Social license to operate, what exactly does it mean? It is a phrase that is increasingly bandied about in the media, pushed by various activist groups, and repeated by politicians many of whom fail to recognise that the words often do not represent the real views of the community at large.
The term first emerged in the 1990’s linked to debates around the social costs inflicted by big corporates by their mining and gambling activities. It has since been defined as the privilege of operating with minimal formalised restrictions based on maintaining public trust by doing what is right.
Today the demands for a social license has expanded far beyond just mines and casinos, to include everything from live exports to genetically modified crops and agricultural chemicals. In many cases these projects and activities have being hijacked by activist groups demanding the right of veto, based on their interpretation of community views and values.
The power of these groups to influence the debate has been super charged by the emergence of the digital world and social media, which has enabled them to cheaply and quickly build strong ‘anti’ protest agendas around whatever they demand should be banned.
The end result is the political debates that are generated often see politicians feeling obliged to virtue signal that they too ’hear the message’ and will act in response to the community concerns of the few, on behalf of the many, to ban or restrict that particular activity.
The progressive political elites that drive so much of modern Australia’s commentary in the media are increasingly demanding that our politicians support the unwritten laws of social license. Laws which have emerged from no authority, that do not exist in any written form, have no set definitions, and offer no appeal mechanism.
The worrying thing is that we now have global NGOs, joining up with local activist groups and media elites including tax payer funded organisations such as the ABC to systematically target Australian agriculture. Calls to ban live exports, end all land clearing, shut down feedlots and intensive livestock production plus stop the use of agricultural chemicals are now regularly appearing in the media.
The reason this coalition of activists are targeting Australian agriculture is that we offer these groups the advantage of a world class regulatory system along with a community interested in social, environment and ethical issues, which constitutes a perfect environment for global anti-groups to pursue their far more extreme global agendas. We are in fact a big prize that can be used to set the global standard for others to follow, completely ignoring that in many cases we already set the global standard.
Fortunately, the Australian community still trusts farmers as seen in the results of the recently completed Food Alliance WA DPIRD Trust in Primary Production Project which surveyed 1000 Western Australian’ coming up with results such as 78% think farming is a important part of regional WA. But a worrying trend highlighted in a National Farmers Federation survey in 2017 found that 83% of Australians describe their connection with farming as ‘distant’ or ‘non-existent’ and 57% of those polled had not had any contact with a farmer in the past year.
Just as farming has changed, it is clear that society’s views and values are also evolving. The community is now far more critical and expects high environmental and ethical standards from our farming sector. While this might not be as extreme as that set forth by the anti-brigade with their extreme social licence thresholds, the fact is, the community is uneasy about where modern agriculture is going.
As a result, today’s 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 responding to green and animal liberation political pressure by going on the attack to defend our right to farm no longer works. In fact, such tactics work against farmers as these groups successfully out manoeuvre rational arguments based on facts and figures, with simple emotional lines around protecting the environment and animals.
Concerted political pressure that forces the end of farming practises or closes exports markets will not lead to the end of agriculture in Australia overnight, it will, however, result in a very different agricultural sector to what we have today.
Activist enforced changes does not bode well for the family farm as farm businesses will struggle to remain internationally competitive and over time many will be forced to exit the industry.
The ironic impact of the anti-farming brigade is that their lobbying efforts will simply open the gap for more foreign corporate buyers to gain a larger percentage of Australian agriculture and introduce more corporate style agriculture, which as we know is not what the Australian community wants.
So, what can we do? Australian agriculture is not the mining or gambling industry and does not have the millions of dollars of shareholders’ funds to pour into building our social license case to counter every issue championed by the ‘ban it’ activist groups.
Where are the funds to come from? WAFarmers has raised the idea of using 10% of all federal industry levy funds raised annually to be redirected towards supporting a long term community engagement program. What is the point of spending $200m a year of growers funds on research, development and marketing and $0 on community engagement when our industry is threatened with being slowly strangled by politicians pandering to international and local anti farming activist groups?
To put it another way what percentage of the National Farmers Federation goal of building a $100 billion industry (up from todays $60 billion) should go towards gaining community support for what we do. Just 0.01% of $60b equals $6 million dollars ($100 per $1m farm gate income), a figure that should be the bare minimum the NFF should be spending running the BHP Big Australian style advertising campaigns support Australian farming. As an industry we need to be prepared to invest serious dollars each year engaging with the community, explaining why we do what we do and just how well we do it.
Inevitably there will be those who rail against another cent of their farm income being hived off to fund some project that is far removed from what happens on farm. Then there are those who will demand an end to all compulsory levies (except for their pet projects like – wild dog control).
But when the wild activists are out of control and they have become a real threat to what can happen on farm, we need to work together to stop them at the gate, before they can build up enough numbers to end live exports or our access to glyphosate .
So the question is when the next ban is about to be introduced will it be too late to pass the hat around and will it raise too little, or do we use the existing producer levy structures to fund the $6 – $20m a year we need to allow all farmers to fairly share the burden of building our social licence to farm.