By Frances Goold
“He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.” (Groucho Marx)
Last Thursday’s ICAC report on the NSW ex-premier’s “serious corrupt conduct by breaching public trust” was quickly countered by her assertions that nothing in the report demonstrates that she did not work her hardest for her constituents and in the public interest.
That the ex-premier somehow considered corrupt behaviour to be in the best interests of the state she led suggests that the abuse of public trust is so endemic to conservative/neoliberal political culture and its easy denial so hidebound that no one is more surprised than the protagonists when it’s called out. Even the ex’s ex – imminently facing criminal charges – is proud of his achievements as the member for Wagga Wagga, and who according to his lawyers had always worked “tirelessly for his constituents”.
Over at the Federal electorate of New England it seems also be water off a duck’s back to be cast into the political wilderness, and hands in the cookie jar or no still tough for a limelight junkie to be demoted to the shadow ministry. Perhaps this explains why Federal Nationals leader and ex-Deputy PM (EDPM) is currently working tirelessly for his electorate by bombing every stray issue, with his latest efforts focused on a demented plan to march on Parliament to rally against renewables.
Notwithstanding a decade of Coalition climate denial, gross political dereliction at both state and Federal levels, years of drought, apocalyptic fires and floods, and almost two decades of local stonewalling, the battered region of New England/Northern Tablelands is finally being called upon to assume its fair share of Australia’s international obligations to meet net zero emissions targets – global initiatives themselves cobbled together at ninety seconds to midnight. In its wake a gaggle of eleventh-hour activists (with a gratuitous swipe at the Indigenous Voice to parliament) have formed the Voice for Walcha (VfW) and ReD4NE, a dynamic duo of well-resourced organisations dedicated to scuttling whatever planetary lifeboats are ready to launch from the Walcha slipways.
My farming friends from Walcha report that the government-hating member for New England has been ramping up local opposition to renewables developments in his electorate for some time now. Last January, propped up by his senior lieutenants, EDPM summoned forth a typically incoherent yet stirring peroration at a community meeting organised by VfW in response to Danish company, Vestas, which released its Winterbourne Windfarm EIS for public comment late last year.
Presided over by lawyer and ‘lobbyist’ Mark Fogarty, leader of the NSW Nationals Adam Marshall, a semi-comatose EDPM, and graced by a spellbinding cameo from professional storyteller and wind-farm opponent John Heffernan, the proceedings unfolded more like a scene from Animal Farm than a town hall meeting to address legitimate local concerns about a windfarm project.
When not propping up the bar or hounding visaless puppies EDPM is occasionally spotted eagerly in thrall to the bloated munificence of the fossil fuel grandees, and at the Walcha Bowling Club on January 12 he rose unsteadily to the occasion to do what he does best: act as proxy climate wrecker in service to mining interests.
The plot is a simple one: Napoleon disagrees with Snowball’s ideas to build a windmill and has been instructed to nip it in the bud – in this instance by rallying the troops in opposition to windfarm developments in the New England Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) and declaring war the Winterbourne Project’s “most unsatisfactory” EIS – a detailed and comprehensive 4,000-page document (with a 322-page summary) released to the public on October 27, 2022, described by the Shadow Minister for Veterans Affairs as a “packet of poo-tickets”.
EDPM’s gift for the gaffe is legendary, for reasoned oratory – not so much. But these deficits matter little when it comes to the business end of the obfuscation and obstruction required for the job of stalling progress on renewables in NSW. After all, it’s not like EDPM is denying that the weather or the climate exist, or that he’s against renewables per se, it’s just that those turbines are some big mothers, and – unlike the mining sector and its captive politicians – the Danish developer is only in it for the money. Furthermore, in classic pot-kettle-black style, he can denounce the Winterbourne project as lacking transparency while the elephant in the room – climate change and global emissions targets – rate not a mention.
