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Anti-renewable lobbyists have infiltrated politics, and are exploiting the tricks learned from Big Tobacco. By Mike Seccombe.

Tobacco industry playbook used to kill renewables

A wind farm near Ballarat, Victoria.
Credit: STEVEN CADDY / FLICKR

A bit over a week ago, Simon Chapman, professor in public health at Sydney University, logged into his Twitter account and found himself under threat of being “minced”.

The threat had been made in an incoherent diatribe on Facebook, which one of Chapman’s followers had seen. They forwarded it to him.

In her post, the author called on “those skeptics [sic] friends of mine in Australia who are into Public Health” to pull Chapman and his like into line.

“David and I can turn … them into mince on Twitter – yes Twitter – without much effort. This should not happen. I’m a lawyer with a finance major and David’s a vet with an MBA.

“Now while it’s very nice to win arguments all the time, that’s not the same as being right. And I’d rather be right than feel smug about my own argumentative aptitude.

“I’m relying on you to fix this. And if it isn’t fixed, I will take great pleasure in ensuring the individuals in question aren’t just minced on Twitter.

“Getting minced by a Senate Committee is a lot less fun, I assure you.”

The post would be disturbing if it were just the ranting of some random social media troll. 

But it was not. The author was a person of some power in Australia’s political process, Helen Dale.

You would likely have heard of her, although probably not by that name. Back in 1993, under the name Helen Demidenko, she produced a novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, said to be based on recorded interviews with her Ukrainian relatives about their involvement with Nazis during World War II.

Her claimed Ukrainian background was subsequently revealed to be fraudulent. As Robert Manne put it at the time: “Helen … was the daughter not, as she claims, of an illiterate Ukrainian taxi driver from Cairns, but of a Brisbane couple, Harry and Grace Darville, who arrived on our shores from nowhere more exotic than Scunthorpe [England].”

These days Helen Darville/Demidenko/Dale has recast herself as senior adviser to Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm, whose antipathy to Chapman covers a number of bases.

As a public health advocate, Chapman supports gun control. Leyonhjelm is a former chairman of the Shooters Party. Chapman was a prime mover for stringent anti-smoking laws. Leyonhjelm supports smokers’ rights and the tobacco lobby substantially funds his Liberal Democratic Party. It took $35,000 from Philip Morris in 2013-14.

But it was neither of those things that inspired Dale’s Facebook threat to mince the professor. It was his attitude to renewable energy. Specifically, to wind turbines.

To put it bluntly, Chapman is of the opinion, the very well-informed, scientifically based opinion, that claims about wind turbines having negative health effects are a crock.

Chapman says he first took an interest in the subject out of sociological rather than environmental concern. He thought it a classic case of medical panic sparked by new technology. There is a long history of such panics. The telltale sign is an extended list of often frightening and quite unrelated symptoms, the causation of which is hard to determine.

He can quote numerous other examples stretching back well over a century to the plethora of diseases once attributed to the telephone. There were similar medical panics about televisions, electric blankets, microwave ovens and most recently mobile phone towers.

In the case of wind turbines, the putative reason for people’s ills is noise, particularly something called infrasound – noise at such low frequencies that it can’t actually be heard.

Chapman has spent years documenting the purported effects of infrasound and has a list of a couple of hundred, ranging from brain tumours to heart disease to loss of balance, to the enigmatic condition “loss of bowels”, to weird behaviour in livestock. He has also collected some 25 major scientific studies that have been made of these claims around the world. He is encyclopaedic on the subject. 

“And all of them have basically said there is no evidence that infrasound is harmful to humans,” he says. Except to the extent that they create annoyance, which can in some cases worsen things such as high blood pressure.

Chapman has not restricted himself just to commenting on the science, however. He has been very outspoken over what he perceives to be the real motivations of those who fan public fears of a non-existent threat. Some are genuine but mistaken, but others are “landed gentry” who don’t like wind turbines because they think it reduces the “amenity” of their holdings. Others are “arch-conservatives who don’t subscribe to global warming and think it’s a lot of green nonsense”. Others still have vested interests in the fossil-fuel industry. 

Senate select committee on wind farms

Chapman is scheduled to give evidence Monday before a senate select committee on wind farms, of which Leyonhjelm is a member. This is most inconvenient. The last thing Leyonhjelm and the other anti-windies who dominate its membership wanted was this expert on the subject coming in and confusing things with facts and potentially impugning their motivations. Anyway, their collective mind was already made up.

