INTERVIEW: Martin Bruckner & Dyann Ross

The authors of Under Corporate Skies discuss why the felt they had to write this book.

When did the journey of this book start?
MB: Strictly speaking, this book has two discrete starting points, as Dyann and I undertook our respective research on the Yarloop conflict a number of years apart. Dyann undertook contracted research for Alcoa in 2002, addressing the conflict arising in response to Alcoa’s controversial land management plan for its Wagerup operation. My research was undertaken four years later in response to ongoing community concerns about the Alcoa refinery’s impacts on surrounding areas.

DR: In 2006 a resident of Yarloop (Vince Puccio) who had worked closely with me in 2002–2003 made contact with me. An unknown colleague at the time (at ECU but on a different campus), Martin, had secured a small amount of research money to interview interested parties and this was being enabled by the activist group that Vince had set up since my time in Yarloop (CAPS). Vince suggested I meet with Martin to see if we could agree to proceed. Martin’s research was the missing link I needed as my work in Yarloop was not sufficiently detailed from the various stakeholders’ points of view, yet I knew the politics, context and longer term history intricately. It seemed to be a way to make a contribution to the issue without the strictures of a research contract with Alcoa.

MB: The interview with Dyann in 2007 revealed a substantial overlap between the findings of her earlier research and my own work. Her research was industry-based while my study had a community focus, two distinct approaches which we found to be complementary. Prof. Sherry Saggers, then the director of the Centre for Social Research at Edith Cowan University, who I was working for at the time, suggested that a joint publication would be ideal, bringing together the results from both studies. After discussing this idea with Dyann we both agreed to join forces, which marked the beginning of our journey culminating in the publication of this book.

What are the issues being tackled in Under Corporate Skies?
DR: The main issue is about the state-sanctioned use of power vested in a multinational corporation, which advantages the company and the government but often at the cost of the environment and many impacted people. It also appears to serve the public at large who are not required to consider this cost/benefit analysis. The book seeks to bring these dynamics out in the open and challenge relevant stakeholders to be accountable and at least to avoid blaming the community for the problem.

MB: The raft of issues covered in the book pertain to matters of social justice, regional sustainability and good governance as well as corporate social responsibility and the democratic process. It is also a story about courage and hope, which describes a community’s tenacity and perseverance in its fight for justice and accountability.

First and foremost, the book addresses the social justice issues arising from power differentials that exist between a community and its corporate neighbour, which are amplified further by a country–metro divide that deprives local residents of access to political decision-making processes.

The book also addresses a paradox of regional sustainability brought about by a situation in which all conflict stakeholders operate from within a different understanding of, and framework for sustainability. Both Alcoa and Western Australia’s state government claim to commit to sustainable development. This sustainability stance, however, was found to run counter to local understandings of regional sustainability, which has at its core the protection and safeguarding of people and place.

The Yarloop conflict raises a series of questions about industry conduct, the adequacy of government regulation and due process. In terms of governance and corporate social responsibility (CSR), the Yarloop experience highlights the shortcomings of both Alcoa and successive Western Australian state governments, failing to engage with local grievances in good faith and to work towards conflict resolution.

Finally, the democratic process is also implicated by the Yarloop experience, drawing attention to society’s complicity in the actions by industry and government.

DR: The book links these issues to an analysis which refuses to go soft on the tough questions of who is winning and who is losing in the Wagerup story. It seemed so cliché to say the company was winning and the local people were losing and yet anecdotally this appeared to be the case. The case study seemed to be repeated in many locations across Australia and elsewhere yet very little was being done to deeply consider the factors involved and possible ways of resolving the issues.

How is corporate social responsibility (CSR) theory relevant to this story?
MB: The CSR concept has become something of a buzzword within business circles over the last decade. More and more companies are found to subscribe to CSR principles and to implement CSR practices within their operations. In broad terms, CSR seeks to harmonise the interests of business and society, promoting ethical and responsible business conduct as a recipe for business success and profitability. ‘Doing good whilst doing well’ is the formula of the so-called business case for CSR.

CSR theory is relevant to the story of Yarloop because it brings to light a stark contrast between corporate CSR rhetoric and the experiences of those living downwind from corporate CSR practice. While Alcoa has long been claiming CSR to be part of the company’s genetic make-up, local residents in Yarloop reject assertions of responsible business conduct in light of their lived experience. As such, the book deals with this clash between CSR theory, rhetoric and practice. It also highlights the dangers of corporate facade building, pointing to many community impacts that were masked by effective public relations campaigns evoking a language of sustainability, responsibility and best practice. It is the perceived lack of these elements within the Yarloop conflict, however, that arguably fuelled community agitation against the company for more than a decade.

