THE McHugh inquiry into greyhound racing - which underpinned a ban on the sport by the NSW Coalition government last week - should ring warning bells for livestock farmers and exporters.
Former High Court Judge Michael McHugh's carefully constructed definition of the industry's social licence uses animal welfare at its foundation; not the human benefit through jobs, taxes and enjoyment.
He argues it reflects a shift in society's standards, but he doesn't use any direct evidence of primary research to prove this.
So more accurately, he uses his sense of the enormous shift in society's values on animal welfare to determine the industry's fate in NSW.
In his report from the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Greyhound Racing Industry in NSW Mr McHugh says: “In the last 40 years, many countries in the Western world have increasingly recognised that social institutions – whether industries, corporations, businesses or organised sports – must answer to the wider community for their behaviour and that they have a ‘social licence’ to operate only as long as they perform in accordance with public expectations”.
Typically we like to undertake detailed societal research to find out the real rate of change in acceptability to make this assessment - but I won't quibble about whether Mr McHugh’s view reflects society's views.
We have to acknowledge that his weightiness may indeed be an apt substitute given he was a Justice of the High Court and Judge of the Supreme Court of NSW.
But I think it's worth noting that once Mr McHugh made animal welfare the foundation of his analysis, the next set of critical decisions he made were about how industry implicitly condoned the "unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of healthy greyhounds" and didn't change its practices; including "barbaric live baiting" and treating greyhounds as "dispensable commercial commodities".
In other words, all of his judgements about the industry were through the lens of animal welfare and not commercial management of a sport.
Imagine for a moment that animal welfare was the foundation of an analysis of the livestock industry and not the commercial management of a food source.
The same type of analysis could shut down many livestock industries today.
We could consider two simple questions derived from his report.
Which livestock industries lead to unnecessary deaths of healthy animals? And which producers therefore demonstrate that their livestock is dispensable?
The majority of farmers who care for livestock would say they care about animal welfare, but do they put animal welfare at the centre of what they do?
Or do they simply think of livestock as serving human needs?
In the McHugh definition, this is no longer an appropriate way to meet the community's expectations.
He suggests humane killing is the bare minimum and today what is currently called “wastage” is no longer acceptable.
He explicitly weighed-up the human social and economic benefit against the cost to animals.
So if there was a McHugh inquiry into dairying, live export, cattle or sheep farming he may indeed argue that a food source would put human needs above animals, however he may still frown upon wastage.
Therefore, it is worth using the McHugh assessment as a way to engage and assess the key issues facing animal farming.
He expected that the industry was up to date with values and expected it would reform based on that progress but was disappointed to find an industry that simply did not have an appetite for reform.
It signals to me that it's now vital for industry to have a social licence strategy that would ensure it knew the rate of change of its key performance requirements to maintain a social licence, develop reforms that meet expectations through engagement with activists and the broader community and openly communicate along the way about its issues.
Even if this seems a step too far, Mr McHugh says the minimum is transparency on conduct inconsistent with a continuing social licence to operate.
He says: “There was a failure of transparency on the part of GRNSW. Even more troubling, GRNSW engaged in a deception of the public. Information was withheld from the public, both as to the extent of deaths at tracks and the severity of injuries suffered by greyhounds at race meetings”.
Mr McHugh goes beyond saying he expects openness at the point where the issue is brought to the attention of the public by critics.
He is saying he wants industries to bend over backwards to give negative information about itself to the public to maintain the public’s trust.
He wants industries to first admit and then solve its most difficult problems in public.
Meanwhile the majority of the livestock industry would rather defend its current approach and attack its critics, rather than acknowledge how social expectations are creating dilemmas that need to be openly resolved.
Post the McHugh report, it should now be a must do.
Futureye specialises in social licence strategy, engagement, communication, research and governance