Indeed, in an odd reversal of the usual, logical order of inquiries – where evidence is taken, recommendations made and then policies implemented – the government already has agreed to implement the findings of the wind committee, before it has finished hearing from witnesses. 

On Thursday a week ago, Guardian Australia reported a leaked draft letter from Environment Minister Greg Hunt agreeing to various demands, including the appointment of a wind-farm commissioner to hear complaints from aggrieved members of the public, and the appointment of an “independent scientific committee” in consultation with members of the senate inquiry and “key industry and regulatory bodies”.

This was extraordinary. The committee is not actually due to deliver its final report until August 3, although it did recently deliver an interim report – coincidentally on the same day as Guardian Australia reported Hunt’s offer – outlining a wish list of industry-nobbling measures that neatly matches the measures proposed in Hunt’s letter.

But this is not really Hunt’s work. He could not make such promises entirely on his own initiative. This has the fingerprints of Prime Minister Tony Abbott all over it. He met with committee members before the deal was offered.

Abbott even signalled his intent, going on Alan Jones’s radio show to declare his concern about the health effects of wind turbines.

“When I’ve been up close to these wind farms, there’s no doubt, not only are they visually awful, they make a lot of noise,” he said. “What we did recently in the senate was reduce, Alan, reduce – capital R-E-D-U-C-E – the number of these things that we are going to get in the future.” 

The whole process, in fact, is hardly worth the descriptor “inquiry”. An inquiry seeks to adduce evidence, to the end of better-informed policy decisions.

It was, by the best count, the 10th such parliamentary inquiry in the past five years. One might reasonably assume all relevant evidence had already been adduced. This was more in the nature of a show trial, where the object was to produce evidence justifying a predetermined outcome.

The fix was in from the time the committee was established on November 24 last year, a reality obvious in its membership. There were no Greens among the six members, and only one Labor representative. There was one Liberal, Chris Back from Western Australia, whose prior writings and utterances on the subject show him a true believer in the much-debunked notion of wind-turbine syndrome.

There was also one Nationals senator, Matthew Canavan, a rather more serious participant, a former Productivity Commission economist. He is no friend of wind, but his concerns are more practical ones, about the costs of wind turbines and the behaviour of the corporations that own them.

The real anomaly, though, was in the other half of the committee – three of the ragtag collection of crossbench senators who hold the balance of power in that chamber. They are the aforementioned right-wing libertarian Leyonhjelm, the former property developer Bob Day from the Family First party, and John Madigan, who was elected as a member of the DLP but fell out with his party’s hierarchy and now sits as an independent.

All are well out on the right of politics and all are hostile to wind turbines. Day and Leyonhjelm are closely connected with right-wing think tanks, particularly the Institute of Public Affairs.

The IPA connection is very relevant here, as we shall soon see. But first let’s finish the story of Helen Dale’s trolling of Simon Chapman.

The professor saw her Facebook threat of mincing as a shot across his bow, an attempt to intimidate him ahead of his appearance.

He promptly fired off a letter of complaint to the chairman of the committee, John Madigan, appending the screenshot of the Facebook post and citing the relevant senate standing orders on intimidation of witnesses and contempt of the senate.

“I believe Ms Dale’s public statement above constitutes a clear case of contempt of the senate,” he wrote.

“It is utterly disgraceful that a senior staff member of a senator of your committee should publicly make such statements. 

“I look forward to learning of your proposed actions in this matter, and reserve my right to subsequently refer the matter to the Senate Privileges Committee should I conclude that you have not treated this matter with the seriousness it deserves.”

Eight days later, as I write, he is still waiting for a reply. There is reason to doubt he will get any response, let alone a favourable one.

Madigan appears every bit as hostile to the learned professor as are Dale and her boss Leyonhjelm.

In March last year, Madigan went on Alan Jones’s radio program to talk about wind power. Jones, himself virulently anti-wind power, prompted Madigan with a question about “this fellow Chapman, calling himself a professor at Sydney University, preaching also the wind-farm propaganda”.

Madigan took up the prompt: “Yes. And, Alan, when we talk about people using the title, using a title like professor, let us be crystal clear that most people in the community assume when you use the title professor that you are trained in the discipline of what you speak.”

