Social license to operate; what exactly does it mean? It’s a phrase that is increasingly bandied about in the media, pushed by various activist organisations seeking to drive their political agendas, and are repeated by politicians who fail to recognise that the words often don’t represent the real views of the community.
The term first emerged in the 1990s linked to debates around the merits of mining and gambling licences. It was defined as the unwritten social contract required by those industries that require extensive government regulatory approvals before being allowed to operate. The construction of casinos were seen as a license to print money for the big end of town and they were also recognised as imposing large social costs on the rest of the community hence the government license required a social contribution back to the community above and beyond normal taxation rates. In the mining sector because they were undertaking a non-renewable activity which left a permanent scar on the environment, as a result it was believed that the local community impacted by that mining activity should have a say in the approval process.
Today the use of ‘social license’ has expanded far beyond mines and casinos, to the extent that it has often been hijacked by activist groups demanding a right of veto, based on ill-defined community views and values. These political groups have recently been super powered by the emergence of social media which has enabled them to cheaply build strong ‘anti’ protest agendas around a whole range of economic activities. This has ensured the political debates that have been generated by the anti-brigade to lead politicians to virtue signal that they too hear the message and will act in response to these ill-defined community concerns.
The end result is that today we have a myriad of organisations pushing for bans on mining and petroleum proposals along with all our other primary industries including forestry, fishing and agriculture. In addition we see them lining up against the development of new infrastructure proposal that are designed to support these sectors such as roads, ports, and dams.
The end result is the slow strangling of the potential of our economy as primary industry and essential infrastructure are restricted or stopped in their tracks before they get past the drawing board. It’s hard to see the government having the courage to push forward with their Developing Northern Australia project which will require new dams and irrigated agriculture projects and aquaculture farms. The challenge of navigating both the environmental regulators approvals and the inevitable ‘ban it’ campaign that references the social licence will be just too much for our political leaders to stomach.
The economic damage this is doing to Australia’s future prosperity is untold, no longer do primary industry projects simply require regulatory approval around environmental approvals. The progressive political elites that drive so much of modern Australian commentary in the media are increasingly demanding that our politicians support the unwritten laws of a social license. Laws that have emerged from no authority, that do not exist in any written form, have no set definitions, and offer no appeal mechanism. It is undemocratic and unfit for a sophisticated global player such as Australia to be captured by such deliberate political manipulation. The end result is we have seen a dumbing down of the debate as the emotive local arguments trump the facts of what a local ban means internationally.
The political formula used by these groups is well established and has achieved big wins against our wild caught fishing and old growth forestry sectors as global organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace have teamed up with local green groups to impose their views on what are sustainable activities. Such campaigns have simply ignored the science and common sense of existing state and commonwealth government regulators pushing for ever larger cuts to harvesting activities.
The interesting thing is that these global NGOs have deliberately targeted Australia which is up there with the best in the world when it comes to managing the sustainable and ethical activities of our primary industries, while ignoring neighbouring countries which often have appalling track records. The reason being that Australia offers these groups the advantage of a world class regulatory system along with a community interested in social, environment and ethical issues which makes it perfect for NGOs to pursue their far more extreme global agendas.
The ironic thing is that these agendas require NGOs to close their eyes to the reality of the long term global impact of their actions. By severely restricting our old growth forestry and wild caught fishing to levels well below scientifically established sustainable levels we are forced to effectively off shored our responsibilities by risking global natural resources as we import timber and fish from countries that lack good regulatory and compliance oversite.
A similar thing will happen with live animal exports if the Australian trade is shut down, some 2 million sheep which are exported under intense scrutiny to the Middle East will be replaced by another 2 million sheep coming out of the Horn of Africa. Countries that are not renown for great human rights such as Somalia and Sudan will be expected to oversee the export of sheep across thousands of kilometres of desert and the red sea into Saudia Arabia and the Gulf States. Such countries are highly unlikely to maintain our animal welfare standards and compliance system which does not bode well for the welfare of these animals. We will in effect be walking away from our international obligations towards these animals by closing our eyes to what happens if we close our trade. Would it not be far better to remain engaged in the trade and help set the global benchmark for the ethical shipping of livestock which will continue regardless of Australia exiting the trade.
