22/02/2012 - 11:01

Token consultation won’t cut it any more

22/02/2012 - 11:01

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Big companies need to be more proactive if they’re to win the hearts and minds battle.

Big companies need to be more proactive if they’re to win the hearts and minds battle.

PUBLIC outrage and online activism loom as serious threats to resource companies in Western Australia in 2012 unless they dramatically improve their public consultation practices.

Online activism through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is growing as a bang-for-buck option for time- and cash-poor community groups and environmental non-government organisations seeking a say in decisions about WA resources proposals.

It’s cheap, fast, easy, and has proved effective at recruiting big numbers of people to campaigns. 

In 2011, the Save the Kimberley and No COAL!tion social media campaigns attracted tens of thousands of online followers and placed enormous pressure on project proponents and the WA government.

The landscape is set for this trend to continue. The sheer volume of projects seeking government approvals is driving agencies and companies to streamline and expedite the assessment process.  

Of the more than 400 projects referred to the Environmental Protection Authority in 2010-11, 54 required full formal environmental assessments – almost double the previous year. 

Quick assessments are a smart response, but they’re happening at the expense of early and detailed public consultation.

It’s a big social risk in an era where mass communication devices and people power are combining to topple governments and stop resource projects in their tracks.

Massive social phenomena like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street are cautionary tales for miners given to underestimating the power of a networked and outraged public.

In recent weeks the WA government announced its final decision to reject the Vasse Coal project near Margaret River, and the Indonesian government revoked Arc Exploration’s mining permit for the Sumbawa Island project. 

 Both were subjects of public outrage, which made them untenable for authorities to back. 

Both potentially amounted to hundreds of millions in lost business.

Companies looking to futures in unconventional gas in WA should study the powerful ‘Lock the Gate’ campaign in New South Wales to see what happens when communities feel their interests are threatened by industry.

Examples like these highlight just how important it is to factor social risk into overall project risk assessments, to avoid underestimating the potential for outrage and the consequential regulatory and political risks.

To avoid public outrage, reputation damage, lengthy delays and even catastrophic decisions on major proposals, WA resource companies must invest in detailed public consultation earlier in project planning

Done early while the waters are calm and with plenty of time to adapt to community expectations, it is usually possible to avert broad-scale public opposition and outrage.

The key to success in all consultation efforts is respect and authenticity. Communities do not accept token consultation or glossy PR campaigns as substitutes for genuine respect for their right to a say in decisions that affect their lives.  The golden rule is: the earlier the better.

Paul McLeod is regional president WA-SE Asia for social-licence-to-operate consultancy Futureye.


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