In any event, any delay of a windfarm development is a win for the fossil fuel behemoths, some of whom are positioning themselves for market share if not simply to gazump the renewables competition. And who better to prop up the back end of this three-man trojan horse than EDPM, whose scattergun bluster on any topic is matched only by his unique capacity for cognitive dissonance and a penchant for porkies (something he endorses as par for the course during his Bowling Club speech, “Don’t look for honesty in politicians”).
Indeed, his rambling rhetorical style amounts to little more than a farrago of paranoid non-sequiturs as far from the substantive issue s and interests of his constituents as it is possible to be without venturing into cuckooland.
Furthermore, being the amiable larrikin, he is and powerful friend to the landed gentry, his runaway tongue is an endearing asset for the task of discombobulating townsfolk too time-poor to wade through the maze of conspiracy theories being rustled up by a well-heeled opposition, or even address their niggling concerns with developers – certainly not before EDPM and his first lady mangle them first. [As the conveniently-positioned Newscorp loyalist opined: “You cannot claim a change from a natural landscape to a landscape of hundreds of industrial machines, which will undeniably impact cultural heritage, biodiversity, visual and audio amenity, and no plan for its disposal except for rusting on the horizon, is good for the local environment… If this were not a wind farm, this proposal would be laughed out of any planning authority for the literal monumental environmental destruction it will cause.”]
It’s unlikely anyone familiar with the science of climate change or who fought the 2019-2020 bushfires would agree that there is much remaining of the “natural landscape”. And heaven forbid that fossil fortunes ruthlessly amassed by sucking the lifeblood out of a country and its first peoples and whose monumental destruction of ecological biodiversity (yet to be fully assessed) should be threatened by some woke transition to unsightly renewables. But his mistress, Campion, has the proud backing of EDPM in their topsy-turvy right-wing campaign against the green-renewables-conspiracy: “I have to acknowledge Vikki. Vikki is pathological, she’s using the Daily Telegraph as your advertising venue… the most read article in the Telegraph. But that’s shifting other people’s opinions. So it’s going to become more and more incumbent upon you…”.
Undaunted by the patent conflict implied by Campion beavering away at the Telegraph ostensibly on behalf of the Walcha community, EDPM presses on with suggesting in a typical burst of foot-shooting logic that any divisiveness in the community was the result of the windfarm proposal per se, even as he demonstrated his unique aptitude for sowing it himself.
That dividing a community might constitute even an inadvertent element of Vestas’ mission statement is hard to fathom.
But we have a rural power index behind the Voice here, with high emitting Fleet Helicopters’ owner and ReD4NE founder boasting a fraternal connection – a family to whom the jovial EDPM is happy to cow-tow, not to mention fly with.
The Federal National Party is occasionally referred to as the ‘Miners Party’. Its leader is notorious for his longstanding ideological opposition to action on climate change – and specifically to 2050 net zero targets – demonstrating not merely his unwavering support for fossil fuels but an unbridled enthusiasm for SMRs as the way of the future. After all, he has a job to do – to lock his electorate into a permanent state of energy transition at the expense of future generations – for which no doubt he will be one day be rewarded handsomely. And it’s not as if pleasing one’s donors, especially if one must secure one’s livelihood post-politics, is foreign to the LNP business model.
Whether there is evidence for it or not, it has been claimed that local indigenous communities have not been properly consulted by the developer, an alleged oversight that provides grist for the windfarm opposition despite access to consultation and the resolution of community issues by the developers. [Let us not forget that only a generation ago if a thought was to be spared at all for indigenous communities beyond the value of their indentured labour for the carving out and deforestation of their country for mining, grazing land, livestock mustering, and domestic service, it was probably of the calibre of mining magnate Lang Hancock’s when daughter Gina was just a slip of a thing dreaming of being one of the richest women in the world. These days she is a major donor – if indirectly – to the LNP and its thinktank, the IPA, which only last year endorsed EDPM’s fulminations against net zero.]
