Resilience, farming, and fairness in northern Australia

Keith Noble, James Cook University & Insideout Architects:


Options for development in northern Australia range from extensive agriculture through to conservation management, but policy decisions will need to include the endemic knowledge of the landscape and its rural industries possessed by residents, while being politically and socially accepted by Australians who live elsewhere. Northern Australians have a reputation for resilience, and the contribution this makes to their ability to prosper in the landscape is discussed then extended into consideration of enabling a fair policy process for northern development.


Northern Australia is vast, comprising over 40% of the mainland continent. It is geographically diverse; alternately and at times simultaneously very wet and very dry. It has an enormous natural resource base yet a remarkably small human population operating in a democratically governed First World economy. It is a unique part of the tropics.

Northern Australia is home to only 5% of Australia’s population, three-quarters of whom live on the northeast coastal fringe between Cairns and Mackay, a ratio unchanged for the past 100 years. This situation is at odds with international trends, where almost half the world’s population live in the tropics and tropical economies are growing 20% faster than the rest of the world (JCU, 2014). The world’s population is projected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, accompanied by an increase in the middle-class demographic (DAFF, 2013). Kharas (2010) predicts that by 2020 more than half the world’s middle class will be Asian, and this larger, wealthier population will require more food, and food of higher value. Linehan et al. (2012) speculate that the value of global food demand in 2050 will be 77% higher than 2007 levels, with most demand coming from Asia, particularly for meat and processed foods rather than traditional staple grains, and Asia is unlikely to achieve food self-sufficiency (Andrews & Gunning-Trant, 2013; Cole & Ball, 2010).

Contemporary Australia is seeing a renewed national focus on northern development (above the tropic of Capricorn), with agriculture as an important component. This is hardly surprising considering the demand outlined above, but the history of agricultural production in northern Australia has been one of constant perturbations. Not for the first time, in this second decade of the 21st century grand plans are being espoused for northern Australia, founded on the premise of under-used land and bountiful water resources providing the wherewithal to feed the world. When we consider, though, that contemporary farm returns in Australia often fail to meet production costs, the social, environmental and climatic unknowns associated with increased agricultural scale, and the inherent risks ever present in agriculture, suddenly the future does not seem quite so clear.

Farming carries risk beyond the control of individual enterprises or even entire industries, but the need to make calculated business decisions in the face of uncertainty has not been an historic impediment to farmers having a go. Farmers understand their world and they make it work. There are many risks outside farmers’ control, but they can develop strategies to buffer these. Their real risks come from things outside their knowledge, experience and intuition (Noble, 2016). This is no different for most people in life to a greater or lesser extent; for example, the developed world’s communities are being challenged by the automation of many jobs as new technologies change the way our world operates. Insights into and improved understanding of how farmers think about and interact with their situation, along with clearer understanding of the inter-relationships around this thinking, provide valuable information for achieving good planning outcomes and improving the resilience of communities that are dependent on climate-sensitive resources.

Strategically, now is the time to consider how those working in an expanding northern Australian agricultural sector can best prepare for the natural, social, and economic pitfalls they will encounter along the way. They also need to embrace the principles of sustainable agriculture, and recognise and nurture existing tropical agriculture expertise. Such thinking is aligned with other international trends. Walker et al. (2010) proposed featuring resilience and transformability alongside productivity as major objectives of research, because resilient organisations are about thriving, not just surviving. The dynamic relationships between vulnerability, resilience, hazard impact, hazard change, adaptive capacity and social change in the context of climate change and disasters can inform approaches to planning for and developing community-based approaches to adaptation (Cottrell et al., 2011).

Farming in northern Australia

A viable and diverse agricultural industry already exists in northern Australia, with beef, sugar, dairy, corn, sorghum, peanuts, avocadoes, mangoes, nuts, chia and many other fruits and vegetables together with plantation timber including sandalwood. Agriculture is a major contributor to northern Australia’s economy, with a gross forecast value in 2015–16 of $57.13 billion, providing $43.4 billion in export earnings (ABARES, 2015). For far north Queensland, direct primary industry turnover in 2008–09 was estimated at over $1.7 billion, with direct employment of about 9,000 people (RDA, 2011). Australia is the world’s largest exporter of sheep and cattle, and 80% of exported cattle are from the north of the continent, valued at $416 million in 2006–07 (Gray, 2009).

