community engagement, environment, NGO

Will the real environmental movement, please stand up?

If we have based our judgement on news coverage that Australians are pouring out on the street to support environmental atrocities, you might be right to think the environmental movement is well and alive. Think about all the photos and the tweets in your stream for campaigns organised by groups like Lock the Gate, to the Solar Citizens and you would believe the green agenda is back in the black.

Professor Peter Christoff from University of Melbourne shared some excellent observations during The Future of Environmental Movements seminar which highlights that formal membership in mainstream NGOs is collapsing and what remains supporting its membership are passive participants. The reliance on a tax exempt status for charities or state-based or legislative funding is also threatened as freedom evaporates from our political agenda.

What we stand to lose as traditional NGOs are steadily being replaced by smaller social and grassroots organisations who have a razor sharp focus on an issue rather than a multitude that more established NGOs tend to have. The support for these local social movements have also showed Australians are more concerned about what is happening in our country over global environmental issues.

The threat of the RET being axed has also shifted industry associations like the Australian Solar Council into high gear with funding from its members being directed towards community events across Australia to spread the message. What impressed me with what the ASC was able to do was the speed at which it had raised funds to run its campaigns through some generous donations from its members. What might seem as an exercise to protect the interest of members in an industry association, I see as an example of how the broader community enjoys the benefit of speed, funding and agility to take it message to market much quicker.

Perhaps this razor focus for NGOs to have on specific issues rather than a multitude of global and Australian causes is the new mantra of what we would fight for and believe. It may be hard to rally financial support to champion the Great Barrier Reef, Indonesian forests, the overfishing of oceans globally and saving the Arctic under one umbrella because who ultimately determines which cause is much more worth supporting over another?

Should we applaud or discount armchair activists who stand for an issue, sign an online petition but wouldn’t rock up to a protest? Is power truly in numbers where people rally or is it in the invisible force that brings the word out through social media platforms?

Perhaps a future with smaller and less rigid environmental NGOs will return community action to the agility and speed it needs to keep up with change. And a rethink of funding and organisational structures could bring physical bodies back to rallies and events once again.


Mary Rowe talks about the power hyperlocal communities have in making decisions and being resilient. It is where politics intervenes to make these decisions that destroys things. How self-organisation within communities bringing people together from different disciplines and background have greater power to create change that is more impactful on their communities.

An interesting insight in that lecture was how Rowe highlights disconnection in the feedback loops in cities that are challenged. How environmental decisions have not been mapped against economic decisions or how feedback loops were not in place during the decision making process.

This video spoke to my heart as I think about the large infrastructure projects such as coal seam gas that are struggling to get validation from communities. Or the backlash politicians in Australia are seeing on a raft of issues that have been earmarked for transformation – whether its healthcare, education or welfare.

Would we be a better society and would we be able to move forward on some of these issues if we had a feedback loop? But then again, would we allow our communities to participate in this decision-making process?

community engagement, environment, NGO, politics, sustainability

The social license to operate


One of the terms of references I’ve had to work with often with clients in contentious industries is the “social license to operate”.

The social license which was once perceived to be the consent or permission to operate within an immediate community has increasingly seen its definition of community widening. Beyond immediate local residents, businesses, community groups and governments, the sphere of influencers who have their say in giving legitimacy to this license, is increasingly broadened not only domestically but internationally.

When financial institutions such as AMP and Hunter Hall enforced its RIL principles in the types of companies it invests in, we start to see the positive impact it has on oil, gas and fuel companies – who may have a formal license to operate but their social license to operate diminishing outside of the traditional confines of its community.

This is why bureaucratic decisions to grant permission to companies like Metgasco and Whitehaven Coal have failed with the lack of community engagement. I don’t believe these companies or the planning authorities would not have imagined the extent or the number of stakeholders that were emotionally or ideologically attached to these social licenses to operate in the region. Over the last few weeks, it has become increasingly apparent that “undefined communities” were emerging and they had reinforced their opposition in a stronger and more vocal manner. I salute and support groups like Lock the Gate Alliance for creating awareness amongst the wider communities who have shown that these exploration and mining projects have far reaching implications beyond just a small region but to every individual living in Australia.

But why then do consultations on coal seam gas seem to only fall within the peripheral boundaries of the states – the Victorian Government’s Natural Gas Community Information “consultation” is a good example.

The environment belongs to everyone of us and the future generations so I would like to see a national register for development consent on projects that impact on Australia’s natural environment where everyone has the right to review and make a submission. Its time we restored transparency into investment led projects that affect the environment and to rethink who ultimately grants businesses the social license to operate.

Its you. Its me.

community engagement

Have you just moved in?


Living in an apartment block in the inner city has its merits and sometimes disadvantages. Besides being able to walk virtually almost anywhere and not having to be held hostage by Sydney’s dreadful traffic in itself is a blessing. But with the privilege of convenience, comes with a transient neighbourhood of renters and owners who don’t feel like they belong. Maybe, its all because we have our busy lives and there is a distinct lack of a community altogether.

It came as no surprise one day when I met a gentlemen in the lift who was heading to my floor.

Did you just move in?

No, I’ve actually lived here for the last six years. How about you?

Moved here nine months ago.

I laugh and say we never really meet our neighbours on this floor [even though i work regular business hours]

Yes, they must all be very busy.