Conflicted interests may also be the business model for VfW and ReD4NE. These range from fundamentally denialist conflations of opinion and fact by the partisan editor of the New England Times to influence-peddling potentiated by family links between ReD4NE and the local chopper fleet, and inevitably by Joyce’s friendship with mining millionaire magnet Gina Rinehart, which has long come under fire but most spectacularly when she awarded him $40,000 for the inaugural “National Agricultural Related Industries Prize” during the by-election campaign in 2017. Joyce accepted the donation, which was promptly returned on advice.
According to my good friends – who are stakeholders – the Winterbourne windfarm project has been on the drawing board for nearly two decades, and public knowledge for over fifteen years, during which time it has enjoyed community support for the generous and innovative community fund being negotiated for it. Yet, somewhat coincidentally, within the past year or so, since the Coalition’s loss to Labor in the Federal election, ‘grassroots’ opposition to the windfarm has taken hold.
Yet despite the bounteous time for the Walcha community to get around the issues and the generous community benefits built into the Winterbourne development; an eleventh-hour proposal of community-based ways has been suggested as an alternative to privatised renewable infrastructure.
Obstructionist denialist politics and issues of the survival of renewables initiatives in a shifting political landscape and the need to scale up have emerged in the UK context, for example; is the idea of community-generated energy as a timely alternative for Walcha too little too late? Is a wind farm to be put on hold until before a CORE gets up and running in a renewables – fatigued and divided community?
But time is running out, Kean’s Act has been passed, and community-owned energy alternatives being proffered to mollify communities spooked by the idea of renewable energy projects in their region may need to be reminded that, unlike CORE projects elsewhere in the world, not a single project has so far made it to the drawing board in the region.
A major problem for worried farmers and stakeholders supporting windfarms in the region is the politicisation of renewable energy issues by EDPM by means of an organised scare campaign of disinformation; they are concerned that this anti-windfarm coalition may not merely scuttle Winterbourne but may undermine community trust in renewable energy sources more broadly as a viable alternative for the region.
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the organised opposition to Winterbourne is the insidious erosion of community trust by methods that are far from democratic. EDPM’s modus operandi traduces the democratic process where trust in its processes is critical to equitable and sensitive development and constructive liaison with developers: as he calls out a lack of consultation and transparency by the developers, EDPM himself fails to support his constituents in addressing their legitimate concerns as their Federal member, choosing instead to politicise and polarise the issues and foment division in the community, aping to the letter the wrecking game being played to the hilt by the Federal Liberals in its tactically similar campaign against an indigenous Voice to parliament.
It’s a no-brainer that issues associated with windfarm developments – as with any state significant renewables project – will need to be examined and dealt with according to due process (such as the cost of de-commissioning, the opacity of contracts with stakeholders, even EDPM’s bogeys of bankrupt “carpetbaggers” leaving farmer stakeholders with debt, or selling a farm with crippling stamp duty attached to a decommissioned turbine, or recyclability of wind turbine components), and any highly invested scare campaign will comprise – as here – a mix of true and false interlaced with mis- and disinformation bereft of science, ethics or integrity. For the time-poor and climate fatigued denizens of Walcha, winkling out the authentic from the fakes must feel overwhelming if not merely tiresome.
In a moment of blinding insight EDPM once boasted that he is a “political animal” who will “go wherever the wind blows”. As he reiterated to his spellbound audience in January, “Now I know the EIS is a packet of poo-tickets. But you know what? All I know is that if we are going to win this, you have to change the politics…You have to make it seem like myself and Adam might lose our job. When Adam and I think we’re going to lose our job our radar goes up and we start thinking… we might have to change our point of view.”
Only a small semantic parse reveals both the alliance implied by a shared single job, and the emotional blackmail implied in the mention of jobs lost.