Alongside this diversity of agricultural production there is variety in the nature and scale of enterprises involved in production, from traditional family farms through to large corporate operations, and from specialist peri-urban niche producers through to extensive leasehold grazing operations over hundreds of thousands of hectares. The Australian government’s 2015 policy statement Our North, Our Future: A Vision for Developing North Australia specifically promoted and aroused national interest in further expansion of agriculture in northern Australia.

Farming needs farmers, and it can be a hard game. Resilience is a key theme in understanding how farmers think about and interact with their situation and the inter-relationships around this thinking. Four individual farmer resilience themes can be identified, each independent of commodity, scale or geographic location: (1) Situational Awareness, (2) the Ability to Plan, (3) the Ability to Adapt, and (4) Social Connectedness (Noble, 2016). Intertwined through and influencing these themes is the Perception of Fairness, which relates these attributes to a broader sense of agency and acts as an enabler of the resilience individuals derive from implementation of their strategies. Fairness is proposed as the pivot for policy development decisions, because a deliberate process of engagement, consideration and inclusion of affected communities could enhance individual and community resilience, particularly for policies related to how communities and cultures interact with their social and physical environment.

Masten (2001) points out that in most cases, resilience grows out of human adaptive systems. This is fine so long as these systems are protected and in good working order, but if systems are impaired then the risk of problems increases, particularly if hazards are prolonged. Norris et al. (2008, p. 146) argue that ‘the concept of resilience does not erode into a justification for denying help to individuals or communities in crisis’, for, like social capital, ‘resilience is an easy concept to co-opt as a basis for arguing that community-based interventions are unnecessary’.

Not everyone in contemporary Australian society has external pressure applied to them to develop their activities or views in the way that the expansion of northern Australian agriculture is being promoted by the government. For communities, the central issue when they make policy is meaning, not matter, and science alone cannot settle these questions of meaning (Stone, 2012).

When most farmers see opportunity in an expanding agricultural sector and are supportive of the initiative, they are in the main looking at the matter. There is a responsibility on those making policy to think beyond today and guard against perverse outcomes for affected participants, and to ensure the community is appropriately involved in and truly understands the development and expression of this meaning. The consequences of actions and measures are not only local but may be seen across broad social, environmental and temporal domains. Trade-offs and the possibility of negative outcomes must always be considered (Eriksen et al., 2011).

The affected community in this case is the whole of Australia, and Australia operating within a global context. The small number of farmers who comprise a tiny part of the 5% of Australians currently living in the north pales into insignificance against the current world population, but these few farmers are the ones who have the knowledge, skills and ability to make the present situation work. Their experience will be critical to the success of any agricultural expansion. The likelihood of achieving sustainable outcomes will be enhanced if measures are implemented that enable this local capacity to be both recognised and used, with the voices of vulnerable groups heard in decision-making processes that affect their interests, and if these interests are not diminished in the face of strong or vocal lobbies. Such an approach could also assist in avoiding some of the problems with the concept of sustainable development described by Brown (2011), especially that the concept can be deliberately vague and slippery, making it difficult to operationalise.

In recent years, there has been a ‘dramatic increase in urbanites’ interest in local food’ (Cleveland et al., 2016, p. 99), exemplified by the success of farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, local distribution hubs, and lifestyle television shows such as SBS Australia’s Gourmet Farmer. This interest has been accompanied by increasing demands for healthy products, animal welfare and sustainability, and the agriculture sector has sought to demonstrate that it can meet consumer expectations, from labelling and sustainability certification through to traceability and regional landscape agreements. Yet consumers’ level of trust in agriculture has been dropping. This trend parallels post-productivist agricultural trends in many parts of the developed world, with an inclination for people with pro-environment views to support agriculture but only ‘because they view it as a better option than development, not because they value it per se’ (Cleveland et al., 2016, p. 99).

Cleveland et al. also point out that ‘living in a rural area, growing up or living on a farm, and having social contact with farmers are associated with support for farmers and trust in their ability to farm in environmentally friendly ways’ (p. 90), but most Australians do not live in or adjacent to rural areas. The vast expanses and low resident population of northern Australia diminish post-productive agricultural influences in all but peri-urban areas and the more settled districts of Queensland’s Wet Tropics and Atherton Tablelands, and it is conceptually difficult for many urban Australians to comprehend the reality of northern agriculture, particularly when their exposure is more likely to be through adventure travel shows that often emphasise and mythologise the frontier nature of the north.

