What does mainstream Australia really think about the live export industry?
Were you to base the answer on social media commentary or mainstream media coverage relating to the trade, it would most likely be resoundingly negative.
But beyond what the loudest voices say, what does the middle 90 percent of the community think, and why do they think the way they do?
That is a question an independent research company borne out of the CSIRO is now helping the livestock industry to answer, so it can more accurately understand where community sentiment lies, and what is needed for the industry to retain all important public trust, which every industry needs to remain operating.
Voconiq was developed over eight years within CSIRO before it was spun off into a standalone research company. It uses a proven science-based approach to analysing community views and opinions, which it then uses to provide companies, industry and government with insights to inform business practice and development. It has engaged more than 80,000 members of the community and has worked across a range of industry sectors.
It has only just started a three year project conducting community research for Australia’s livestock export industry.
Voconiq CEO Kieren Moffat said people who are either really supportive of or really against an industry tend to use their voice, while most people in the middle do not and are largely absent from the public conversation.
“One of the real challenges I think is that groups pro and against a particular industry or practice will often purport to represent community, to speak beyond their constituency to reflect what they say is what the rest of community think,” he explained.
“Our job, our challenge is to go and test those assumptions, and to go out and engage that middle 90pc and bring their voice into the conversation.”
Mr Moffat stressed the project has only just begun and the data he presented at last week’s LIVEXchange conference in Townsville represented early figures from a pilot sample, and could change as larger data sets are collected. However, he also added he would not expect the numbers to change enormously.
So far it has found that public acceptance of the industry is sitting at a score of around 2.9 out of 5 – not brilliant, but also not terrible. It means the industry has more trust and acceptance from the public than the nature of mainstream media and social media commentary about live exports would suggest, but also has plenty of room for improvement.
Perhaps the most important message is that the key to building public trust is the industry’s ability to demonstrate it is actually responding to public concerns.
“In any issue or agenda members of the public want to see evidence the industry is listening – that is what counts,” Mr Moffat said.
“Do I feel heard and respected by the industry? Do I feel like it is listening to me? Critically do I feel like it is changing its behaviour based on the concerns I have about the way that it operates? Seeing that response is really important,” he stressed.
He also pointed out that there is no link or connection between the economic importance and value of an industry and its level of acceptance by the public.
“Why that is important is because if you’re looking to build a value proposition for your industry within community, talking about how much economic value it generates for the country is going to have limited effect in improving acceptance within community.
“The things that do improve acceptance are industry responsiveness to community concerns, and auditing of the industry processes.
“Those two things seems to be really important in that equation.”
Snapshots from the research compiled so far includes:
* Public trust in animal rights or animal activist groups is strong with scores of 3.6-3.7 out of 5.
* Right up there with them at the same level is livestock producers. “People really love farmers, they really think the agricultural sector has a critical fundamental role to play in the Australian economy, in Australian life,” Mr Moffat said. “It is really important to see this and understand and know that Australians really value you, because in this context when you’re getting attacked on social media for the work that you do, it can be really easy to feel like that is everybody, and it is not.”
* The live export industry overall scored 2.9 out of 5 –the same level as large meat retailers in Australia, and higher than Government (2.8/5). “You can see there is a drop when we ask about the live export industry, but most people agree it is an important part of the agricultural sector in Australia,” Mr Moffat said.
* A majority of people agree that live export is important to regional communities in Australia, important to farmers and the farming community, and helps to improve diet and nutrition of people in destination markets.
* In contrast though, 32pc of people agree live export should stop regardless of the impact it would have on farming communities and farmers. However 39pc disagree with this proposition. “There is a contest of ideas around this industry, and it is not over one way or the other, so that is what we’re looking to understand and to help this industry to understand how it can engage effectively with community.”
* 57pc of people agreed with the statement that conditions for animals on live export ships are not aligned with Australian animal welfare standards.
* 36pc of people pilot agreed that Australia’s livestock export industry listens to and respects community opinions, and 40pc agreed with the statement it is prepared to change its practices in response to community concerns.
“Industry responsiveness to community concerns is always a really strong driver of trust and then acceptance of any industry in Australia,” he said.