The sense of neighbourliness seems to be lost with inner city apartment living. Why try being friendly if you are just tiding through a 12 month rental contract before you move to another place? The race to avoid eye contact or getting to ride the lift alone is far more comforting than being in the company of complete strangers toying with their non-existent phone apps so no one needs to talk. Which is why the biggest uproar of the year was when the second lift had broken down for eight weeks and seeing a car full of strangers desperately uncomfortable riding down on their way to work was remotely upsetting. Adults listening to music on their headphones, playing with their phones and looking down at the floor.

Maybe its an anamoly or rarity that I live amongst a cluster of inner city, single, working individuals who have their own social networks and don’t have a sense of belonging to where they live other than a rental deposit to their landlord or a signed proxy for an AGM. The gap becomes quite obvious at the end of an EGM I attend last night where there were so many owners, whom I could call my neighbours, whom I have never met before. Needless to say, I was the only face represented on my level. It was the odd meeting when we had come together with a cause as we’re about to settle an insurance claim for retification works for the entire building. I’ve never seen so many people in an AGM – some familiar faces, others I can’t recall.

But this thought made me pause for a while as I think about the association between neighbourhoods and communities. The MAP survey in ABS alludes to an interesting fact that just over 30 percent of Australians have not been involved in community and social groups in the last 12 months.

Which is why the death of Oxford St is no longer debated by the LGBTI community, its decline is accepted. When the Mardi Gras is over and we are all swept back into our mainstream lives. In the same fashion, the community like my neighbours, live in their own bubbles until the jackhammer starts drilling or when you meet someone like Julie who says:

The planners need to be mindful of the fact that for the residents it is their home – families, singles old and young we all live here- it is not only young people who live in the area. So when licensing venues you need to be mindful of the noise, garbage and unwelcome behaviour (like sex in the street outside my kitchen window, incessant noise, urinating, broken glass etc, and large groups of men wearing little clothing in the Mardi Gras).

That’s when we will start seeing community again?

community engagement, environment, politics

Listen before the shit hits the fan


Source: True Issues, JWS Research

An opinion piece by Geoff Kitney in the Australian Financial Review that talks about how voters are increasingly tuning out of politics. Its a well thought through article around how politicians are failing to drive the agenda, the shrinking pool of insightful media commentary being driven by the demand for instant news and people being increasingly disconnected from issues that are affecting them.

Why have we failed to come up with solutions to address concerns around climate change (an inadequate Direct Action Plan), renewable energy (RET review riddled with biases) and resource use (let’s keep the mines running while coal prices tumble because we need those jobs) when its consistently been ranked as the top 3 concerns over the last quarters.

Its probably a case of a community that has stopped speaking because the politicians have stopped listening.

I’ve been working on a prop around community engagement for a few days and one thought that burns brightly in my mind is how slow organisations have been in engaging with their stakeholders until an issue impacts on them. Then they get into a mad scramble of trying to drum up support to save [insert cause], [insert impact] and [insert blame].

Active engagement is continuous listening and dialogue combined – in times of peace and especially at a time where the political tides are changing. This is why ccmmunity engagement needs to go deeper if organisations are to remain relevant to the stakeholders they serve. This is when listening allows organisations understand issues, to map out priorities and communicate a clear pathway to address these concerns. Instead of kicking up big save [insert cause] and not finding the support. Or much worse, facing the dilution of 15 similar organisations looking for donors, volunteers and support for the same cause.

community engagement, environment

Coal is bad for business and not listening to communities is as well

Even before the dust has settled on IPCC reports on the impact of climate change on society, the Minerals Council of Australia thought it was timely to inject the industry’s position on why Australians need to support the coal industry. Through Australians for Coal, MCA thought it would be great to give “the majority of Australians who support the coal industry a chance to have a say“. I’m sure the pin dropped over the last 24 hours that Australians are not for coal if you were to follow the conversations on the hashtag #AustraliansforCoal.

Maybe there was a lack of mobile coverage in the mines so the miners couldn’t tweet. Or they don’t have Twitter installed on their phones. I’m quite positive MCA’s inbox or mail box isn’t brimming with letters from the public supporting the further growth and development of the mining industry. I would love for MCA to prove me wrong. This is possibly the worst social media and PR lobbying campaign I have seen in a while as a PR practitioner. While in many cases, I would generously ladle my counsel on how to make things right, this is one campaign I would be extremely critical of because it goes completely against my personal values.

The coal industry and government is and will continue to face pressure from communities that are being affected by the raft of mining projects that have impacted their livelihoods and robbed them of their basic human rights. I am at odds over the increasing likelihood that the Renewable Energy Target would be reduced or removed and the expansion of coal mining that contributes towards a greater carbon footprint when we have already have affordable and reliable clean energy technologies that would allow the world to reduce its reliance on coal.

Bob Debus’ opinion piece in The Saturday Paper sums up the state of the environment and politics well. Communities are increasingly weary on being consulted and not being listened to. When approvals are given for projects on an economic rationale without considering the consequences it has on future generations. This is where Debus’ hinted we would need to see a return of environmental activism of the past if we had to make a point  – and it already is with what we are seeing with the Leard State Forest or Lock the Gate Alliance where communities are having to resort to physical action.

I would love a national debate with communities on whether we should continue to hang out hat on supporting a [dirty] extraction industry that just doesn’t stack up with our obligations to reduce emissions.

We are tearing apart nature and livelihoods that we will never be able to restore. If physical activism is the only way to fight back and be used as a tactic to delay developments, no one wins at the end.