Governance, Social Licence and the Rise of Environmental NGOs in Australia

Hannah Murphy-Gregory

Dr. Murphy-Gregory Lecturer, Politics and International Relations Program, University of Tasmania

Environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs) in Australia are seemingly more politically active and influential than ever before. They have been at the forefront of recent high-profile debates on issues of national significance including the protection of the Great Barrier Reef, the future of the renewable energy sector, the status of factory fishing trawlers, forest protection in Tasmania and of course climate change. Within the academic literature, most scholars emphasise the benefits of a vibrant NGO sector for Australian governance and public policy-making (Hamilton and Maddison 2007). Others meanwhile view the sector – and environmental NGOs in particular – with some hostility citing concerns that they elevate minority viewpoints and receive too much taxpayer funding (see Kelly 2014). Indeed, a parliamentary inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations is now underway to review the tax deductability status of Australian environmental NGOs.

Regardless of one’s views on the rights and responsibilities of environmental NGOs, important questions remain: how exactly have ENGOs managed to increase their visibility and influence on Australian policy-making in recent years? What tactics and strategies do they use and how should we understand their contributions to contemporary governance arrangements? I will focus here on one particularly potent strategy that has helped increase the prominence of ENGOs in recent times: the withholding of ‘social licence’ for various commercial undertakings.

At first glance, the term social licence may appear to be a buzzword, yet it is quickly gaining currency within the NGO sector and among the corporate actors upon which they focus. Perhaps the simplest way to understand the social licence concept is to see it as an avenue for NGOs and communities to instil operating standards and codes of conduct on business actors and their commercial undertakings that exceed what is legally required by the state. The social licence strategy is very much dependent upon rapid dissemination of information by environmental activists largely via social media platforms, which allows ENGOs to access and engage with the public, other NGOs, and corporations in order to build common understandings of appropriate behaviour and practices.

Social licence is thus a normative concept that leads us into the amorphous realm of community values and beliefs and possibly away from evidence-based public policy. There is more than an echo here of the corporate social responsibility notion, yet it is ENGOs, activists and the broader community that are taking the lead in awarding or withdrawing social licences rather than the corporations themselves. Corporate practices that promote sustainability and respect the natural environment, workers, and local communities are often the key tenets associated with a social licence.

Let’s now examine briefly two instances emanating from my home state of Tasmania where ENGOs have utilised the social licence tool as a governing strategy: the cases of the factory fishing ship or ‘supertrawler’ the FV Magiris, and the Tamar Valley Pulp Mill.

In 2012, a political furore erupted over Seafish Tasmania’s efforts to bring a factory freezer trawler, the FV Margiris (subsequently renamed the Abel Tasman) to Australia to harvest mackerel and redbait around Australia’s southern waters. The company’s actions sparked a formidable protest campaign, Stop The Trawler Alliance, comprising dozens of ENGOs and recreational fishers groups led by Environment Tasmania. Via intense political lobbying and social media, the campaigners claimed that Seafish Tasmania did not have a social licence to operate the ship dubbed the ‘supertrawler’ despite its approval by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) based upon the scientifically-devised quota. The concerns about the vessel revolved around its large size, possible by-catch, and localised depletion of fish stocks. In December 2014, ENGOs succeeded in having the Abbott Government put in place a permanent ban on supertrawlers exceeding 130 metres. Whilst Seafish Tasmania has since brought a new 95-metre factory freezer ship to Australia, its operations are the subject of intense government, media and ENGO scrutiny.

Like the supertrawler debate, the Tamar Valley pulp mill project in Northern Tasmania has been a highly contentious project since timber company Gunns Limited first announced the proposal in 2004. Whilst there are a myriad of well-documented reasons for the failure of the project to proceed, a key factor central to its demise was the inability of the company to attain a social licence from the Tasmanian community. And yet the proposal did successfully gain both State and Commonwealth government approval albeit via a convoluted process. The key problem from which the company failed to recover was the perception of backroom deals, political favours, and the faulty planning review process.  As Bibby (2013: 70) explains, “[i]t wasn't enough that Gunns had the support of the government; it needed the support, or at least acceptance, of the community as well”. But on top of the alleged cronyism, Gunns (and the State and Commonwealth Governments) failed to allay ongoing concerns about the adequacy of environmental protections, the mill’s impacts on nearby tourism, farming and aquaculture activities and the ‘clean green’ Tasmanian brand.

The ENGO tactic of awarding and (more often) revoking social licences poses some interesting questions about the state of governance in Australia, the significance of values, ideas and beliefs in our policy-making, and the evolving relationships between the state, corporations and the non-governmental sector. Indeed, the ENGOs’ use of the social licence tool can serve as a potent community governance strategy, effectively bolstering the status of the community vis-à-vis government and business and thus altering the governance ‘mix’ between these sectors. In both examples above, it was not the overarching authority of the state that prevented commercial activity. Indeed the state initially gave the green light to both the factory trawler and, eventually, the pulp mill. It was only after concerted grassroots community action led by ENGOs that government was compelled to enact higher regulatory standards in the case of the fishing trawler, and in the pulp mill case, the lack of social licence repelled possible financial backers by threatening reputational damage. Indeed, the advent of social licences has empowered community governance as a check on industrial activities: business actors must increasingly assume that their actions may attract the ire of ENGOs, whom governments may then back with higher regulatory standards.

Yet there are significant ongoing challenges for ENGOs despite recent success with the social licence governing tool. Are ENGOs’ policy positions representative of affected communities at large? Are their activities simply an extension of ‘nimbyism’? To whom are ENGOs accountable? To what degree are ENGOs willing to take up opportunities to meaningfully engage in collaborative governance alongside business and governments? The evidence from Tasmania is mixed. In relation to the pulp mill, proponents frequently pointed out that a silent majority of Tasmanians supported a pulp mill on the basis that it would provide employment opportunities and stimulate the under-performing state economy. And whilst ENGOs were involved in the forest industry peace process for example, there was considerable discord within the sector throughout the negotiating period. Beyond withholding or awarding social licences, ENGOs’ capacities, strengths and weaknesses as governance participants are still unfolding. The outcomes of the 2015 parliamentary inquiry into environmental organisations may yet result in a reduction in ENGO funding, which may compromise their role in the overall governance mix alongside business and governments. 



  • Bibby, W. 2013. ‘The Cost of Hubris: Due Process, Democracy and Respect’. In J. Schultz and N. Cica (eds.) Griffith REVIEW 39: Tasmania - The Tipping Point? Melbourne: Text Publishing. Available at:
  • Hamilton, C., and S. Maddison. 2007. Silencing Dissent: How the Australian Government is Controlling Public Opinion and Stifling Debate. Sydney: Allen and Unwin. Available at:
  • Kelly, P. 2014. ‘New Climate Change Battlefront Pits Abbott Against the Anti-Coal Brigade’. The Australian 18 October. 
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