Madigan went on, referring to “people making pronouncements and denigrating people, who are not trained in human health”.

Chapman began legal proceedings, on the grounds Madigan’s words carried various defamatory imputations, including that he was not trained in the discipline he purported to be trained in – medicine – was not a professor of health, was not qualified to comment on wind farms and human health, was dishonest and denigrated people.

In reply, Madigan called Chapman a “paid advocate of the wind industry”. Under parliamentary privilege, he gave a speech in which he said Chapman was “devoid of any decency and courage”.

Chapman submitted a written response to the senate, categorically rebutting every imputation and accusation, citing his various qualifications and awards for science from the likes of the World Health Organisation, American Cancer Society, and the British Royal College of Physicians, and his order of Australia for “distinguished service to medical research … particularly in the area of public health policy”, as well as his various peer-reviewed papers on wind turbines and health.

Chapman’s response was also occasionally funny. He reviewed his entire Twitter archive – 10,980 tweets – to establish that he had only used the term “wingnuts” twice to describe wind-farm opponents and had likewise only twice mentioned that Madigan’s qualifications were as a blacksmith.

As for being a paid advocate of the industry, he received fares and accommodation costs to attend a handful of conferences on wind-turbine issues, and once was paid $2399.90 for his time and travel costs when called on to be an expert witness in a court case relating to a Victorian wind-farm development. Far from being a paid advocate of the wind industry, he was and is an advocate of science, occasionally compensated for the cost of presenting the findings of scientific work.

Still, the accusations stuck. Only this week he was referred to as a “paid advocate” in a column in The Australian.

There are a couple of points to all this history. The first is that if Chapman does appear at Monday’s select committee hearing – and at the time of writing the committee schedule was in flux – he is not likely to get a friendly reception.

The second and more important one is that the attacks on him are consistent with a pattern of tactics nicely summarised in a major public health report a few years ago.

The report – compiled by Cancer Council Victoria, and funded by the federal health department – is entitled “Tobacco in Australia” and remains the most comprehensive review of the major issues in smoking and health in this country. Chapman was a contributor.

“The tobacco industry has developed a comprehensive, multi-faceted, multi-level approach to defending its interests,” the report said. “This has included creating ways to undermine the credibility of the medico-scientific community and public health interests, developing networks of influence throughout the business community and the political world, permeating community interest groups and charities, and mobilising … others whose interests overlap with those of the tobacco industry.”

Considered in light of this tactical litany, the attacks on Chapman by Madigan, Dale, Alan Jones and the Murdoch press can be viewed not as simple ad hominem sniping but as a means of undermining “the credibility of the medico-scientific community and public health interests”.

Other tactics of the anti-wind brigade conform to the pattern, too. Which brings us back to the Institute of Public Affairs and its senate committee alumni, Leyonhjelm and Day.

The institute was co-founded by Rupert Murdoch’s father, Keith, and Murdoch fils remains closely involved. It claims to be the world’s oldest right-wing think tank.

Its membership has long been heavy with mining-industry leaders and tobacco-company representatives. Rupert Murdoch himself, as well as controlling a global media empire, is a former member of the board of the world’s largest private tobacco company, Philip Morris.

We don’t know much about who supports the IPA – it is generally secretive about its funders – but in 2003 a former executive director and now West Australian Treasurer Mike Nahan acknowledged Rio Tinto, Caltex, Shell and Esso as backers, as well as the tobacco companies Philip Morris and British American Tobacco. It is understood Rio and Shell have since quit.

The IPA is also closely connected to conservative politics and an incubator of politicians and policy. It has a long, covert history of fomenting climate change denialism in general and opposition to wind energy in particular.

AEF launches

Let’s go back a decade to World Environment Day, June 5, 2005, and the public launch of a new organisation, the Australian Environment Foundation, in Tenterfield in rural New South Wales.

The AEF was promoted as a “membership-based, environmental organisation having no political affiliation”, and which would take an “evidence-based” and “practical” approach to green issues.

It was nothing of the sort. It was a front organisation, its board stacked with senior figures from the IPA. The above-mentioned Mike Nahan was one of them. Its executive director was Max Rheese, an IPA stalwart.

For the first 18 months of its existence, Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) records show that the new organisation recorded as its principal place of business: “Institute of Public Affairs, Level 2, 410 Collins Street, Melbourne, Vic, 3000.”

