dominates Senate inquiry hearing in Ballarat,” ABC Ballarat, March 29 @ www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2011/03/29/3176731.htm recovered on July 2

[xv] Community Affairs Reference Committee, op cit 63