TELLING environmental and animal activists to “bugger off and let farmers do their work” will not end well for anyone, according to departing Australian Farm Institute director Mick Keogh, who says the ag sector must learn from having its pants pulled down by high-profile, reactionary activist campaigns.
Mr Keogh, speaking to the NSW Farm Writers Association in Sydney today, said farm groups must build and maintain a database of statistics and responses to better gauge public opinion and potentially head off explosive media campaigns ignited around ag policy.
He’s in his last few days as the Institute’s executive director before he takes on a role with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s small business sector.
Mr Keogh said Australian agriculture had historically shown inability to respond to crisis - as evidenced in native vegetation and live export - but also condemned protest groups such as GetUp and Animals Australia, who he deemed reliant on selling urban audiences an oversimplified ag solution, with little regard to personal or industry impacts.
It showed decision makers not thinking beyond immediate situation and ag industry failing to respond in a convincing manner and formulate policy ideas.
“I do not criticise people who support or sympathise with these groups, but I will criticise that they pay little heed to the complexity of the issues and the impacts to industry and individuals,” Mr Keogh said.
Mick Keogh addresses @FarmWritersNSW on #farmpolicy - looking back, Mick notes examples of poor policy = native veg mgt & live ex ban; good policy = drought & #Ag research funding @FarmOnline@AlexDruuuce@CoxInallAgripic.twitter.com/4Nv9wlBS5w— Australian Farm Institute (@AustFarmInstitu) May 25, 2018
“Their campaigns boil down these issues to one or two simplistic statements that are then targeted at people who are well-intentioned, and politically motivated to achieve change, but have spent little more than a few seconds contemplating it, and rarely consider the consequences of the proposed solutions.”
Ag bodies must monitor consumer opinion
He said ag bodies must do as many organisations are doing an build a robust and up-to-date database of statistics and community attitudes to gauge how views on certain issues evolve.over time.
To avoid activist/legislative “ambush”, #AusAg must ensure it has long term #agdata to hand - “data you can stand behind” - so facts of situation are completely clear, @AustFarmInstitu outgoing ED Mick Keogh tells @FarmWritersNSW#agchatoz@tonymahar@firstname.lastname@example.org/Wv0jrTpapb— Katie McRobert (@KatieMcRobert1) May 25, 2018
“If we think the public is too informed about issues to do with live export and land clearing, and should just bugger off and let farmers do their work… then we are going to be sadly disappointed,” Mr Keogh said.
“(Surveying and media tracking) could likely serve as an early warning of issues likely to impact in the future. And it also allow industry to provide objective information to decision makers to prevent them from being stampeded on populist issues.”
Mr Keogh said the Australian ag sector’s increased reliance on high-value overseas markets meant a beefed-up enforcement effort around water, vegetation and animal welfare issues was essential.
“Consumers willing to pay a premium for a product want to be reassured that it is being produced sustainably and with the right animal welfare measures in place.
“Failure to adequately enforce legislation simply erodes public confidence and provides more fuel to the fires of activists.”
“It also results in the vast majority of farmers who have done the right thing tempted into breaking the law, having seen other profit from that behaviour.”
‘The two worst policy decisions I can think of’
Mr Keogh nominated the federal government’s 2011 temporary live cattle export ban and NSW Labor’s 1995 Native Vegetation ’ambush’ as the two worst ag policies he had seen in his time.
“I still recall the shocked look on the face of the-then NSW Farmers Association president Ian Donges face when he returned from a brief meeting with the Premier (Bob Carr),”
“He went to the meeting expecting to discuss a range of agricultural issues with the new Premier
“Only to be told a complete and immediate ban had been enacted”.
He said to this day, despite the current state government reforming the native vegetation act in 2016, environmental activist groups and many city residents remained “callously indifferent” to farmers having to bear the cost of environment and conservation responsibility.
The 1995 overnight clearing ban in NSW was, in his opinion, the first major example of the farm sector’s political influence waning in Australia.
“Urban voters overrode decision making process, Mr Keogh said.
“Which is not surprising… it is very difficult to campaign for letting farmers cut down trees and harm native wildlife - especially when it comes to urban voters.
He said there were similar themes in the 2011 live export ban that followed an ABC Four Corners story built around Animals Australia footage.
“Again, the farm sector was caught without an effective response and there was not any clarity over who should respond.
“It showed decision makers not thinking beyond immediate situation and ag industry failing to respond in a convincing manner and formulate policy ideas.”
“The fact that these issues remain live today is evidence to me that they are poor examples of policy, poorly implemented.”