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Wednesday, 13 November 2013
Page: 183

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (13:15): It is with some regret that I stand here today to give my first speech in this new parliament to mount a strong defence of science. It appears that the role of science in this parliament is once again under threat. The situation now is even more dire than it was in the previous government, and the forces of antiscience have been very powerful in this new Abbott government. The first piece of legislation that has been introduced into this, the new 44th Parliament, has been to wind back action on climate change—some of the most significant and ambitious action the world has seen to address the issue of climate change. In the face of the mounting scientific consensus around climate change that we have a looming catastrophe that all the evidence says is getting worse, what do we see? We see the introduction of a bill that would repeal action on climate change.

The government dismisses action on climate change as an impost on business and it uses this fact as though it somehow trumps the physical realities of chemistry, physics and the laws of thermodynamics. The physical world has a very inconvenient way of intruding on our lives. Witness the bushfires in New South Wales, witness the storms in the Philippines and you understand that the impost on business comes a very distant second behind the impact on the lives of ordinary people if we continue to sit on our hands. We have been accused of politicising some of these great tragedies, but it is a uniquely Australian proposition that to mention what scientists right around the world acknowledge—that climate change means more fires, more floods and more superstorms—is somehow a political act. The political act is in staying silent. The political act is in ignoring the pleas of the lead negotiators at the current climate change talks in Warsaw who came from the Philippines and asked us to take urgent action to prevent more of these storms hitting their shores.

But, of course, the antiscience agenda of this government is not restricted to climate change. We are now seeing that we face the prospect of cuts to higher education, which really undermines the ability of this nation to tackle some of the most pressing problems that confront us. Instead of investing in research and development; in building a thriving pharmaceuticals industry so that we can once again lead the world in high-tech industries; instead of investing in smart, low-carbon manufacturing, we continue to subsidise fossil fuels to the tune of billions of dollars. And now we hear that the CSIRO is to be gutted and with it the hopes and careers of countless Australian scientists, who may well go overseas. We can add to our export list the collective wisdom and investment of these great Australian minds. It is a backward-looking, regressive, dangerous, economically irresponsible agenda to take unless you somehow think that we are miraculously immune from the impacts of climate change, unless you think that the future of the Australian economy is to continue to be the world's quarry and to ignore the potential for high-tech industries that the new economies present us.

And nowhere is this antiscience agenda clearer than in the campaign to undermine renewable energy. We have seen the issue of wind power continue to be politicised, and now we see that the Australian government is subsidising some of those very groups who undermine the transition towards clean, renewable energy. Some of those groups have gone so far as to create a new medical condition: wind turbine syndrome.

We need to say a few things about wind turbine syndrome. It is a very loose collection of symptoms: nausea, headaches, abdominal pains, vertigo, absence of nausea and so on. This loose collection of symptoms is very real to many people and very distressing. It is not with those people who are experiencing those symptoms that I take issue; it is with the campaign that is being run to ensure that those people continue to suffer harm and they recruit new people to experience some of those distressing symptoms.

It is worth reflecting on how this condition has gained some traction. Much like the placebo effect in medicine, where, if you give somebody a treatment and tell them that it is going to work, there is a good chance they will get benefit even though that treatment may be nothing more than a sugar tablet, the same is true in reverse. If you tell someone that somebody is going to experience a harm in response to a particular exposure, there is a good chance they will experience that harm regardless of what that exposure might be. In fact, there is a lot of empirical research in this area that shows that when we expose people to the supposed mechanism of wind turbine syndrome—that is, infrasound—they experience symptoms regardless of whether or not that exposure is real. It is an issue that has been investigated. The NHMRC have made it clear that there is no established link. If you look at the epidemiological evidence—that is, the patterns of disease—you see a very clear pattern. There are 200,000 wind turbines operating in countries right around the world, and you see the presence of this disease in the areas where these campaigners are most active.

