A Social Licence

The term “social licence” is a term that is much used these days, essentially by activist organisations wanting to stop something from occurring.  It is a relatively new concept, and has only come into general use only over the last 10 years or so.

It is generally used to define the relationship between a business and the community in which it operates.  Interest groups have “encouraged” businesses to act in a certain way in order to obtain a social licence.  However, business operates under laws and regulations, and the term is one that can equally be directed at governments.

Governments operate under certain Acts of Parliament, face elections, and receive a continuing mandate from the electorate on the basis that actions conducted under such Acts continue.

If a government breaks its word, does not conform to the wishes of the majority, or abuses the rights of a minority, then it can equally be argued that the government has lost its social licence to govern.  Yet many interest groups call on government to break this social licence in order to promote their own agendas, claiming government has no social licence to act in the first place.

By way of example, Environment Tasmania claims that government has no social licence to continue to operate in native forest.  The “Tarkine National Coalition” claims social licence in its call for Heritage listing of the Tarkine.  The group “Markets for Change” is offering a social licence to retailers only if they purchase product made from a particular feedstock.  and so on.

These groups parade themselves as the true representatives of society with the authority to award and withdraw such licence.   These claims are worthy of some scrutiny,

Environment Tasmania (ET) states that it is a group that represents the interests of a number of conservation groups.  This is questionable, as each of these groups reserves the right to disagree when it suits them.  In fact, on many issues ET would appear to be just one person.

The Tarkine National Coalition sounds like an impressive organisation.  The title of this organisation is illuminating.  “Coalition” suggests a coming together of a wide range of interests, and “National” suggests a nation-wide interest.  In reality the coalition would appear to be a single person.  Even the word “Tarkine” is an artificial construct, a word that first appeared in 1986 to represent a piece of ground whose boundaries keep changing (and expanding) with each successive conservation claim.

Markets for Change is another group whose membership numbers are suspect.  It has recently appointed former Greens leader Peg Putt to spearhead its so-called “honesty campaign” yet it refuses to name the source of its budget.

And so it goes with each new group established in order to influence public opinion.  How many people really are active members of organisations claiming a “social licence” power such as the Huon Environment Centre, The Last Stand, Our Common Ground, Code Green and others, and how many of them are local, and what is the level of overlap between them all?

Even long-standing and respected conservation outfits, such as the Tasmanian Conservation Trust, can be manipulated by a singular interest.  The recent fracas surrounding lobster exports is essentially the view of one person not accepting the scientific evidence surrounding that fishery.  As an aside, it is of interest to note that “science” is used when it suits (eg with climate change), but is denigrated when it does not suit a broader agenda (eg forestry, aquaculture)

And then there is the situation where deliberate misinformation is paraded as fact.  The Wilderness Society is represented by individual campaign spokespeople who are encouraged to be outspoken to see what sort of a mark they can make – a badge of honour so to speak.  Such an approach encourages extreme behavior, and exposes the real purpose of this group, which is to stop things from happening at any cost.

Their latest ‘success’ has the Federal Environment Minister withdrawing an approval for a $1.4 billion investment at Weipa in Queensland, based primarily on a one-page flawed submission from the Wilderness Society regarding shipping movements.  Its arguments regarding the Tasmanian forests are also flawed, relying on emotive language (eg “ancient”,” iconic”) and based on spurious logic (eg “high conservation value”).  It does not bode well for the Minister’s independence in his upcoming review of the IGA process and the West report.

I do not deny for a moment the right to question, and the right to protest.  It is a fundamental tenet of an open and questioning society.  It is a sign of a healthy democracy.  But that is not the point here.  It is when such action involves deliberate distortion and misrepresentation, and on that basis causes significant disruption – economic and social - then it moves beyond a simple right to a much more sinister construct.

So how has it come to pass that these individuals and groups can wield such influence within the public arena?    From a business perspective, the targeting of markets has focused attention on the need to keep the community informed and engaged and on-side, which in turn has led to a more responsible approach to running the business.  It is called corporate social responsibility.

At a political level, politics has evolved into what can be described as a collaborative approach or a consensus style.  “Let’s try and get everyone in the same tent!”.  However, such an approach is basically a cop-out, because it is essentially saying that politics is simply about management.  And yet government is actually about leadership, which is a different beast altogether.

The alternative approach to consensus is conviction politics, where a government is elected on the basis of a policy platform, against an opposing platform.  It is an approach which by its nature is adversarial and competitive.  A competition of ideas.  This approach would appear to be out of favour, because it involves losers as well as winners, and politicians wish to appeal to everyone - which has led to the tweedle-dum tweedle-dee criticism of the two major parties.

Premier Bartlett’s Round Table was a classic example of the consensus approach, and was promulgated on the basis of finding a lasting peace.  However that peace is illusory because the competing claims simply cannot be reconciled.  When asked the question “Given the choice between industry and preservation, what is the government’s position/priority?” the answer was equivocal.  “We want both”.

Trying to get everyone on the same page is a tremendous goal, and should not be denigrated or discarded as a legitimate tool in the toolbox .  In some cases, it may actually work.  If it does work, fantastic.  Premier Bacon’s program of “Tasmania Together” was an attempt to do just that, and had some early success.

However, at the end of the day, every issue will find its crossroad, where a choice needs to be made.  And that choice should be based on the mandate given a government by the people, based on its stated policy position.  It should not be based on a few unelected individuals giving themselves grandiose titles and misrepresenting their identity.

It is this factor, the competition of ideas and the acceptance of a policy platform by the community, that gives a social licence to government.  All else is froth and bubble.