Farmers are not asking for something for nothing, but they do want a fair go. Fairness is a fundamental principle of Australian society, and the popular understanding of what this means closely aligns with academic understandings (see Ding, 2014). Most Australians agree with the principle of giving someone a fair go. It affects attitudes, the ability to cope and not feel abandoned, of feeling part of the broader society, and indicates that one has a recognised and valued role and responsibility in that society. Renn’s (2015) work on risk governance clarifies this concept of fairness when he states that ‘the people who suffer the consequences of decisions are the best judges of their impacts, and therefore their fairness’.

The challenges for Australian society are to bridge the rural/urban cultural divide, build understanding of and respect for the perspectives of various community sectors, and develop trust in each other’s ability to make the right decisions, because there is lack of understanding on both sides, particularly of what the other party wants. Therefore, the existing divide should not be interpreted as disempowerment of northern farmers, but rather as a constraint on Australians collectively being able to make informed decisions.

What is fair?

What is government’s role in achieving results? Is it to set targets then provide the tools for individuals in society to meet them? Or is it to engage people affected by decisions in an open, honest way where alternative ways forward can be suggested and genuinely considered? While the former is generally considered more akin to commercial business governance than how we operate as a society, there is an emerging body of business management information showing that the more one ‘manages for results’, that is, the more one tells people what to do and what is expected, the more elusive these results become. Are business management and democracy converging, and if they are, why?

Humans are reciprocal beings and markedly averse to inequity, particularly when resources are acquired jointly (Schäfer et al., 2015). People respond to ‘fairness’ with fairness, and to ‘unfairness’ with hostility. Fairness concerns are not simply a matter of socialisation and they appear to be hard wired into how our brains work. It is the presence of fairness that generates trust. Reciprocity in trust and fairness leads to team spirit and collective commitment, which are the pillars of high performance teams (Heyden & Limberg, 2007).

Fairness has been a fundamental concept over the course of human history, and it is a cornerstone of social development. Fair process improves co-operation, which is critical to economic performance. Generally, fairness has been overlooked in the realm of commerce and if one could make money, few consequences were considered other than legality. Increasingly though, and largely because of greater social connectedness afforded through social media, fairness is becoming a foundation of commerce in a way that will change how firms do business. It will even play a role in determining the types of firms that will exist and prosper. Fair wealth is wealth created by commercial activities that are perceived to be fair to all entities involved on the supply and demand sides: humans, animals, and the environment in general.

When talking about fairness, Renn and Webler (2011) describe the need to distinguish between substantive and procedural fairness. An activity or decision is judged fair if the outcome does not privilege some at the expense of others (substantive fairness) and if the decision-making process provides sufficient possibilities for all affected parties to be heard and represented (procedural fairness). Modern democratic societies with pluralist value systems tend to emphasise procedural over substantive fairness, and consensus has emerged in democratic systems to apply the egalitarian principle to procedural equity. Providing equal opportunities for all parties involved to influence the decision-making process is considered the universal yardstick for evaluating procedural fairness. An agreement that procedural fairness is confined to equal representation of each affected party has gained wide acceptance (Renn et al., 1996).

Against this backdrop, the convergent principle of fair development (human development fair to all parties involved, present and future) emerged, as increasingly people recognised that a society based on fairness has a better chance of survival and prosperity. In our interconnected age, fair wealth is increasingly being demanded and expected as part of the fair development movement (Ding, 2015). In this same context, any development of northern Australia not seen as fair by the global community could jeopardise Australia’s reputation and position and could conceivably diminish current market advantages, such as the reputation for ‘clean and green’ produce.

Towards a fair policy process

Fairness has at least two aspects: fairness in outcomes and fairness in the processes followed to reach these outcomes; and the link between these two aspects often works in unexpected ways. For example, people are more prepared to accept ‘unfair’ outcomes if they feel that the process that led to those outcomes was fair. Even more strongly, people are likely to reject ‘fair’ outcomes if they feel that the process that generated those outcomes was unfair (Heyden & Limberg, 2007).

