AUSTRALIAN Wool Innovation (AWI) Chair Wal Merriman will face political scrutiny after covertly observing a grower focus group meeting on sheep genetics from behind a one way mirror.
Mr Merriman has admitted he committed the unusual act in June at a consultation meeting in Sydney where some of the invited Merino producers didn’t want the long-serving Chair to attend.
Axiom Research was controlling the process and has since admitted to the participating growers Mr Merriman had watched from behind the one-way mirror - despite participants being reassured feedback was to be confidential.
Merino breeders from throughout Australia at the meeting have since expressed disappointment at AWI’s lack of transparency while others have used the incident to re-ignite calls for reforms including the way growers are elected.
WoolProducers Australia has said the one way mirror incident raised “serious concerns” around AWI’s governance practices, with President Richard Halliday saying it was “unethical” and “inappropriate conduct” for any board Chair to be watching a confidential focus group unannounced.
“It is not unusual for meetings to have observers, but it is not acceptable to have an observer covertly watching a meeting when participants have been assured of confidentiality,” he said.
“The Chair’s presence was not disclosed to any of the participants, and at the end of the day he chose to remain and observe the meeting behind a mirror.
“It’s a given that this should never happen again, but it is unbelievable that it happened in the first place.”
This incident highlights the concerns that WoolProducers have with the current wool industry structure, a statement said.
WoolProducers has long been advocating the need for arms-length industry oversight of AWI, in the interests of all wool levy payers.
The issue adds further weight to recent escalating political pressure on AWI and Mr Merriman’s leadership following questioning at Senate estimates about “generous” severance payouts to employees as part of a recent restructure process.
Co-Chair of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Committee - Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan - said AWI “automatically” attended estimates hearings but would be subject to the Committee’s “interrogations” on the one-way mirror incident and “a range of other issues” at the next session in late October.
“I’ve only before me got what the public reports indicate and it suggests we have a serious fracture there between growers and AWI and that was born in a tough estimates a couple of months ago,” he said.
‘We’ve got estimates coming up again and I’ll be seeing that we have a very transparent effort to get in behind what these problems are.
“I must admit I found it a little bit bizarre that someone would conceal themselves to watch a process where they’d been rejected from the process earlier in time.”
Senator O’Sullivan said he did not believe the one-way mirror incident passed the common ‘pub test.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s law enforcement or anywhere, I think where there are stakeholders involved, transparency is the first casualty when you have events like this,” he said.
An AWI spokesperson said they expected the issue would be canvassed at Senate estimates and had taken steps to apologise to the growers at the meeting and explain the broader circumstances following initial media reports.
The spokesperson said AWI had written to all levy-payers this week to assure them Mr Merriman was acting within fiduciary responsibilities as a member of the relevant AWI sub-committee and was in fact asked to attend the meeting by some breeders.
It would also stress Mr Merriman wished to sit in the room, face to face with the participants as he has done many times before but consulting company Axiom Research had stressed the Chair observe the meeting from behind the one-way mirror, on the day.
AWI said consulting using this style wouldn’t be happening again.
Senator O’Sullivan said “Government has an interest in these things because we provide funding support to these industries through the donor companies so it’s our job to scrutinise activities”.
“I believe everything should be out clearly in the sunlight and that’s what we’ll be striving to do when we have estimates again next month,” he said.
WoolProducers senior vice president and NSW wool grower Ed Storey said it wasn’t for his group to say what should happen.
But he said the entire AWI board needed to self-reflect on the incident.
Mr Storey was also unsure if Mr Merriman should apologise to the growers at the meeting or levy-payers in general, to make amends.
“The incident has happened – what’s an apology now? It’d be pretty hollow,” he said.
“The Chairman made a decision to stay behind the mirror – that was his choice.”
Charles “Chick” Olsson who resigned from the AWI board in 2011 said Mr Merriman’s behaviour in regards to the one way mirror incident was now a matter for Senate Estimates to scrutinise.
Mr Olsson said the AWI board needed to assess the facts of the issue and take action, if an apology was warranted, to growers.
He also said Mr Merriman, as the Chair, had a right to be in the meeting but had shown poor judgement in taking advice to observe the meeting from behind the one-way mirror.
“The board should have a good chat about it – they have all the facts – and tell us what’s going on, if we trust them,” he said.
“If he’s made a mistake they should take action and realise it’s a sensitive issue.”
But NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm who led an inquiry into the use of grower levies and democratic accountability of the R&D and marketing system that matches grower contributions with federal government funds, defended Mr Merriman’s actions.
Senator Leyonhjelm said “If you’re paying for research it’s a good idea to hear it first-hand”.
“Anonymity doesn’t usually apply with focus groups anyway,” he said.