The180·Point of View

Mob rule: Why 'social licence radicals' shouldn't be allowed to bully Canada

"Social licence" has become a buzzword in an age when environmentally- and socially-controversial projects sometimes seem to be decided by public opinion. But Brian Lee Crowley of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute says certain elements need to have social licence revoked.
Protesters clash with RCMP officers on Burnaby Mountain on Nov. 21, 2014. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

"Social licence" has become a buzzword in an age when environmentally- and socially-controversial projects sometimes seem to be decided by public opinion. 

The term has been particularly popular in British Columbia, surrounding proposed pipeline projects.  

But Brian Lee Crowley, of the public policy think-tank Macdonald-Laurier Institute, says the term is either "meaningless"or "a polite term for mob rule." He says "social licence radicals" are bullying Canada.

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length. 

What do you mean by "social licence radicals"?

There are two different kinds of social licence and I think it's very important that we distinguish between them: on the one hand, you've got a perfectly legitimate sense in which social licence is used — and that's the sense it's a calm, cool, rational, risk and reputation management by project proponents, governments, communities and so on, in which we seek, as a civilized society, to get the consent of communities to carry out large projects. We don't just bully our way through and force them to accept them, we try and do it by negotiation. And that's all perfectly legitimate. But when I talk about 'social licence bullies' or 'extreme social licence,' what I'm talking about is people who are opposed to development per se — there is nothing you can say, there's no form of compensation, there's no kind of negotiation you can engage with them on that will win their consent to the projects. They are simply using the idea of social licence to say, 'Look, as long as I'm opposed to this project, you don't have social licence.'

Now not everyone trusts the processes that are in place. There are many people that would like to see the National Energy Board improved — even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked his natural resources minister to review Canada's environmental assessment processes. If there is doubt in the process itself, how can you say that anyone who acts outside of it is illegitimate? 

It's absolutely legitimate in a democracy like Canada that we say, 'Look, we want to see improvements to this process.' Who could possibly be opposed to that? I think that there are politicians, however, who have damaged or undermined what is in fact a very sound process, for short-term political gain. I actually think that is a very dangerous game that they're playing.

If anyone who is fundamentally opposed to resource development is a radical, what does that say about anyone who is fundamentally in favour? 

I didn't say that anybody who is opposed to natural resource development is a radical; it's a question how they act upon their views on this. The issue is not, 'What are your views about climate change; What are your views about natural resource development.' It's a question of whether or not you accept — and in a society like Canada we make decisions that you may sometimes disagree with — and whether you will nonetheless respect the process that has been put in place because we live in a democratic society, under the rule of law. We are constantly raising the standard, because Canadians' expectations are constantly rising. 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.

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