Over the past 20 years, there has been acceptance of the need for companies to demonstrate corporate social responsibility. Along with this, democratisation of the workplace has seen businesses increasingly focused on improving employee engagement in decision-making processes and developing leaders’ and teams’ capabilities to better engage people around them, by asking more, listening more, and telling less. While this might be common sense it is not necessarily common practice, because it is remarkably challenging and surprisingly subtle. It requires openness, inclusion, inquiry and clarity, as opposed to exclusion, advocacy, ambiguity and outright confusion. It demands a culture of deep and authentic engagement. We need to ask whether this sounds like contemporary Australian governments at work in regional Australia?

The question is not meant as a criticism; governments are overstretched and under-resourced, particularly in the sparsely settled north. This is partly a consequence of neoliberal centralisation policies of the last 30 years, but possibly more because of increasing community expectations about the services government should deliver. Governments make decisions and allocate resources according to policy settings, and they must do this across the breadth and diversity of Australia. Can a better process to inform policy be developed, particularly for the large spaces and low populations of northern Australia?

To return to a concept of business management, Heyden & Limberg (2007) describe a model called Fair Process Leadership (FPL), with five essential characteristics:

  1. consistency of procedure (across persons and time, absence of bias),
  2. transparency (full explanation of the decision process and logic),
  3. engagement of those affected (consideration of the views of all parties involved and giving those parties a voice in the process with the possibility of affecting the decision),
  4. changeability (the possibility of ‘correction’ after new information through, for example, appeal procedures), and
  5. ethicality (compatibility of the procedure with moral values).

The result of this process should be that leadership becomes more widely shared throughout the organisation. Fair process, then, generates a new and deep level of effective collaboration that answers critical questions facing all organisations, such as ‘How can we build trust?’ and ‘How can we learn, adapt and continuously improve?’ The point of these fair processes is to allow other people and other considerations to influence outcomes. During the process, the outcome is not yet determined. Could such a system be adapted to policy development for northern development? If so, who could facilitate and enable such a process?

In many ways, the relatively undeveloped nature of northern Australia lends itself both to learning from the mistakes of more developed regions and to the consideration of improved models of governance. John Ruskin wrote that ‘There is no wealth but life’. While universally true, how influential has this concept been in Australia’s extensive land management decision-making?

Hatfield-Dodds et al. (2015) showed how Australia’s choices over the next 30 years will shape our future. Using models of 20 scenarios towards 2050, they demonstrated that income per person universally rose, but in various scenarios environmental pressure was doubled, stabilised, or fell markedly. Scenarios showed that it was possible for economic growth and environmental degradation to be decoupled, allowing outcomes that were better both for the economy and the environment. Hatfield-Dodds’ conclusion was that sustainable prosperity is possible but not predestined, and that Australia is free to choose.

The decisions we make as a society will shape our future, but how do we make the right decisions, collectively? Could the private business concept of Fair Process Leadership be expanded to a whole-of-community process of governance, rather than leaving policy and decisions to government?

Improving fairness in northern Australian decision making

Farmers are farming because they want to farm, and in many respects, they are more than capable of continuing to do so. To some degree, all society needs to do is let them continue without undue or unreasonable constraint, other than the obvious ones of abiding by the law and respecting their responsibilities as land managers for good environmental stewardship. When any group of people (not just farmers) abides by the rules of a society and contributes to its well-being, society has a responsibility to recognise and value their role, support it on some occasions, and (within reason) ensure that they are neither forced out of their role nor forced to continue in it against their will.

There are many options for northern development. Every scenario has its champions and its critics but in making these policy decisions it will not be enough just to provide procedural fairness, neither for individuals who will be most affected (residents) nor for the landscape and industries in which they will operate. The endemic knowledge of the landscape and how its rural industries operate will need to be considered and included as a deliberate act. This point can be illustrated by specific examples:

  1. If a non-resident corporation could purchase and control both the management and long-term destiny of vast tracts of northern Australia without consideration of local community views and aspirations, would this be considered fair on the regional stage?
  2. If the Australian government were to allow a foreign entity to invest in northern Australian property, industry or infrastructure without assisting them to understand properly the unique operational parameters of the region (that is, knowledge that local residents would be reasonably assumed to have), would this be considered fair on the international stage? Would the principle of caveat emptor (buyer beware) be accepted and no grudges carried forward?
  3. If a development or legislative change compromised the ability of future generations to enjoy the lifestyle and values available today, how would history judge us? Specifically, consider the transfer of leasehold land to freehold tenure that delivers a one-off return to the state but in doing so transfers the opportunity for future higher value transactions into private hands.
  4. When the ABC decided to televise a program about a rogue abattoir outside Australia, leading to suspension of live cattle exports and affecting the legitimate livelihoods of thousands of Australians, was proper consideration given to the decision’s ramifications and precautionary processes enacted to prevent repetition?

