Pinning down the real money in a wind war

Victorian and federal government ministers are launching another investigation into wind power and health. Will this expose the Waubra Foundation's claim government departments are denying a wind-health link for financial gain? Or does it reflect more on the money and power of the foundation's board?

Based on a rant of complaint from Sarah Laurie – chief executive of the anti-wind farm Waubra Foundation – to an ABC journalist there is money trail of corruption that leads government agencies, such as the Victorian Department of Health, NSW Health, and the South Australian EPA, to deny that wind farms cause health problems due to production of what is known as infrasound (very low frequency sounds).

For example, back in May 2013 the Victorian Department of Health released the paper Wind farms, sound and health, which concluded:

Infrasound from wind farms is at levels well below the hearing threshold and is therefore inaudible to neighbouring residents.
There is no evidence that sound which is at inaudible levels can have a physiological effect on the human body. This is the case for sound at any frequency, including infrasound.

Laurie believes that journalists need only “follow the money” to find a cover-up. How this money trail flows to the Victorian Department of Health or its staff is not entirely clear. Unless outright bribery of officials by the wind industry is occurring, I can only conclude that this money trail is a product of the Victorian government more generally being anxious to attract wind farm investment to stimulate its economy and employment. Consequently maybe there is a belief that ministers were somehow directing or subtly influencing their health officials to issue advice favourable to wind farm development.

Yet yesterday we learnt that Victorian Health Minister David Davis wrote to his federal counterpart, Peter Dutton, offering to contribute $100,000 for research to investigate whether wind farms are causing health problems.

According to The Australian, Davis told Dutton: “I receive regular correspondence from Victorians living in the vicinity of wind farms who report health effects.” He also wrote, “unfortunately there is a paucity of research available to enhance the community’s understanding of this matter and to inform appropriate government actions and policy development. I consider that a national approach to research is needed.”

His own department seemed pretty emphatic in their own published advice that wind farms simply do not produce a level of infrasound that has a chance of being harmful to human health. Yet Davis believes there is a “paucity” of research to guide government policy. 

What’s going on here?

Davis seems far from convinced wind farms are a non-issue, so is he really directing the Health Department to cover up a threat to human health? Or maybe health officials could be getting brown paper bags from wind farm developers?

Laurie complains to the ABC journalist. “We help any individual group as best we can with very limited financial resources, but it is truly a David and Goliath battle."

Yet one suspects that her side isn’t really lacking for money, power and influence.

Let’s have a look at those leading the anti-wind farm battle.

– Peter Mitchell, who founded the Waubra Foundation has held chairman roles on a number of listed resources companies and is the owner of the grand historic property of Mawallok (described here in all its grandeur).

– Another board member of the foundation that really has no genuine links to the town of Waubra is Dr Michael Wooldridge, former health minister under the Howard government.

– Waubra Board member Tony Hodgson was the founding partner of Ferrier Hodgson, one of Australia’s largest and most successful corporate restructuring and insolvency firms.

– And Charlie Arnott hails from a family that made its fortune from Arnott’s Biscuits (and also happened to own a spectacular multi-million dollar beach house overlooking Wategos Beach in Byron Bay).

Another leading wind farm critic, Maurice Newman, is the chair of the prime minister’s Business Advisory Council, no less, and headed up one of the biggest investment banks in the country. 

In reality, Coalition politicians find themselves besieged by a group of rich and powerful people who are very capable of making their voices heard within the Liberal Party.

So far they haven’t had much luck in bending government officials and health researchers to their point of view. So, in spite of studies finding wind farms produce no appreciable infrasound above background levels in neighbouring homes, the government has been pushed into commissioning yet another wild goose chase of a study.

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