Calm before next storm

Social licence is a highly fluid concept that needs to be constantly respected, earned and obtained

GIVEN recent positive developments around the live animal export trade, one could easily assume the war is now over, the storm has cleared, and animal activists will simply raise the white flag, pull anchor and sail out to sea, never to be heard of again.

A new Coalition government has been elected, promising to put wind in the sails of live exports, so long as high animal welfare standards are maintained.

Tony Abbott made a warm apology to Indonesia this week for sinking our neighbour’s beef supply without warning, via the former Labor government’s snap live cattle trade suspension in June 2011.

He also pledged calmer waters by never repeating such a knee-jerk government decision that had such catastrophic business and diplomatic impacts.

This week also saw the announcement of new import permits for 75,000 head of slaughter ready cattle to Indonesia to boost commercial trade, amid positive diplomatic talks between the two countries political and business leaders.

Two Top End cattle stations also sold, marking one of the first significant land transactions in recent years for embattled pastoralists, while signalling a renewed mood of investor confidence.

After years of constant fist-shaking between industry and animal rights activists, especially in cyberspace and via the media, it seems commonsense has finally been restored to live exports and smooth waters have been entered.

However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Now may be a good time for the cattle industry to catch its breath and reflect on hard work and positive progress, but only momentarily.

Any sign of complacency, hubris, or taking government support for granted would be a fatal mistake that would stir up a cyclonic event that the industry may never, ever recover from.

The term social licence has been used repeatedly in recent years to describe community support for the live export trade’s continued operations, and that unwritten agreement also applies to other intensive farming methods or industries.

Social licence requirements won’t disappear overnight just because Mr Abbott’s humbled himself in Indonesia, to follow through on an election promise.

Social licence is a highly fluid concept that needs to be constantly respected, earned and obtained.

That means always building animal welfare standards while letting the general public know the livestock industry’s on an upward trajectory and operating with integrity and purpose, feeding people and creating jobs, which in turns keeps families alive.

Out of sight with the general community is no longer an option for modest farmers and farm groups, because out of mind will also mean out of work and out of business, eventually.

The terms and conditions of this so called social licence will mutate over time along with changing community standards and needs.

Those underlying attitudes will also impact commercial activity and consumer choices around food production and farming, but not always via commonsense moves.

Only this week, Woolworths decided to phase out caged eggs in its home brand lines over five years but farm groups objected saying it could see egg prices double and limits consumer choice.

But the biggest alarm bell was news that the giant retailer didn’t consult with industry or producer groups on its phase-out decision and other QA standards and processes were ignored.

With this kind of ‘commercial’ activity on the rise, there’s never been a more appropriate time for farm bodies to get their ship in order and galvanize a stronger representative body so farmers can tell their story direct to consumers, media, politicians and other key stakeholders in a constant, meaningful way.

So when false claims are made or events and images are exaggerated beyond context and common sense, or one sector suffers an anti-farming attack, they can immediately share information, converge to discuss solutions and appropriate responses and mobilise their leaders and the troops to drown out the extremist attacks.

The many cattle producers and industry supporters who’ve been highly active and effective on Facebook and Twitter over the live cattle ban have also become pseudo industry leaders.

They can now become valuable shipmates and educators for chicken and egg producers, pork producers, etc. who will continue to face unwelcome waves of turbulence from extreme activists who won’t resile until these farm industries are shut down.

The National Farmers Federation worked to help secure $2 million for bolstering agricultural education in schools, under the Coalition’s agricultural policy announced in the federal election campaign.

The funding distribution is yet to be determined but it would seem most likely to go towards programs teaching school kids that yoghurt doesn’t grow on trees.

But there’s also an urgent need to implement some adult education, like up-skilling farmers who went to agricultural college and never studied courses like, Activism 101; How to tell the difference between an animal rights activist or Greenpeace crusader and a real farm hand, journalist or tourist.

Some urgent education is also needed to teach other community sectors that our farmers are not environmental vandals hurtling the planet headlong into oblivion, while growing poisonous crops using evil chemicals, all controlled by a secret order of bloodthirsty animal-haters.