There are risks and benefits associated with expansion of northern Australian agriculture, but these risks and benefits are not mutually exclusive. Public deliberation needs to go beyond a narrow focus on minimising risk to achieve a narrowly defined benefit because, as Gross (2007) explains, a change will enable the social system to be resilient to ignorance and non-knowledge, and thereby resilient to hazards that are not imaginable because they are beyond the system’s horizon of expectations. Public deliberation needs to investigate opportunities to maximise benefits in ways that build local capacities and enhance resilience to risk (Wong, 2015), but this deliberation will need assistance in understanding that change is a normal part of the persistence of systems (Lorenz, 2013). Policy processes that enable this thinking while preventing the hijacking of decisions by vocal or well-organised lobby groups are required, because inclusion of affected publics in decision-making processes will help solve many barriers to change, improve resilience, and ultimately produce better decision outcomes.

Historically, humanity has put great faith in technological innovation to help transform societies and improve the quality of life, along with the belief that the free market would deliver innovation and improve the quality of life for everyone. There are many instances where innovation has proved disappointing and it is now acknowledged that purely technical or structural solutions will not provide absolute protection against the negative impacts of natural hazards (Schanze et al., 2008). Despite this, society has not lost confidence in the technological fix. However, while the ‘spread of material wealth … is closely tied to the maintenance of the social peace enjoyed by western countries’ (Westley et al., 2011, p. 763), economic and population growth have compromised many of the planet’s ecosystem services and today’s connected global society increasingly rejects the continuation of such practices.

Scientists and policy makers expect facts and figures to carry an argument but, to the surprise of proponents, emotion often wins over reason in public debates. Westley et al. state that expert-driven, centralised and top-down approaches to problem solving are not nimble enough to address challenges characterised by high levels of complexity and uncertainty, nor are traditional, disciplinary-based research approaches. Rather, they suggest that new forms of knowledge integration and generation capable of including diverse ideas and viewpoints are required to bring research and action together. Brown (2016) suggests a resilience approach might provide the analytical insights into such maladaptation and help formulate policies which avoid it. However, as Berkes and Ross (2013, p. 17) point out

An integrated concept of community resilience is not only about theory; it is equally about practice: How can adaptive capacity, self-organization and agency be supported and fostered through processes such as community development and community-based planning?

In the landscapes of northern Australia, development of an integrated model of community resilience will require the inclusion of existing farmers and their individual perspectives. While not suggesting that farmers’ current agricultural practices represent the pinnacle of sustainability, most farmers aspire to maintain their resource, their landscape and their communities. Appreciation and inclusion of this knowledge will benefit and enrich policy decision-making.

Farmers have demonstrated the capacity to survive and prosper in their landscape, and as Oliver (2012, p. 381) points out ‘both individual and society matter, as they exist on different ontological levels, possess distinct properties and cannot be subsumed into one another’. Eraydin (2016) pinpoints the importance of endogenous capacities to regional resilience, while Hanna and Vanclay (2013, p. 146) claim that the ‘obligation for governments and companies to engage impacted communities is recognized in international law’.

The understanding of resilience as the lived experience of individual actors also enables the realisation that the perception of fairness might be a way to bring together all the factors at play. In the same way that resilience is considered a metaphor because it is not observable, (Brown, 2016), fairness can be a metaphor for ensuring that a deliberate process of engagement, consideration and inclusion of affected communities is adopted for policy development, particularly for policy that bonds communities and cultures within their environment.

In 2011, a federal government decision based on one television documentary had profound and far-reaching impact on the northern Australian beef industry, but if we were to look at the situation from the perspective of urban Australians confronted by abhorrent images of animal cruelty, the immediate cessation of live cattle exports was arguably an acceptable response to a situation they could not condone but had no power to influence. It was an emotional response, not a reasoned response. This experience is indicative of the power of small but motivated and focused sectors to influence voters and thereby direct policy decisions. With this in mind, consider the backdrop to contemporary aspirations for northern Australian agricultural development:

  • The area is a long way from where most Australians live
  • Very few people live there, and even fewer are farmers
  • There are limited opportunities for social engagement or sharing of perspectives between Australia’s urban majority and its northern residents, a situation exacerbated by inadequate communications infrastructure
  • The nightly news reminds everyone that the planet is in crisis.

