A LEADING international practitioner of social license to operate says the term is an extremely powerful metaphor but is being “misused” and “manipulated” for deliberate political gain when selectively applied to industries like live exports or greyhound racing, to contradict its original context and meanings.
Canada-based Ian Thomson has been working at the forefront of social license over the past 25-years in managing community acceptance of mining developments and environmental concerns and for other industries like wind farming.
He’s also written extensively on the subject and taught and collaborated with other leading academics and practitioners, gaining a sophisticated understanding of its practical application.
“I first got involved in this concept of a social license to operate back in 1997 very soon after it was first coined by a very good friend of mine Jim Cooney,” he said.
“Very early on it was adopted by the mining industry, by the people who work around it, by the communities, by the NGO’s and people like that and it was a metaphor really.”
Dr Thomson said over the past decade social license use has moved beyond the mining sector and is commonly applied to other large scale industries like agriculture.
He said a “healthy” form of social license operated at a local level, between the industry in focus and the communities immediately affected by its operations, like the interface between coal mining and agriculture in regions like the NSW Hunter Valley.
But there’s a core difference between the way he believes it should be used and the manner in which it’s often misused by politicians, activist groups and others as “a kind of political slogan”.
He said social license to operate was often used as a “slap in the face” to sectors like mining or agriculture when being challenged by groups that fundamentally oppose their core business activity, or a particular aspect of it.
“Social license is a very, very powerful metaphor, but it is open to misuse,” he said.
“People will throw it about and try to claim, without justification, that they have a social license, or accuse other people of not having a social license and therefore suggesting ‘you are not legitimate’ or ‘you are not okay’.
“It can be used by people who don’t like something to say, ‘I don’t like you so I am going to say you don’t have a social license to operate because I don’t like you or you are doing something that I don’t want’.
“It becomes part of the language for the political side of project development and other activities.
“Social license exists when there is a broad consensus that something is okay, but since the language is relatively loose and it is strongly emotional, it can be open to misuse by a small minority of people.”
The NSW government recently cited loss of social license as its justification for shutting down the State’s greyhound racing industry, based on a view that systematic animal cruelty practices existed and it was beyond any reform.
Dr Thomson said he wasn’t an expert on the sport of greyhound racing but questioned what aspect of the industry had suddenly become socially unacceptable and where was the evidence to prove that actual loss of support.
He said the greyhound industry’s response was critical to any government decision-making.
“What is the response of the greyhound industry and how are they presenting themselves and what is their voice in this and what evidence is there in the general public that there is a lack of a social acceptability?” he said.
“Those are the questions that I would be asking.
“Or is this simply a useful political statement for a politician or a group of politicians to make, in order to gain some sort of support?
“Politicians are very, very skilled at manipulating public opinion by saying something and a lot of people say ‘Oh yeah, right, I will go along with that’.”
But Dr Thomson said the animal rights movement exposing an unacceptable practice like live baiting, via the media, which incited public backlash and prompted the government to act and shut down the entire industry, was not an authentic use of the term social license.
“In my opinion that is not the real use of social license,” he said.
“The real use of social license, as we use it within the social license community, is about very specific relationships between those who are immediately affected or impacted by a particular activity.
“People at a distance saying ‘Ooh, I don’t like that activity, it’s not for me’ is not really social licence.
“That’s more part of a broader social phenomenon where the activist groups or politicians seize on a certain aspect of an industry and they say ‘that particular practice is bad and therefore the whole industry has got to go’.
“It’s a very selective use of social license and in my opinion not a particularly healthy use of the term social license.”
Dr Thomson said applying social license to live animal exports – where video footage of animal welfare practices in foreign countries is also gathered by activists and then broadcast on public television to generate community outrage and ignite political action to try and ban the trade – was an example of the term “morphing” and being “misused”.
“Again, to me, we are talking about social acceptability here, but not in the sense in which social license came into being originally and is used most normally and most widely by social license practitioners,” he said.
“When you’ve got a whole industry coming under criticism over a specific aspect of that industry it’s certainly an aspect of social acceptance.
“But to use the term social license in that situation to me is a politicisation of that entire industry and is what I’d say part of the dark side of the use of the term social license.
“It would be a misuse of the phrase social license and how it came into existence and is used responsibly by social practitioners and by people in the various industries where they are actually genuinely working to obtain a social license for a specific activity in a specific physical location.
“Social license is a lovely term and it floated off Jim Cooney’s tongue and has been floating around ever since.
“It is an emotional term and it is also a very, very powerful metaphor, but once it becomes used in a political space and in a political way, it is in my opinion open to being misused.”
Dr Thomson said increasingly and unfortunately the term social license was being used for political gain, against its original intent.
“Use of social license by people who have no ‘skin in the game’ is the material difference between the term being used in a political, emotional and manipulative way as opposed to being used in the sense that responsible practitioners would use it when we look at the relationship between the people who do have skin in the game and the actual activity,” he said.
Dr Thomson asked whether politicians and government policy-makers had attention spans long enough to decipher between the correct and responsible application of social license and its misapplication on industries like greyhound racing or live exports.
“We live in a political world and in a political environment and those who engage in the political process will use the resources available to them and a phrase like social license has a lot of power,” he said.
“It can be thrown around responsibly or irresponsibly and it can galvanise people or divide communities.
“Politicians are all part of a game and it can be a horrible game, but politicians at their worst are trying to curry favour and worrying about their own personal social license.”
Dr Thomson said establishing social license around mining projects and agricultural land-use, to win the hearts and souls of the local population, was a complex challenge.
He said mining offered massive employment and high wages, while agriculture also provided a reliable source of income and economic activity, with both activities also being a source of community and individual pride.
But many examples exist globally where social license has been applied successfully like in mining and resource projects or the adventure tourism industry in countries like Fiji to maintain respect for traditional cultures.
Successful application is characterised by strong, stable community relationships, built on mutual understanding and the transparent exchange of information, he said.
“A positive successful example of social license is when trust has been built up to a level where people in the community self-identify with what’s going on and they say ‘it’s our mine’ or ‘it is our project’,” he said.
But Dr Thomson said in contrast, when social license fails, a passive aggressive attitude enshrines the host community and people say ‘we are tolerating this project or activity but we don’t actually like it that much’.
He said “a lot of unspoken anger and frustration then builds up until it comes to a point where it explodes at some stage”.
“But if people think or believe or feel that their interests are protected and nobody is going to hurt them or do anything bad to them and feel they are in a position to influence outcomes, and the company listens and engages with them, that is the world of dialogue and engagement and reciprocity - good feelings on both sides,” he said.
“It is also the world of stability – but those are the things that you never hear about.
“They are the projects that operate under the radar - not because they are operating consciously under the radar and hiding things.
“They simply do not get any public attention because there is no need for it - no one is screaming to the press about it.”
Dr Thomson said activist groups essentially don’t want to sit down with anybody to resolve issues in an industry like live exports or intensive agriculture because it’s not their job.
He said those groups raise the flag and cry wolf, to attract the attention of media and politicians.
The real problem solvers exist in another part of civil society, he said, and agriculture “may need to find a way of engaging with the problem solvers rather than the activists”.
“Where else out there in the world of agriculture and animal husbandry and marketing and all the rest of it are other legitimate actors who can bridge that gap and be credible to the general public in saying ‘we are trying to resolve those issues’,” he said.
“Some activist groups you cannot engage with because they don’t want to engage and it is not in their interests to engage because they would lose their credibility as being the advocates for change.”