In Australia we have 51 wind farms, yet 70 per cent of all complaints about poor health come from those six wind farms where the Waubra Foundation—one of those misleading groups—has been most active. In fact, 90 per cent of all complaints came after the Waubra Foundation in 2009 added health complaints to their list of concerns against wind farms. We have a situation where a group that is spreading misinformation—based on no plausible biological mechanism through which this disease could occur—and perpetuating harm rather than protecting the public could be, for example, campaigning against the real impacts of poor air quality as a result of coalmining. In fact, last year I led an inquiry into this issue. We are seeing more people die from poor air quality than in the road toll. The mining, combustion and transport of coal is one of the reasons that that is happening—yet this group campaigns against a clean and renewable form of energy, despite the fact that if we are able to make the transition towards clean and renewable energy we mitigate some of the most important health impacts that climate change will bring against us.

The issue here is not the Waubra Foundation continuing to spread the misinformation that it does. The issue here is that the Australian taxpayer should not be subsidising that activity. Taxpayers are subsidising the work of the Waubra Foundation—that is, every person in this country makes a donation to the antiwind activities of the Waubra Foundation because it has been granted deductible gift recipient status. Donations to the Waubra Foundation are tax deductible. How can that be, you might ask. They have been granted status as a health promotion charity, when in fact their work is much more likely to cause poor health than prevent it. There is an item in the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act that says that the entitlement to registration exists for an:

Institution whose principal activity is to promote the prevention or the control of disease in human beings.

The Waubra Foundation are doing the exact opposite of that, and we are paying for their activities. Even worse than that, we have learnt that the Waubra Foundation are commissioning tax-deductible donations on the basis of their status as a health promotion charity so that they can take action in administrative tribunals against new wind developments. So, their health promotion work extends to appeals in administrative tribunals so that they can stop the development of new wind proposals.

When you start joining the dots, it is not hard to work out what their real agenda is. Peter Mitchell is the current Chairman of the Waubra Foundation. He is a current and former director of a number of oil, gas and uranium related companies—surprise, surprise! He is a director of Lowell, who are basically the ultimate holding company of a resources fund for companies engaged entirely in mining and energy investment, including oil, gas and uranium. He is also the former director of the Australian Institute of Petroleum Ltd and Molopo Ltd, a company entirely investing in oil and gas. He was the founding public officer for the Western Plains Landscape Guardians. The landscape guardians are a group of people who object to wind on the basis of their impact on the landscape. That is a legitimate concern. Some people do not like looking at wind turbines. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but science is not in the eye of the beholder. Whether wind turbine syndrome exists is a testable, objective fact. It has been tested and it does not exist. The science is in.

Sarah Laurie is one of the other directors of the Waubra Foundation. She is a non-practising doctor and the so-called medical director. I have no doubt she is genuine in her belief that wind turbine syndrome exists and makes people unwell. But if we all as medical practitioners acted according to our beliefs, our gut instincts and our hunches we would be using leeches and burning witches at the stake. My concern with Sarah Laurie is that she has violated the fundamental principle of what it means to be a medical practitioner: first, do no harm—the Hippocratic oath. This group does enormous harm. Other directors include Liberal politicians, climate change deniers and people with a long history of opposing wind developments. If you are going to oppose them, be honest about it. Do not ask for subsidies from the taxpayer. Do not dress this all up in some sort of cloak of medical impacts. Be honest about what you are doing if you do not like them. You might be invested in the fossil fuel industry; come clean about that. Do not invent the charade of wind turbine syndrome.

This is a group with all the hallmarks of a front group using the same tactics as the tobacco industry did more than 50 years ago—sow the seeds of doubt and muddy the waters. They are doing everything they can to stymie an industry that has the potential to reduce our emissions—a viable industry in this country that is not one that relies simply on digging stuff out of the ground and shipping it out, but creates meaningful jobs for people right around the country.

I have just learnt that the people of Waubra have taken issue with the Waubra Foundation because they rightly believe that they have damaged the reputation of this town. I visited Waubra recently. It is a town that benefits from that great development there. It means people have jobs and the local engineers in Ballarat can provide components. It means local workers in the region have full-time employment in an industry that they believe is the future of this country. I will be taking further action on this issue and I look forward to the Australian Taxation Office and the charities commission explaining why taxpayer funds should subsidise this group.