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


5/10/2013 6:14:17 AM

Activist got the jump with social media. but it will prove to be farmers best and strongest weapon. Be inclusive, be tolerant, be rational, be polite. The activist are destroying themselves with their intolerants and extreme rhetoric.
Jo Bloomfield
5/10/2013 6:38:29 AM

Excellent article Colin. While I think the term social licence is bandied around too much when the likes of some groups say they speak for the majority when they don't there is no doubt that the Agriculture sector has to engage the community in conversation to communicate what is realistic achievable and affordable methods of farming.
jack tancock
5/10/2013 7:42:03 AM

Colin, I would like to see your dream of farmers uniting and accruing more clout to deal with the ongoing fringe dwelling social campaigns against agriculture and livestock industries. I have no faith in it happening. Farmers in Australia these days, are too busy beating hairy chests about how one is smarter than the other, or more to the point, how dumb the other guy is, for not embracing some new ideology or fake panacea. I think they will need to be much further down on their knees before they re-awaken, to just how insignificant they are, fighting it out on their own, as individuals.
5/10/2013 1:00:57 PM

Animal activists which includes me will NEVER give up until the live export industry is totally closed down.. And No I am NOT against farmers, I am against farmers who allow their animals to be transported overseas and butchered in a horrific manner. I am not being emotive - we have seen it with our own eyes.
5/10/2013 6:58:24 PM

If you are against live export you are against farmers. Australian exporters have helped and are helping the Indonesians improve their standards. If we shut down Australia's exports they will get their supplies elsewhere with no welfare standards at all. One of the reasons for live imports is to have meat killed when they want it. Supply from Nth Australia can only be seasonal.
5/10/2013 9:34:46 PM

The trade should never have been completely stopped because I think any animal rights activist would also have a grudge and get rather angry if someone stopped their food supply without due notice. What should have been done was stop supply to the offending slaughterhouses and continue with accredited abattoirs; while at the same time helping to fast-track accreditation and training of more businesses. That way we would have had more influence and kept much ‘face’ (and business).
You wish
5/10/2013 10:07:54 PM

The only sensible statement in this whole embarrassing PR stunt was "farmers are (edit) environmental vandals hurtling the planet headlong into oblivion, while growing poisonous crops using evil chemicals, all controlled by a secret order of bloodthirsty animal-haters." And your statement "farmers are social media pseudo leaders", is quite amusing, their posts on social media, and obvious interest in profit over animal welfare, and "there only animals, it's not like they are human who's suffering counts" and "POOR me" All a great help in the fight for humane treatment.
Evolve or leave
5/10/2013 10:13:38 PM

Well Mr Beetle, I'm am guessing you underestimate the huge number of people in this country that will never cease fighting for greater transparency, more monitoring and tighter animal welfare legislation in this country. Industry has shown they are not willing to put animal welfare before profit. Everyday I see businesses caving into public pressure and using cruelty free products, Subway the latest. By "standing firm on non transparency, whilst beating their chests with defiance, they are creating their own inevitable demise. Your choice!
Alison Germon
6/10/2013 7:04:35 AM

Farmers are notoriously difficult to get organised due to the fact they all work long hours and more often than not have a lot to think about like debt and water. Social media has helped bring farmers of all types together in a way that let's them share without leaving the farm. Let's hope this is the turning point and farmers and consumers unite to send the activists back to the fringe where they belong.
6/10/2013 7:08:24 AM

In response to jack tancock - it ain't going to happen too soon if people like you keep talking like that! Positivity is what agriculture needs, not more people beating farmers down. As for dogtrainerRuth - Have you seen it with YOUR own eyes?? Or through someone elses? Have you talked to the people involved? Have you talked to the farmers, families and related industries that rely on live trade and have been hurt by what has happened? I'm not being emotive - I'm being realistic.
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Canberra CommentFairfax Agricultural Media Canberra correspondent Colin Bettles tackles the big national rural and agricultural issues which will impact regional and rural Australians.


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