It has been suggested that certain inadvertent conditions have paved the way for vested interests to exploit community anxieties, such as the expeditious and rapid passage of the REZ legislation and some own goals by developers regarding public reach-outs (given the contentiousness of social license). Certainly, EDPM’s Trump-like luck and craven disrespect for the rules have conspired to render him a political opportunity in a numbers game held together by such patently threadbare polarities that questions are begged as to who or what is underwriting the growing anti-renewables agitation and why.
Walcha’s open-air sculpture
Of all the objections raised against the proposed Winterbourne development, the nimbyesque aesthetic objection is perhaps both expectable and the most paradoxical (the turbines are too big, too ugly, and too numerous: they are in the wrong place, eyesores spoiling the view and so on). It is as if wind turbines are exclusively dedicated to visually offend and degrade the pastorale symphony that is New England.
The truly odd thing is that Walcha township is positively littered with contemporary sculpture -little turbines reaching the sky even. This unique aspect of the town is not centred upon the occasional monument to the fallen or legendary highwayman (‘Thunderbolt’s Way’ being a singular overstatement) but consists in its seamless integration of dozens of powerful and authentic art works into the townscape.
The unexpected scale and soaring reach of so many of the fifty or so open-air sculptures – several of them prestigious prize-winners – is a joyful surprise to many visitors unaccustomed to such a muscular and unapologetic art presence in a small country town.
In 1996, Walcha Council was approached by Stephen King, a local farmer and sculptor, to collaborate with him to create a fountain sculpture for McHattan Park in the centre of town. The decision to accept his offer and install Walcha’s first sculpture led to the suggestion by Council to form the Walcha Arts Council to facilitate an ongoing public art program. A plan was conceived and drawn up by the Walcha Arts Council and was adopted by Council into its 1998 Management Plan. The concept came to be known as the Open-Air Gallery. Currently, the collection consists of 54 sculptures and artworks by local, national and international artists. And, it turns out, the town’s open-air sculptures are progressing towards a permanent open-air exhibition of world-class status.
As it is, the edgy, rough-hewn timber and metal foundry sculptures scattered about the streets and plazas are in edgy harmony with the rolling contours of the surrounding countryside, the sculptural middens of the dieback eucalypts that mar the landscape, and the mingled reds and rusts of iron roofs, last roses, autumn foliage, and gaudy shop awnings of the town.
Sculptures of all shapes and sizes weave through the town as a living element. There are no harsh notes or kitsch – instead arresting rough-hewn elements are scattered about as if to proclaim the transcendant beauty of the utilitarian over the grandiose and sentimental that were once the hallmarks of a colonial aesthetic.
The street atmosphere of the town exudes a sense of comfortably embracing a deep history that is valued and celebrated. One senses a gritty appreciation of things larger than ourselves, with ancient timbers and abstract forms scaled to the massive landscapes beyond. Yet the figure is ubiquitous – maternal, powerful totems supporting and propping up awnings and gracing open spaces, some functional (for example, as seating) others simply lyrical, or to amuse children and visitors in playgrounds, parks, and utility blocks.
The significance of this aesthetic consensus should not be underestimated, nor the humanism of its rugged symbols of resourceful creativity, its sense of history and the acceptance of its social interdependencies – the timber came from somewhere, the iron from somewhere else, disparate elements refashioned in homage to lives lived and histories merely hinted at.
How then is this thoughtfulness, this farming spirit of co-operation, these statements of hope, and this legacy of environmental custodianship to be reconciled with community-wide objections to progressive and viable solutions to Australia’s net zero commitment?
But it turns out there is no mystery and no contradiction: it transpires that less than 10% of Walcha residents lodged submissions objecting to the Winterbourne Windfarm EIS.
One might even surmise that the remainder was submitted by a community familiar with the unromantic, deadly reality of an “agricultural wonderland” decimated by years of drought, wishing now to collaborate with efforts towards climate mitigation and restoration processes offered by safe, viable and clean technologies available at the eleventh hour. The very idea that such people in their wisdom might be persuaded by fossil fuel interests to deny reality and oppose renewable solutions to anthropogenic climate change is beyond credulity.
