AT the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association a couple of years ago, a woman with a large-brimmed Akubra strode up to me just after I finished speaking.
She said, “I thought it was a ‘Commie’ plot this social licence concept - but now that I’ve heard you explain it, I realise it’s all about us getting more control of our business risks”.
It was music to my ears.
Since I began working with the livestock exporters in August 2013, I had heard a lot of venting against social licence to operate.
They perceived the loss of their ‘social licence’ as a completely unacceptable rationale for the ban against the trade in the face of society-wide outrage after “A Bloody Business” aired on ABC in May 2011.
It’s quite clear that many in the trade had taken the ban quite personally.
Let’s face it many of the 30 exporters are small business people with their houses on the line; so when the politicians take away your financial security I can understand why that feels pretty personal.
I can also understand why it feels like the only recourse is to attack those who you feel attacked you.
However, I found myself arguing vehemently about why the politicians had the right.
I even upped the ante.
Not only could politicians ban the trade for five weeks, I said, unless you stop being angry and start being responsive there could be a permanent ban.
Our analysis shows that security for the trade would only be achieved once the public, the industry’s stakeholders and the politicians perceived a real change in how the livestock exporters managed animal welfare throughout their supply chain.
The task is monumental.
Not only does it involve change in their own behaviours but also they need to inspire changes in the way Australian producers think about the conditions of their livestock and change the way customers in other countries with different cultural and religious views care for and slaughter the livestock.
It requires them to not only implement new regulations and deal with the difficulties of that but also to define standards they would be willing to be held to account to over and above the regulations.
It requires them to drive themselves to communicate the risks their livestock are facing even when they don’t know how the regulators, politicians, NGOs and the public could react.
They need to do all that whilst there are activists like RSPCA, Animals Australia and others arguing that it simply won’t be possible to be a positive agent for change for animal welfare globally and that they should be banned.
It’s tough stuff for them.
But I want to publicly acknowledge how much they’ve done in a short space of time and I want to urge them to talk more about the efforts they’ve made and want to make.
In the five years since “A Bloody Business”, the industry has been able to ramp up exports to be the 6th largest export for Australia which is great for their businesses.
But unless they can really demonstrate that the trade is evolved enough to deal proactively with its issues, they will not be able to protect their regulatory licence into the future.
To do protect their regulatory licence, they’ll need to earn a social licence to operate.
To do that they will need to take their changes, commitments and journey to the public-at-large and ensure it’s credible because ultimately they are the bearers of the industry’s social licence to operate.
Katherine Teh-White is managing director of Futureye, a specialist social licence to operate consultancy that has been working with the livestock export industry for the past three years. She will be speaking on social licence at the Queensland Rural Press Club on July 22.