While the idea of a social license has gained common language status in the past decade, it has been around for 50 years but is still confusing to many and is often weaponised in debates - which rarely benefits anyone.
At any one time there will be social license debates swirling around - currently over the Tarkine tailings site near Rosebery, Stanley Wind Farm, salmon farming - and most recently over a potential mining exploration lease on the West Tamar.
So what is a social license all about?
The basic version is that where a company intends to operate in a community (mainly mining but increasingly agriculture, forestry, construction and aquaculture) that company, in addition to formal licenses, needs social endorsement that community risks (such as environmental risks, noise abatement) will be minimised and community benefits (such as local employment, investment in long-term infrastructure) will be maximised.
This can only happen with direct and ongoing engagement with the community and not through formal license processes. It's about a relationship not a transaction.
The idea gained prominence (initially in South America) where mining companies sometimes left a trail of social, economic and environmental devastation in local communities with governments seeming unable or unwilling to regulate such activity.
Underneath the idea has been a sense of distrust of big companies and big governments and therefore the need for direct community action to establish legitimacy.
So, a social license involves a process of establishing mutual understanding, trust and a willingness to work together to maximise benefits and minimise risks for those people and places most likely to be impacted.
Of course there are many challenges.
Firstly who is the community? For many environmental issues the community is often primarily not proximate to the actual site but a much more dispersed group often nationally and internationally. This can set up a tension over 'who' should be counted as a 'legitimate' community member.
There will always be some situations where a social license will be essentially contested by many irrespective of any engagement processes.
The Tarkine for example.
Second, what does the license look like? While increasingly there are documents associated with social licenses (such as memorandums of understanding and community compacts) often the 'license' is more a process with rules of engagement rather than a fixed document. This raises risks for businesses about the conditions under which the ground rules can change and create a higher level of risk and uncertainty. There is no common form for a social license or its renewal, unlike for example a driver's license.
Third, many argue that the licenses issued by governments are sufficient legitimacy and formal mandate to operate in a community. So long as laws are complied with, activities regulated and monitored, the company has the right to operate.
Indeed many companies argue there is such a burden of regulatory requirements around environmental and community matters that investors are put off, and that governments (representing communities) are in the best position to issue licenses and provide a level of certainty for the company.
Since the parameters of social licenses are at best opaque and have no fixed timeframes there is a risk that a case by case social license process may never provide security and certainty.
In the past 20 years there has been an explosion of interest from governments and businesses to establish their social license credentials.
For example Tasmania has a Mining Code of Conduct for explorers encouraging many activities associated with a social license.
Many companies now have extensive and ongoing community engagement processes which can be not just good for community but good for brand and the bottom line. This is the idea of shared value creation rather than seeing a social license as a cost.
A recent example in Northern Tasmania highlights the changing parameters of social licenses. In this case (in the West Tamar) community members are essentially arguing that a social license should start before the issuing of an Exploration License rather than once a project is likely to proceed.
This brings forward the notion of social license to a very early stage of the mining process and will be criticised as being premature and putting a burden on companies before they have even set foot in a community.
However, many governments and companies now encourage community engagement at these very early stages even prior to 'exploration' of an area.
In a proposed relationship (personal or otherwise) it would not be normal for one party to announce it with an obscure 'public notice' of intent.
Social licenses are here to stay and the pressure is on governments and companies to keep up with community expectations about the conditions under which a license is earned not simply issued.
Hard to win, easy to lose.
- Professor David Adams, University of Tasmania