Hence, the argument that the one remaining piece of ‘pristine’ country should be left undeveloped rather than degraded environmentally through agriculture carries popular appeal. (See Dale [2013, 2014] for a more detailed consideration of Australia’s North–South cultural divide).

Individual farmers had no control over livestock slaughter in another country but they bore the consequences of subsequent policy decisions. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that divergent perspectives are properly communicated between and adequately considered by all parties so that their full ramifications are properly considered and understood before decisions are made? Elected governments usually lack an on-ground community presence or perspective, and are ever-mindful of the 24-hour news cycle. Agriculture industry representative organisations are invariably under-resourced and trying to respond to many issues simultaneously. Individual farmers are working hard to remain solvent, and have limited ability to spend time understanding the entirety of an issue.

Verweij et al. (2006, p. 839) describe the usual outcome of such complex and competing multi-player situations as one of extremes, with opposing parties making grandiose statements and not hearing opposing views.  Instead, what is required is ‘a vibrant multivocality in which each voice formulates its view as persuasively as possible, sensitive to the knowledge that others are likely to disagree, and acknowledging a responsibility to listen to what the others are saying’.  Verweij et al. describe this approach as clumsy but they believe societies that value democracy must strive for it.

An independent and non-aligned enabler of change

There is a crucial difference between contemporary aspirations for northern Australian agriculture and those of previous eras, and that is the existence of regional Natural Resource Management (NRM) groups. There are 56 regional NRM organisations across Australia that act as delivery agents under the National Landcare Programme. They are the only community-based organisations with the sole purpose of working with all stakeholders to address large and complex natural resource issues at the landscape level, by building collaboration, gathering and sharing information, and brokering funding for on-ground work. This work is done in a planned, integrated manner and results in effective and efficient delivery of government programs that leverage investment from a wide range of community, industry and business partners.

The membership of regional NRM groups includes local government, Traditional Owners, Landcare and Catchment groups, agricultural industries, conservation groups and other land managers. The membership provides a platform for enduring links into communities through community-selected NRM governing boards, typically supported by organisational capabilities built over the past 20 years. This broad membership has been shown capable of achieving a balanced, middle ground approach to identifying and implementing desired social, economic and environmental outcomes, while providing value for money for government investment without the overheads of other agencies or companies.

Since their inception, regional NRM groups have built partnerships with industry, community, government and other sectors to address complex NRM challenges that span large areas and affect economic opportunities, social wellbeing, and environmental assets, such as The Reef Alliance’s work on Great Barrier Reef water quality. More and more people now understand governance as representing a wide set of processes of bargaining and negotiation among differing interests in society that leads to public and private good outcomes (Dorcey, 1986), and regional NRM groups are uniquely placed to achieve a new future for governance of Australia’s natural, agricultural and community assets.

They also have the potential to provide a trusted third-party perspective and authentication between Australia’s dispersed regional communities and its predominately urban population, one that could provide valuable opportunities for information sharing and understanding. This view is amply supported by literature recognising a strong imperative for building and engaging social and human capital as a precursor to effecting changes that will lead to improved resource conditions, and building adaptive capacity that will enable communities to respond more effectively to future sustainability challenges (Argent, 2011; Curtis et al., 2014; Dale, 2013; Dale et al., 2013; ISSC/UNESCO, 2013; Larson, 2006; Larson & Brake, 2011; Sayer et al., 2015; Smajgl & Larson, 2007; Taylor, 2010; Vella & Dale, 2013; Verweij et al., 2006).

Community-based NRM alone will not address Australia’s natural resource challenges, given the complexity of landscape processes and the multiple decision makers who influence landscape outcomes. However, only regional NRM groups have the qualities needed to build and maintain social capital in rural areas. This provides a strong rationale for governments to support the basic infrastructure required to sustain them as they continue to explore better ways of ensuring regional communities are represented in legitimate, effective and fair governance of Australia’s rural environments.