From demands to end the live export trade, ban the use of agricultural chemicals to the introduction of taxes on our carbon emissions Australian farmers will face increasing demands from NGOs that they conform to their interpretation of what is the correct ‘social license’ to continue to farm as a pre-condition to being allowed to continue to undertake what are already highly regulated commercial activities.
As the image of Australian farmers moves away from the idealistic small farm image of battlers milking cows, collecting eggs and driving cab less tractors to one of large modern multi-million dollar operations using massive self-steering tractors and harvesters with workers wearing mine site hi-vis clothing, our image has become one of an industrial operation, big business driven by profit, far from the farmer working physically on a virgin block that was a reality back in the past.
It is clear that society’s views and values have changed rapidly since 2000, the community is now far more critical and demanding of our primary production sector. As a result farmers need to understand that interest in their activities has risen and with it the ability for political interference by activist groups purporting to represent the social views of the community as a whole.
The old model of industry response to political pressure by organisations like WA Farmers which traditionally focused on going on the attack to defend our right to farm are today completely insufficient to protect the interests of todays farmers. In fact they work against us as NGOs have been successful in responding to our trotted out industry facts with simple emotional lines around protecting fish, trees and animals. They have the ability to create division and opposition to modern farming practices by linking it to industrial images of raping the earth. The ability for them to mobilise social media around images in a short space of time and engage vast numbers of people has become an existential threat to the future of family owned and operated primary industry businesses.
The political future of intensive livestock production, or live animal exports, the use of key agricultural chemicals like glyphosate, the ability to clear highly selective bits of bush with offsets to allow the operation of large modern efficient machinery are all on the radar of anti-primary industry activist groups, who see Australia as an important example to drive their global agendas.
Political pressure that forces the end of certain activities on farm or closes certain markets will not lead to the end of agriculture in Australia it will however result in a very different agricultural sector to what we know today. As has happened in fisheries and forestry, forced change will see farms struggle to survive as activities are restricted, chemicals and GM cropping options banned and carbon taxes imposed. None of this is good for the family farm, as they will struggle to remain competitive and over time slowly leave the industry. It will simply open the gap for more foreign corporate buyers to gain a larger percentage of Australian agriculture as has happened in other sectors.
Australian agriculture is not the mining or petroleum industry and does not have the millions of dollars of shareholders’ funds to pour into building our community case to counter every issue championed by the ‘ban it’ NGOs. It would take a massive and ongoing effort to counter the fear campaign that is being constantly run across a whole range of agricultural activities. The cost of any such campaign would run into the millions of dollars annually.
WAFarmers has raised the idea of using 10% of all federal levy funds raised towards supporting a long term community engagement program. What is the point of spending $100m a year on research and development or marketing of sheep, wool or grain when our industry is being strangled by increasing government regulation driven by international anti farming activist groups. Or to put it another way what percentage of the National Farmers Federation goal of building a $100 billion industry should go towards gaining community support for what we do. Just 0.01% equals $10 million it would be a simple formula of the amount we should be spending each year engaging with the community explaining why we do what we do and the global responsibility we carry.
As part of any community engagement campaign we as an industry need to not just explain what we do and why but we need to lift the debate away from the simplistic local social license to one of our global social license. As farmers we need to show the value of animal care, welfare and community wellbeing as vitally important and are major tenets of the ethics of operation, and therefore we take a global view not a local view.
We need to force local and global NGOs who seek to use Australia as their pin up example of a low input, low output, supply local, farming system to recognise that it comes with negative global consequences. People will go hungry and animals will suffer if we are not farming using every modern tool available to us under sustainable ethical farming systems. Rather Australia should seek to be a global leader, playing a responsible global role in supplying the world with food, fibre and animals via world’s best practise science and ethical farming systems.