Who pays the piper…universities dance to the AUKUS tune

Apr 3, 2024
AUKUS Nuclear submarine in the deep sea, The US, UK, and Australia have announced a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific, Australia new submarine deals with the US. France upset. Artists impression. Image iStock/ Homayon Kabir

When AUKUS was announced, the ANU was quick off the mark to cash in.

It seems that the Universities of Sydney and Nottingham, through the United States Study Centre, also want to pursue a new business line: the creation of “social licence” for government policies, new technologies and new products. They plan to monetise a form of advertising and promotion that was once known as propaganda.

A joint 11 March 2024 report opens with this remarkable announcement:

Universities across the three countries (sic) agree they are well-placed to add value to government through strategic messaging and building social license for AUKUS. Indeed, university representatives describe themselves as “enablers of operationalis­ing the strategic intent around AUKUS”, or, in other words: building social license for AUKUS.

So, these universities want to: add value to government; conduct “strategic messaging”; build social licence; enable “operationalisation” (whatever that might be) for strategic intent (ditto); and build social licence for AUKUS. Whether they really think that “operationalising the strategic intent around AUKUS”—defeating China in armed conflict—is the same as building social licence is hard to fathom. Generally, what is meaningless lacks meaning.

To complicate this even further, the universities, we are told, intend to achieve these “outputs” (well, we suppose that is what they are) through two primary inputs: educating the workforce, and advanced capability research (AUKUS Pillar 2, just to be clear), which look like outputs, but who is to quibble?

The report emphasises just how difficult it is to walk and to chew gum. It informs readers that “government discourse [promoting the warlike aims of AUKUS] has been constrained by the need to reestablish diplomatic relations with China”.

Consequently, the hoi polloi do not appreciate “the nature of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific and its place in Australian regional strategy for AUKUS”. They cannot understand that the hard work of maintaining a businesslike, intelligent, professional and tactful relationship with China (which is what diplomacy is about) does not fit with planning to fight and defeat China in armed conflict.

It is not that the Australian community rejects the proposition that the future submarines must be premised on going to war with and defeating China—at least not yet—but that it is too dumb to understand that war is, apparently, inevitable. So “support” for AUKUS, such as it might have been, has “weakened rather than firmed” (in case one does not understand what “weakened” means) since Prime Minister Albanese and his Defence Minister announced “the optimal pathway” (whatever “optimal” means). Presumably, China will not notice what is going on here, despite the fact that these universities have teamed up to perpetrate an unsubtle sleight-of-hand to trick the Australian community.

The report uses the term “social licence” to mean a combination of understanding and support. And if “understanding” is the necessary logical precondition for “support”, then social licence is a simple idea that depends upon and reflects a government’s success in advocating and explaining its decisions and their underlying policies. Quite where universities fit into the task of advocacy and explanation is unclear. It is even less clear whether the community’s general understanding and support for a policy is tantamount to “social licence” or the related expression “social licence to operate”.

“Social licence” emerged in the management literature around thirty years ago when commercial enterprises that produced both profits and pollution were increasingly required to persuade communities that the trade-offs were worthwhile. Some companies adopted triple bottom line accounting to reconcile economic, environmental and social outcomes—also known as “profits, people and planet”.

So, initially at least, “social licence” referred to acceptance, approval and permission on the part of a local community towards a commercial enterprise and, by extension, broader national approval for the industries where benefits and sectoral costs needed to be balanced. At the core of any “social licence” is trust between community and business.

“The power of euphemism and jargon should never be underestimated. They not only convey confected complexity but they also obscure, trick and deceive.”

Indeed, the entire AUKUS program is premised on deceit.

Whether anything like “social licence” operates between the electorate and the government is unclear. Do governments have a “social licence” to spend the taxpayers’ money, or is “social licence” coterminous with “mandate”? Do governments require a “social licence” to meet their constitutional responsibilities for the prosperity, safety, security and well-being of the community and the defence of the nation? Do they require a social licence to maintain police services, health services, defence forces? Were governments to fail to meet these responsibilities, they would be failing in their constitutional responsibilities more broadly.

Governments outsource accountability, responsibility and transparency at their peril. Governments’ ability to explain and generate support for their decisions is central to democracy as practised in Australia. When governments outsource that function to consultants, two things happen. First, governments fail at the ballot box. And second, the consultants can also be punished as they provide services outside their competencies and/or in breach of their ethical duties.

Money matters. Wherever there is a whiff of government cash, supplicants line up. Universities are no different. The commercialisation of the university sector perhaps leaves it with little option, given its traditional lack of entrepreneurial skills and its general attraction to the magic pudding of government funding.

It is little wonder that the universities’ AUKUS report looks to “incentivising collaboration” as a research stimulus. The universities are competitive and reluctantly cooperative. Hence the report suggests that “Governments can support university-to-univer­sity collaboration by creating greater incentives, including by funding joint research programs . . . so that partnership has a supe­rior comparative advantage”.

As a blatant bid for cash, the universities’ March report is par for the course. But as a bid for the highly political role of building “social licence”, it is as naïve as it is misguided. The Vice-Chancellors of Sydney and Nottingham universities would be well advised to ignore it.

Republished from The Australia Institute on March 25, 2024.

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