Penny Clark-Hall

As much as democracy serves us it also leaves us vulnerable to the whim of public opinion. Popular public opinion that forces the hand of government to regulate, often without adequate or thorough investigation of the consequences, beyond satisfying and securing voters.

To influence people’s perceptions and beliefs we need to reconnect and change their experiences with agriculture and food. Public permission (social licence) is given and received on the belief that values are aligned or being met. These beliefs are influenced by confirmation biases, in that we tend to only follow narratives that affirm our values. The saying ‘No one remembers what you said but they’ll remember how you made them feel,’ is paramount here, because introducing a new narrative is reliant on a real connection, not words.

Whether beliefs are made with insufficient information or not, if you’re on the wrong side of public opinion it is incredibly hard to have meaningful and constructive conversations to find a middle ground. Grass roots agriculture has a huge advantage here, being the connection to the environment and people’s food source.

Humanising your approach (transparent, vulnerable and empathetic) to engaging with the public (your stakeholders) is an incredibly powerful way to change hearts and minds (experiences and perceptions).

By including your stakeholders in finding solutions to your environmental issues and challenges, it not only gives them some input and ownership but shows them how hard you’re working to improve the environment (the laggards of the industry not included). This kind of transparency, inclusiveness and openness shifts businesses quickly out of ‘withdrawal’ of social licence when done well and eventually sees them at the top level.

One major roadblock exists, and I say this with the upmost respect. While Government has a role to play in this, the advantage and crucial role rural communities play, well beyond the cycles of Government, is often overlooked and overshadowed by the politics and the noise. Government needs to be empowering and giving confidence to communities connected to the land to keep creating enduring and relevant solutions. They are the ones contributing more than criticising and that needs to be encouraged and nurtured rather than whacked with a stick.

Community capacity building empowers communities to make meaningful change by bringing a diverse range of stakeholders representative of the wider community to the table. Thus providing them with the knowledge and resource needed to create relevant and enduring solutions.

You all know better than I that you can’t throw a blanket over environmental issues, every river/catchment has different issues, economies, cultures and values, that need individualised and considered solutions that are aligned and respectful of the wider community’s and consumer values.

Making environmental goals and solutions catchment by catchment, with support from the government, regional councils and science communities would not only ensure workable outcomes but it would put the right people at the centre of change. The ones who will own and implement it.

No one likes being told what to do or feeling they’ve lost control over their future. Governments’ heavy hand, while well-intended is not always the most effective way to build confidence in making meaningful and sustainable change. Let’s flip it on its head and put our communities in the driver’s seat. If we give each other a safe place to have input and influence, we can find that middle ground.

I’m a massive fan of Brene Brown’s ability to say it how it is, and I think this quote sums it up nicely “Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.”

  • Penny Clark-Hall