Australian Wool Innovation chairman Wal Merriman has rejected allegations the industry group was not spending enough money on genetic evaluation due to his perceived breeding conflict of interest.
During a controversial Senate Estimates hearing on Tuesday, Victorian Senator Bridget McKenize interrogated AWI chiefs on whether Mr Merriman’s breeding philosophy had influenced the body to ignore industry support to fund the Sheep CRC.
Mr Merriman’s 150 year-old Merryville Merino stud, in southern NSW, does not use MerinoSelect or Australian sheep breeding values (ASBVs).
The catalyst for this line of questioning was Mr Merriman’s covert viewing of progressive Merino breeders who were participating in an anonymous industry focus group, instead of traditional breeders who also undertook the focus group.
“There are some perceptions that AWI has a culture of bullying and public shaming of public stakeholders – do you understand why your presence could have caused unease and damaged the integrity of the research?” Senator McKenzie said.
Mr Merriman defended his actions to secretly watch the focus group behind a one-way-mirror, and said he happened to be in Sydney on the day.
“I don’t know how I could bully them if I wasn’t there,” he said.
“As long as I am looking after shareholder interest, I need to know what is going on.”
He said, usually participants for and against the use of ASBVs were in a room together with a facilitator because “they are the warring tribes”.
“I was shocked there was a deviation from that in this instance,” Mr Merriman said.
AWI chief executive Stuart McCullough said the man-in-the-mirror scandal was because the objective breeders’ were concerned with Mr Merriman’s presence because of his “different breeding philosophy”.
Senator McKenzie questioned whether this reflected broader industry concern among growers who spoke out against the direction AWI was taking the industry.
“My understanding is that there is a war going on within AWI… between subjective and objective, and you have just allowed one member of one tribe in on the inner most thoughts on what the other tribe is thinking,” Senator McKenzie said.
“One side feels absolutely maligned that you allowed the captain of the other team listen to their inner most thoughts.
“I’d hate to see AWI being used to support one philosophy over another.”
Mr Merriman said, “There is not a war within AWI, there is a war outside of AWI with shareholders”.
“All our research is in objective measurement, none in subjective. I can’t see how AWI is taking one side,” he said.
AWI have been accused of stepping away from projects that were core around genetic evaluation and genomic breeding values.
Sheep Genetics, which delivers MERINOSELECT and LAMBPLAN, was previously funded by AWI and MLA, with a user pays component.
Despite a 2014 industry survey revealing 85 per cent of submissions were in favour of the joint-funding agreement to continue, Sheep Genetics is now solely managed by MLA.
“If it did come up with that result, doesn’t give it the green-light to fund the Sheep CRC,” AWI chief executive Stuart McCullough said.
Mr McCullough said AWI’s role was not to promote one breeding philosophy.
“We know there are extreme people and extreme arguments at both of those polls – our aim is to conduct research for all woolgrowers,” he said.
“We aim to be as balanced as we can and invest in research and development on both sides of the very top of that scale.”
Senator McKenzie probed the decision to not finance the Sheep CRC when woolgrowers were overwhelmingly in support, as well as “an excellent report card on performance”.
“Why did AWI choose instead of accepting those survey results, actually choose to do yet another survey that gave them more favourable response in terms of pulling out of funding the project? Senator McKenzie said.
Mr Merriman said it was because Sheep CRC would “not agree to the rules”.
“With the CRC model, we give them $10 million and that is the end of it, we have no control,” Mr Merriman said.
“We do not just give money away without our control - they should be under the same control us.
“The Sheep CRC would not agree to the rules so we didn’t fund them.”