It is reasonable to assume that agriculture will continue to be a part of this landscape. Northern Australia is vast, and capable of accommodating a breadth of development scenarios including intensive and extensive agriculture, along with the light touch of conservation management. Although the setting aside of areas for conservation management is usually considered to have lower impact than other uses, it can have unintended negative outcomes such as fire or problems with feral animals. Australian agriculture is an industry with an impressive track record of speedy and successful technology adoption, and will continue to change with advances in genetics, sensory systems, remote sensing, and Internet connectivity, while automation and customers’ ability to trace food from farm-to-fork will change supply chains (Hajkowicz & Eady, 2015).

What is unique today is the enhanced opportunity to consider and debate development options before their adoption, should Australians as a community choose to do so. Such debates should be informed and guided by the lessons of history along with the contemporary wisdom and experience of others around the world, facilitated by communication technologies and social media enabling whole-of-community participation, to generate collective agreement on a shared future. But the big risk in this opportunity is that the voices of the few with direct experience and practical understanding of the reality of agriculture in the north could be lost, overwhelmed, or disregarded in the conversation. This risk needs to be recognised and actively addressed.

While no one group is likely to determine northern Australia’s ultimate destiny, it is of paramount importance to consider and include the imaginings of those already living and working there. It is important because of the specific regional knowledge and understanding that they hold, and it is important if Australia is to maintain its reputation as a fair and compassionate society.

The question of a community’s resilience is an old and enduring one, and individuals understand that their ability to respond successfully to change is enmeshed within this collective resilience, which in turn is a composite of the numerous heterogeneous entities and individuals that compose the community. Through their own words and in describing their individual lived experiences, farmers understand resilience not as an immutable characteristic that an individual or a community does or does not have, but as a process that emerges from malleable resources (Noble, 2016).

While everyone’s situation is different, there is usually comfort in knowing that there are others sharing the load, but there is danger when this relationship is put at risk through perceptions of unfairness. People can feel alienated from their broader society, and hence their valuable knowledge and understanding might be withheld or excluded from important decision-making processes. Even worse, they can be openly ignored when views are freely offered. This is important, and an appreciation and inclusion of such knowledge is more apparent in a model of resilience developed from the bottom up.

In my research, by documenting, considering and understanding these tangible contributors to individual farmers’ resilience, the critical importance of fairness to farmers became apparent as a connecting concept and translational instrument between their personal worlds and their relationship with the broader community. It is proposed that an understanding and consideration of fairness from the perspective of those directly affected could be an enabler of analytical insights into social ecological systems, and therefore should be an essential consideration of policy development relating to northern development.

The ‘Thread of Fairness’ provides opportunities for building relationships and improving understanding in both directions between farmers and the broader community through paying attention to perceptions of fairness. This opportunity became evident through the understanding of resilience specifically as a lived actor experience, and the consideration of fairness is further proposed as a metaphor for ensuring a deliberate process of engagement, consideration, and inclusion of affected communities in policy development.

The concept and reinvention of social ecological systems resilience theory have been driven to an extent by biological scientists who do not always understand the importance of social relationships and capital, more usually researched and analysed by social scientists. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience at play in farming, some innate, much hard-won. Much of it is directed towards reducing risk in a complex and highly variable physical environment, but it is also directed towards reducing risk in the social environment, and particularly towards building and maintaining social capital. Social factors such as attachment to place, lifestyle, industry, local knowledge, family, community standing and networks are of vital importance in these social ecological systems.


Success in agriculture is rarely achieved overnight, and farming is not usually a job someone does just for a couple of years as part of a career smorgasbord. Individual success can be assisted by linking an analysis of adaptability, resilience and vulnerability in biophysical systems to a better understanding of these same features in social and economic systems, and by considering this information in situ.

Community-based NRM organisations now occupy a unique position in Australia’s landscape management, with established relationships and respected communication processes that span the productive, conservation and community sectors. Their ability to be the vehicle for exploring fairness as a contributor to regional policy development and delivery is worthy of further consideration.

Finally, application of mechanisms for policy development using bottom-up information would be desirable, but not easy. It would be resource intensive and require careful management to avoid consultation fatigue, but a truly inclusive process owned and driven by the community would be less likely to deliver perverse outcomes than the more-often used top-down approach.


A full list of references is available from the author.

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