Social impact assessment guidelines: the devil is in the implementation

13 November 2020
The NSW Government has recently updated its guidelines for major developments like the Narrabri Gas Project. Ahead of the online panel on the future of social impact assessment next week, Rebecca Lawrence, Gemma Viney and Susan Park discuss what this could mean for those most impacted.

By Rebecca Lawrence, Sydney Environment Institute; Gemma Viney, Department of Government and International Relations, Sydney Environment Institute; Susan Park, Department of Government and International Relations, Sydney Environment Institute.

In 2019, we saw the Rocky Hill Coal Mine dismissed on the grounds that the proposed mine would have significant adverse social impacts for the people of Gloucester. This was a historic decision and demonstrated to local communities around NSW that social impacts matter, and that their concerns deserved to be taken seriously. The social impacts of major developments have recently come again to the fore of Australia’s news cycle with the Narrabri Gas Project being approved by the Independent Planning Commission (IPC)’s in October 2020. Rather than further develop good social impact assessment practice, the process was deeply flawed. The recent Narrabri decision has highlighted the work that still needs to be done to ensure that social impacts are dealt with robustly and independently.

Already marginalised and disadvantaged groups – such as regional communities and Indigenous peoples – should not bear the burden of negative impacts, while other non-Indigenous peoples elsewhere reap the benefits.

Social Impact Assessments (SIA) are supposed to tell us what social impacts matter when it comes to proposed developments, how they will be managed, or indeed, if they can be managed at all. At the heart of SIA is the idea that government planning authorities should be making informed decisions about developments, and that the public good should be protected. In particular, already marginalised and disadvantaged groups – such as regional communities and Indigenous peoples – should not bear the burden of negative impacts, while other non-Indigenous peoples elsewhere reap the benefits. Crucially, the precautionary principle should also apply to SIA: assessments must ensure there is reasonable certainty about the expected impact predictions. The Rocky Hill case confirmed this view: in the absence of sufficient information about the impacts on Aboriginal people, the proponent’s SIA was deemed insufficient.

Following the recommendation of the IPC, the Commonwealth Government is soon due to make its much-awaited decision on the controversial Narrabri gas project. In the meantime, the NSW Department of Planning Industry and Environment (DPIE) has released an updated Social Impact Assessment (SIA) Guideline for all state significant projects. While the Narrabri Gas Project was not officially covered by the original 2017 DPIE SIA Guideline, and the Commonwealth won’t be obliged to apply the new 2020 SIA Guideline in its assessment of the project either, the question needs to be asked, what will change for similar projects once the new 2020 SIA Guideline comes into force?

Continuing with the example of the Narrabri Gas Project: at the national level, over 98% of submissions opposed the project and at the local level, 63% of submissions opposed it, yet the IPC approved it regardless. So, what role does public opinion play in decision making in New South Wales? How does the public submission process inform decision making? Or does it confirm criticisms that public submissions processes, like consultation processes more generally, play a performative role: they give the appearance of giving a space to community and public opinion, at the same time giving very little weight to it. Without clarity on this issue, the perceived lack of meaningful engagement risks leaving communities feeling disenfranchised and disregarded by development proponents and planning authorities. Of course, if Social Impact Assessments (SIA) are done poorly, they too risk running into the same problem.

The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment’s new SIA Guideline now applies to all State Significant Projects (and not just resource projects). This means that the number of social impact assessments coming across DPIE’s desk are going to increase significantly, and the benchmark for the way these SIAs should be undertaken is now formalised to a higher standard. For example, the proposed 2020 Guideline states that engagement with Aboriginal people “should recognise and respect their rights and be culturally appropriate. In practice, this means: […]ensuring free, prior, and informed consent” Guideline, pg. 31).

This recognition of Indigenous rights is commendable and in line with developments in international law, such as the UN Declaration. It is certainly an admirable policy goal and one we, as an advanced industrialised nation, should be able to achieve. But the reality is that many an SIA has been done to “tick the box”: they, like public submissions processes, become a way of performing “community consultation” but without giving any real attention to the social impacts that actually matter. Again, the Rocky Hill case highlights this problem. In cases where Indigenous communities have opposed projects, consultations are performed, but their opposition is often ultimately ignored. In the case of the Narrabri project, DPIE did not seek, or receive, the consent of the Gomeroi people, who opposed the project. This is despite free, prior and informed consent being a policy of both the proponent, Santos, and DPIEs own 2017 SIA Guideline.

DPIE has released a solid updated 2020 SIA Guideline, but a key challenge we face is how to implement it to ensure that proponents, Government authorities and SIA experts are able to ensure that SIAs are undertaken at the high standard outlined in the Guideline.

Rebecca Lawrence has worked in the field of Social Impact Assessment (SIA) for over 15 years as both an academic and SIA practitioner. Rebecca was the social impact expert for the Department of Planning Industry and Environment (DPIE) in the Rocky Hill case; has trained DPIE staff in the 2017 SIA Guideline; has recently undertaken an internal evaluation of DPIE’s implementation of the Guideline; and provides pro-bono advice to NGOs on SIA.  She has a joint PhD in Human Geography (Macquarie University) and Sociology (Stockholm University) and has published in inswternational academic journals regarding SIA in the natural resource sector.

Gemma Viney is a Research Assistant on the FASS 2018 Strategic Research Program Project developing the field of Multi Species Justice and is currently completing a PhD in the Department of Government and International relations. Gemma was an Honours Research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute in 2017. She has a Bachelors degree in International and Global Studies from the University of Sydney, and a First-class Honours Degree in the Department of Government and International Relations. Gemma is the Research Lead on Anti-Mining Community Movements at the Sydney Environment Institute.

Susan Park is Professor of Global Governance at the University of Sydney. She focuses on how state and non-state actors use formal and informal influence to make the Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) greener and more accountable. She is a Senior Research Fellow of the ESG, an affiliated Faculty member of the Munk School’s Environmental Governance Lab at the University of Toronto, an External Associate of the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at Warwick University, and a research affiliate of the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. Susan is the Research Lead on The Global Shift to Renewables and Environmental Disasters and Just Governance.