DR: The level of theorising about CSR is unpacked and found to be wanting as a kind of smoke screen for the company proceeding to act in its own best interests but using language and some public relations projects which suggest they are acting in the interests of the society or at least the local community. By strongly accenting the social aspect of CSR it became evident that some of the stakeholders were feeling unjustly treated, silenced, blamed and variously paying the cost personally and in their community.

MB: The Yarloop conflict represents a CSR issue with no apparent business case, which arguably is why the controversy was allowed to escalate. In our view, it is industry–community conflicts such as this that lie at the very heart of the CSR debate. While companies pursue the business case for CSR as a matter of commercial self-interest, it is messy social problems beyond the business case that test and define the effectiveness of a company’s CSR approach. The book shows that a company’s CSR strategy cannot be effective when it sidelines the concerns and interests of those at the receiving end of CSR practice.

Was it difficult to balance the various threads of the story: personal, public and corporate?
DR: Yes, it is hard to represent the different groups of views, especially as they are not the same kinds of groupings. Lay people in the community were approached through word of mouth and had a long, unmet need to be heard, either as the aggrieved parties or as community members who were pro-Alcoa and thus out of step with others in their town. Politicians and senior government employees spoke from their roles and paid positions, not as people who were personally affected as such. Alcoa was less accessible by the time we came to write the book and of all the groups were less free to speak openly. Nevertheless, Alcoa had a big publicity machine and it was relatively easy to find material on the public record that portrayed their position and how they wanted to be regarded.

However, I’m not sure balance is the aim as there are different things at stake for each group and different risks for each group as well. The most vulnerable group politically were the most determined to tell their personal stories. The corporate story was not a personal story and did not necessarily place the teller in a vulnerable position.

MB: The positions taken by the various stakeholders in Yarloop were indeed diverse. However, in the end there were two storylines to be reconciled in the book. There was a dominant storyline that was shared by industry and government that saw the Wagerup refinery as a key contributor to regional sustainability, providing employment and income and posing no threat to nearby towns and communities. This view sat contrary to the marginalised position taken by local residents who were supported by independent scientists, select parliamentarians and members of the government bureaucracy. In their view both Alcoa and the state government were failing in their responsibilities to local community members, placing at risk community wellbeing and regional sustainability.

The two storylines are diametrically opposed and thus inherently difficult to reconcile. This divergence is a characteristic, however, of the growing divisions found in society today between the winners and losers of economic development. We see in Yarloop a reflection of a larger debate about the quality and direction of development, about acceptable costs and risks, their respective sharing and distribution. As such, this book does not seek to balance two conflicting worldviews but to challenge a dominant perspective and its underlying ideology and assumptions by way of foregrounding a subjugated discourse from the coalface of development, which often goes unheard and unnoticed. In doing so, we hope to reignite a much needed discussion and reflection on today’s largely unquestioned, dominant paradigm and to make central in this discussion the things that matter locally and that we regard as critical for the attainment and maintenance of regional sustainability. Our community emphasis is an attempt at balancing the status quo that favours those occupying privileged positions of power.

What has been the purpose of writing for you?
MB: Primarily, this book has been written to provide a space for the marginalised voices of residents of the town of Yarloop. We felt their story was important to be told to draw attention to the plight of this community. We also wanted to highlight the need to address in earnest questions surrounding the social and environmental sustainability of towns in the shadow of heavy industries and the roles and responsibilities of body corporates and government for the protection of the health and wellbeing of impacted communities.

The story of Yarloop is one of many stories unfolding in Australia today. Yet thus far little attention has been given to the increasingly visible trade-offs associated with industrial progress and development despite mounting social and environmental costs. Society does not seem to be counting. In sharing the Yarloop experience we hope to offer a prompt for reflection on the respective importance of people, place and profits and for a re-evaluation of the things that really matter locally and nationally. Overall, the book is meant to be a reminder of the rights and interests of the intended beneficiaries of economic development who find themselves short-changed by the development path presently taken.

DR: The less obvious purpose in all of this is the invitation to Alcoa to come back to the discussion table where we left off in 2003 and genuinely engage with the impacted towns and people and seek outcomes that fairly address the harm and loss caused by Alcoa’s actions. This will require a leap of faith by the company and a belief in the local people and their wisdom. A robust and informed partnership might then be possible with the government providing expertise, resources and declaring its own vested interests while also ensuring the public’s interests are served without sacrificing a small rural town. So, in short, to encourage dialogue and social justice.

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