AUSTRALIAN Wool Innovation (AWI) has written to its wool levy-paying members explaining its role in the one-way mirror incident involving Chair Wal Merriman.
The letter from AWI CEO Stuart McCullough said “I am writing to you directly to lay the facts on the table and give a clear understanding of what occurred”.
He said Axiom Research was employed to facilitate a genetics consultation day independently, with stud breeders, and regularly conducted focus groups and consumer research using a “contemporary strategy” where participants are together in a room and the client observes behind a one-way mirror “so as not to influence participant responses”.
“AWI has never held a focus group in this style before; it is however current normal practice in market research and focus groups,” he said.
“It is important to note that the breeders attending the day knew representatives from AWI were observing the focus session, without participating.”
But Mr McCullough said, “The AWI Board and CEO were unaware the focus group was being conducted in this fashion”.
“In his role as Chairman, Wal Merriman feels a strong duty to have a good understanding of the attitude and feelings of growers (and shareholders) to AWI direction and strategy, particularly on matters that may be contentious within the industry,” the letter said.
“For this reason he commonly joins such focus groups and AWI-organised consultation events, giving enormous amounts of his time.
“On this occasion, his presence at the day was requested by some breeders and once arrived, he asked the facilitator of the day if he could be in the room, face to face with the participants (as was his usual practice), but he was instead directed to sit behind the mirror with other AWI representatives.
“Unfortunately, as an oversight, the facilitator did not directly inform the participants of Mr Merriman’s arrival or individual presence, which the company accepts as inadvertent error, and has written to participants to apologise.”
Mr McCullough said there was “no subterfuge intended, nor any mal-intent”.
“As an AWI representative observer, the Chairman was clearly bound by confidentiality as were all other AWI representatives,” he said.
“His presence was in no way a contravention of his fiduciary duty as a Board member.
“At AWI, we strive for openness, transparency, and high-quality woolgrower consultation, and we regret the outcome in this event.
“We will continue to consult regularly and widely with woolgrowers about how we should invest – be it animal health, welfare, genetics, or the wool selling system - however we have elected not to use this method of performing research focus groups in the future.”
Mr McCullough said the wool industry is enjoying a period of “optimism and prosperity not seen in a generation”, growing from a $1.9 billion industry (2010) to $3.3b today.
Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan says the issue will be raised when AWI appears before Senate estimates later next month.