Steak Holders versus stakeholders
Published in The Australian, April 2, 2013
THE evidence that Noah actually built an ark is sketchy to say the least, but one thing can be said with certainty. If Noah were to build his ark in Australia today, he would struggle to get an export licence. Gathering up every living creature that creeps upon the surface of the earth is one thing, but the demands of the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (version 2.3) are quite another.
Where is the evidence that Noah adopted “a whole-of-chain risk-based approach”? Did he lodge a notice of intention to export with the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service? Where was his consignment and risk management plan? Did he engage an accredited veterinarian to carry out any inspections or treatment deemed necessary under the approved export program? When it comes to Australian export regulations, livestock beats uranium every time.
Fukushima could not stop the trade in yellowcake, but a grainy video from a single dodgy abattoir in Indonesia was enough for the government to shut down the whole live cattle export trade for a month.
The live cattle ban was one of eight grievances Julia Gillard was reminded of by the ABC’s Leigh Sales in a cracker of a question last week. The Prime Minister assured us that banning live cattle had saved the industry “because they were not going to get the social licence they needed unless we addressed animal welfare standards”.
It is official: a valid export permit and a current health clearance certificate that meet the requirements of the Export Control (Animals) Order 2004 are no longer enough to safeguard Australian cattle sent for slaughter in foreign climes. The livestock export business is now required to obtain a social licence as well as a real one.
Where does one apply for a social licence? What fees and charges apply? Who sets the criteria and how are they assessed? What recourse is there to appeal an adverse decision? And will they be valid beyond the next edition of Four Corners? These are the great unknowns.
One thing is for sure: parliament won’t get a look in because the terms and conditions that apply to social licences are not determined by our elected representatives but by “the community at large”.
Social licences have become popular among the shadow civil service of NGOs, pressure groups and lobbyists who drive much of the contemporary policy debate. The old way of influencing public policy — joining a political party, getting elected, consulting, drafting white papers, bills and passing acts of parliament — is far too slow for this attention deficit era. Besides, Australian parliaments, state and federal, are frighteningly democratic. One vote, one value may be fine and dandy on paper, but many a visionary social reform has been defeated by the stubbornness of bone-headed MPs elected by dim-witted voters.
The theory of the social licence to operate, or SLO, came out of the US in the late 1990s and, together with ethics planning and triple bottom line accounting, has become part of the subversive toolkit of global activism.
A 2011 report for the CSIRO by the Sustainable Minerals Institute, Queensland University provides a useful summary. An SLO is “an intangible and unwritten, tacit, contract with society, or a social group”.
A mining company that wants a social licence must maintain “a positive corporate reputation” and understand “the cultural and historical context of the community and operation”.
The weasel word here is community. In the lexicon of the moral crusaders, it no longer means a geographic community encompassing the people who actually live in the vicinity. The new communities are communities of interest and might include, for instance, ethical investment funds, human rights activists and animal rights campaigners, all of whom are said to have a stake (as opposed to a steak) in the live cattle export trade. These groups make up the “stakeholder network” that decides if a mining company or a cattle exporter is acting in the best interests of “the community”, that is to say in the interests of the stakeholders, rather than the steak holders.
The social licence that the Prime Minister now requires is very different from the old kind of licence where the authorities provided clear benchmarks. With a social licence the stakeholders make up the rules as they go along, or, as they prefer to put it, the social licence is the subject “of an ongoing iterative process of inquiry and reflection”. Statutory licences are practical instruments in the pursuit of the public interest. Social licences are a form of righteous red tape in the pursuit of public virtue. They are devilishly hard to define and prone to capture by articulate, well-funded minorities for public virtue. As Saul Bellow once said, “public virtue is a kind of ghost town into which anyone can move and declare himself sheriff”.
Until recently we might have been prepared to sit back and wait for this postmodern fad to pass. Surely the community would one day wake up to the undemocratic, unaccountable nature of settling civic business this way and hand the job back to parliament? Parliamentarians, like cattle, may sometimes go astray, but elections held every three or four years seem to act as a reliable prod to jolt them back on to the straight and narrow.
Since the Prime Minister herself is now prepared to entertain the drab, illiberal notion of the social licence, however, it is time the idea was nailed once and for all. Nobody wants special interest groups, steakholders or stakeholders, to run the country. Popular democracy may be slow, unwieldy and a little untidy, but surely it will do us for now.