Most Victorian voters could be forgiven for thinking the state election campaign will be fought and won on transport, law and order, and population issues.
This may be true in metropolitan Melbourne, but in the state’s south west there is an issue of an entirely different kind that residents want addressed: wind farms.
There are currently six operating wind farms in the region.
Another 19 are ready to proceed, while six more are awaiting approval from the Planning Minister, Justin Madden.
There are another 11 wind farms proposed for south west Victoria that are in the feasibility stage.
Any day now, the State Government is expected to make a decision on what would be the region’s biggest wind farm.
It would include 242 turbines and Origin Energy wants to build it at Stockyard Hill, south of Beaufort.
Currently, the region’s largest operating wind farm is at Waubra, west of Ballarat.
It has 128 turbines and has triggered concerns about the State Government’s planning process for wind farms and the proximity of turbines to houses.
One Waubra resident claims the turbines generate a low-frequency noise which gives him headaches and vertigo.
He has walked away from the family farm to regain his health and paid a noise expert $7,000 to conduct tests on his property.
His story has resulted in a boost to the memberships of environment protection groups like the Landscape Guardians, and it has prompted the Victorian Coalition to develop a wind farm policy that it will take to the election.
At its core, the policy demands a buffer of two kilometres be placed between turbines and houses.
It also suggests local governments be reinstated as the planning authority for wind farm applications.
Now, applications of more than 30 megawatts bypass local government and go straight to the Minister’s office.
But perhaps more notably, the problems surrounding the Waubra wind farm has forced the region’s six shires to demand answers from Justin Madden’s department.
They have spent most of this year trying to convince it that more transparency, accountability and community engagement is needed when wind farm planning applications are being assessed.
They also do not want to be responsible for making sure that the wind farms operate within their permits once they are up and running.
The Waubra wind farm, the proposed Stockyard Hill wind farm and a host of others are located in the electorate of Ripon, which is held by the ALP’s Joe Helper.
He is also the Minister for Agriculture and Small Business and he holds the seat with a margin of 4.36%.
The State Government argues the Coalition’s wind farm policy will threaten the future of the renewable energy industry.
And some wind energy companies have backed those concerns.
In his time as Planning Minister, Justin Madden has ‘called in’ a number of wind farm projects to fast-track construction and help the government meet its 20% renewable energy target.
But the fast-tracking process has simply increased the uncertainty in south west Victoria about wind farms.
Communities feel they are not being listened to.
Individuals with health concerns feel they’re being shunned.
Shires feel they are being removed from the approvals process, and then lumped with the administrative burden.
South west Victorian voters have more on their minds than city violence and urban growth boundaries going into this election.
They care little about the coffers of the renewable energy industry, and more about their farms and families.
Many want to know that their farms are not going to be devalued by wind turbines, and that their horizons will not be filled with spinning blades for as far as the eye can see.
These may not be the issues that decide the next State Government, but they will be the issues that it will have to wrestle with.
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