WEST Australian Liberal MP Rick Wilson will be watching embattled Australian Wool Innovation’s potentially explosive appearance at Senate estimates hearings in Canberra and Chair Wal Merriman’s testimony, with keener interest than most others.
Mr Wilson represents the sparse rural and farming dominated electorate of O’Connor and as a sheep producer based at Katanning, is also an AWI levy-payer.
He’s also Chair of the House of Representative’s Agriculture and Water Resources Committee that’s examined several high profile farming-related topics in recent times and understands the value of a rigorous scrutiny.
Mr Wilson said because AWI was a $12 million per year taxpayer and levy-funded wool research and marketing organisation, the government and other members of parliament had “every right” to call Mr Merriman and senior executives before the Senate Committee hearing today to answer questions on its performance, as part of the “accountability process”.
But he doesn’t believe AWI’s governance processes are in disarray and need an urgent and major overhaul, in response to recent issues that have been exposed in the media, involving the long-serving Chair.
Mr Wilson told Fairfax Agricultural Media Mr Merriman’s recent behaviour had “probably left a little bit to be desired” but the Chair had now apologised “belatedly” in a letter sent in recent days, to the growers involved in the one-way mirror incident.
Mr Wilson said overall, the Australian wool industry was in a position of strength and currently AWI was performing better than previous administrations including making a “much stronger” stance on challenging issues like mulesing.
“In some regards I think they’re doing a good job,” he said.
He said AWI’s governance systems were also “very good” with voting for board directors weighted according to production, which gave wool growers an allocation of votes according to the volume of levies they paid.
“I’m a big supporter of that system,” Mr Wilson said.
“Unfortunately I think there has been a little bit of complacency amongst wool growers in terms of there doesn’t seem to be a lot of good competition for these elections.
“With all due respect to the current group of directors, it would be healthy if we had some real competition for these positions; but having said that, I think the board is doing a reasonable job at the moment.
“There hasn’t been a lot of movement in terms of new directors going in and out in recent times.
“That may reflect wool growers are happy with the current direction of AWI but it also may reflect a bit of complacency by wool growers at election time because there doesn’t seem to be a fierce contest, around these board positions.
“There seems to be a bit of a gentlemen’s arrangement where the same people are seemingly elected over and over but I do support this system and I do support the democratic system.
“Some of the other R&D organisations don’t have a democratic system and there are some in particular, that I have been at logger heads with over the years, because I don’t feel that as a levy payer I’ve had any particular representation.
“And you don’t have to be Albert Einstein to work out that as a grain grower, not just a wool grower, that (criticism) relates to the GRDC (Grains Research and Development Corporation).”
Mr Merriman has come under intense pressure recently for swearing at an ABC rural journalist, amid efforts to seek answers to questions regarding his involvement in the now infamous one-way mirror incident.
He will face the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee supplementary budget estimates hearing at Parliament House in Canberra scheduled from 10.45am to 12.15pm, with Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan, a former police officer, leading the charge.
Other AWI executives will line up to face questioning from a range of Senators who will also be seeking forthright answers to examine recent events and in no mood for prevarications.
That list includes; AWI CEO Stuart McCullough; Group Manager, Corporate Affairs Peta Slack-Smith; WA based Director David Webster; and Company Secretary and legal expert Jim Story.
With political pressure skyrocketing following the Chair’s terse exchange with a media reporter, a letter was sent at the eleventh hour, with the estimates hearing looming, offering an apology for the one-way mirror incident, to the growers directly involved.
Some AWI directors have privately defended Mr Merriman’s leadership by describing him as a “legend” of the wool industry who may lack tact or political correctness at times, but has worked tirelessly to transform the organisation and industry for the better in recent years - including expanding marketing opportunities into China.
It’s understood he maintains board support, despite the recent negative publicity raising attention from Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce in regards to political support for all 15 RDCs which received $252.72m in government matching, taxpayer contributions in 2014-15.