The AEF’s name was suspiciously similar to Australia’s most venerable green group, the Australian Conservation Foundation, but the AEF’s agenda was unambiguously anti-green. It opposed new marine parks and plans to increase environmental water flows in the Murray-Darling Basin. It was supportive of the Gunns’ pulp mill in Tasmania and genetically modified foods. But mostly it was devoted to agitating against renewable energy.

The AEF’s website linked to denialist organisations around the world. It helped organise anti-wind farm rallies, spun off other front organisations and provided logistical support and crowds to community groups scared of wind power. Events organised by the AEF featured speakers such as Alan Jones and South Australian senator Cory Bernardi, as well as a host of IPA members. One of its spinoff organisations, the Australian Climate Science Coalition, was subsequently revealed to be partly funded by the right-wing American organisation, the Heartland Institute, that is in turn heavily funded by US oil and gas interests.

The IPA has consistently denied ongoing links with this ersatz environmental organisation, but the most recent filing with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission shows Alan Moran and Bob Carter still as AEF directors. Both have IPA ties.

For eight years, the AEF was very active and quite well funded. Its media statements were widely picked up, particularly in the Murdoch press.

But over the past couple of years, it has been moribund. Wind-power advocates, who keep an eye on these things, say its website has not been updated for more than a year. ACNC records show it raised a paltry $3872 in the year to June 30, 2014, plus “other income” of $4490.

Brian Wawn, one of the AEF’s current directors, assured The Saturday Paper: “The AEF is on the point of being revived. There were some funding arrangements which fell through and the person doing the website went elsewhere. But it’s on the road to recovery now.”

Perhaps. But the decline of the AEF has coincided with the rise of another apparently well-resourced anti-wind site, called Stop These Things, whose authors and funding are as yet a mystery. But it is very active, very nasty and appears to be very well resourced.

Ketan Joshi, research and communications officer for Australia’s biggest wind company, Infigen Energy, is one who has been trying to crack the mystery of who is behind Stop These Things, not least because he is personally nettled by the fact that it regularly mocks his southern Asian name as “Rogan Joshi”.

His view is that the AEF has been allowed to decline because under the Abbott government it is no longer necessary. “I think their tactics have shifted to influencing politics from the inside. The senate wind inquiry is the new frontier.”

The facts lend credence to this theory. The long-time head of the AEF, Max Rheese, is these days chief of staff for David Leyonhjelm. Other anti-wind agitators – some IPA-connected, some not – have turned up in other staff roles.

Brendan Gullifer, for example, a former journalist awarded a “journalist of the year award” in 2011 by windturbinesyndrome.com, and identified by several pro-wind activists as the most hostile to their cause, is now Madigan’s chief of staff.

The anti-wind, pro-fossil-fuel forces these days are still working by the Big Tobacco playbook, but using a different page. It’s more about mounting the big political argument than working the grassroots.

Jessica Craven, now media adviser to the Australian Climate Council but formerly a public health advocate, points to the way cigarette companies responded to early health concerns about their product by promoting filtered cigarettes.

“Now we have fossil-fuel companies talking about ‘clean coal,’ ” she says. “It’s very similar. And the whole coal/poverty argument that we now see being used a lot by the Minerals Council – that was developed by ex-tobacco people.”

Indeed it was. It was part of a strategy developed by the giant US public relations and lobbying firm Burson-Marsteller, whose list of credits includes work for Philip Morris.

The campaign Burson-Marsteller put together last year for the world’s biggest coal company, Peabody Energy, under the rubric “Advanced energy for life”, not only emphasised the myth of clean coal, it ran the line that the best way for the poor nations of the world to lift their economies was to bring power to the people. Coal-fired power.

As Craven points out, fossil-fuel advocates all over the world, including in this country, have since adopted the strategy. So has the Australian government, particularly Tony Abbott. His line “coal is good for humanity” is much punchier than “advanced energy for life.”

The anti-wind lobby has moved onwards and upwards. Under the previous Labor government they were outsiders, albeit backed by powerful interests in the mining industry, media and right-wing think tanks.

Today, though, they occupy the halls of political power. They have the prime minister parroting their lines and pandering to their demands. Now they can really mince their opponents.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2015 as "Tobacco playbook to kill renewables ". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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