So how verdant was the Northern Tablelands in 1890 – 1902? 2013, 2018, 2019, 2020?
This pastoral wonderland – so called – endured a drought that persisted on and off from 2013 until it became catastrophic for farmers enduring the lowest rainfall on record during 2019 when there were no agistments and no feed to be had across NSW.
Then came the fires.
It’s hard not to conclude that community concerns regarding the radial impact of a windfarm on the agricultural landscape are being co-opted by a well-resourced campaign against to block the proposed windfarm development and undermine progress on renewables. The provincial character of this aggressive campaign is also at odds with the progressive atmosphere of a robust community that has embraced new and difficult art, and which is now confronting serious global realities and challenges. In the meantime, however, wealthy politically connected backers of fossil fuel interests will continue to wine and dine the politicians who in turn will recruit writers and artists and recent settlers into convincing the broader community to not only reject a wind farm, but renewable alternatives per se, all the while splitting the community whilst claiming to represent their interests.
Disinformation has become a tactical art form since the divisive conspiracies of the Covid era. It is a form of community gaslighting designed to foment division whilst callously and loudly deploring it.
Grassroots activism is bottom-up, beginning with large numbers. Political interference is top-down, beginning with small numbers. Fearmongering is a political tactic so manipulative that it begs serious questions as to its ultimate purpose. Here it is a cynical attempt to distract from real global threats by conflating navigable, negotiable concerns with spurious, sometimes irrefutable objections.
Solar is the alternative so far on the Coal Coast, though there are big plans for wind and a few nukes as the decommissioning of mines progresses. The outdoor setting where I sip my latte is wiped down weekly to remove the fine coal dust. We’ve just had our first few millimetres of rain after a couple months of occasional light dustings and a couple of windy days. Yet another El Nino is predicted to be just around the corner. My friends tell me that the grass and fuel that have sprung up over three successive La Ninas in Oxley Wild Rivers National Park are now metres high, impenetrable, and soon to be tinder dry.
And they are worried not just for themselves, friends, neighbours, community and their environment, but for their children and grandchildren who, like previous generations, will continue to farm around Walcha.
Sure, wind turbines are big – but then how do you define big to generations of hard-labouring, season-dependent, drought and flood-afflicted, financially-strapped, increasingly insecure farming families? How is big contextualised in the even bigger picture depicting future generations of farmers wrestling with the unpredictable impacts of climate change? How does one reconcile the image of farmers having to shoot sick or fatally bush-fire injured livestock as somehow unable to face up to man-made global warming being implicated in these tragedies? How late is too late?
Perhaps the only reconciliation needing to be made now is between the people of Walcha who are being set apart by the socially destructive divide-and-conquer MOs of vested political interests. The truth is that, while the REZs cannot be changed, each and every renewable energy development can be examined on its merits according to legislated planning processes and procedures. Now more than ever, as we squabble over the lifeboats at tipping point, government planners and elected officials are reclaiming their independence from influence so as to secure the trust of the people they represent, and who pay their salaries.
Like kindred others, farmers on the Northern Tablelands are facing up. At the same time their maverick federal member is not only failing to act in their best interests, if indeed he ever did, but is actively subverting them. It’s probably time for the adults to reclaim the Bowling Club. The people of New England are not being asked to lab test proven technology, they are being asked by all the nations of the world to engage in good faith with a global climate emergency the best way they can. If this means negotiating with governments and developers to refine the technology and rationalise impacts as opposed to torpedoing the lifeboats, then – though the transition may be difficult – community tension and division should bow to unity of purpose and community pride, economic hardship should eventually shift towards sustainable growth, and a wonderland of pastures and regenerated forests may be eventually restored to the region and its people.
But, in the meantime, the ship is going down and time is running out.
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