Rising producer unease about Australian Wool Innovation chairman Wal Merriman’s significant power in deciding who is elected to the board has prompted a last minute election pitch from the industry’s chief.
Many woolgrowers are boycotting undirected proxy votes at AWI’s upcoming board election on 17 November after recent Senate estimates revealed Mr Merriman could stack votes after seeing how early votes were cast ahead of election day.
In the last contested election in 2013, 18.6 per cent of the 1.1 million eligible votes were cast. Proxies tallied 98.8pc of votes received, marking 202,211 of the 204,488 total votes cast.
Shareholders have raised concerns about Mr Merriman’s use of proxy votes, which some say resulted in the surprise ousting of former board member George Falkiner in 2013.
This week, Mr Merriman sent a letter to some of the industry group’s largest shareholders in a bid to woo their voting support.
In the letter, Mr Merriman defended the election bid of Will Wilson, chairman Wool Exchange Portal (WEP), and criticised outside nominee Don Macdonald, Macdonald and Co Woolbrokers for being “against the wool Portal”.
“He is fearing (my election) will lose him complete power, complete autonomy,” Mr Macdonald said.
“The chairman taking this unprecedented step in a bid to justify the board nominations committee recommendations, proves my concerns about a lack of transparency, accountability and independence at AWI are correct.
He is fearing (my election) will lose him complete power, complete autonomy.
“It brings into question all these issues – particularly around proxies and the independence of the Board Nomination Committee, which the chairman is on.”
The letter endorsed incumbent board members James Morgan and Colette Garnsey, stating their reappointment would be “critical to the operation of AWI”.
Mr Macdonald called the letter “absurd”.
Since announcing his move to stand, he said his focus had shifted from “resurrecting the shambles that is the WEP” and bridging the gap between traditional and progressive breeders to focus on transparent governance of woolgrower levies.
“The last thing Wal wants is competitive tension on the board, and that is what we need,” he said.
“The last month has brought governance issues to the surface so people are better informed about how AWI is being run as a dictatorship.
“If the two candidates that were not recommended, Paul Cocking and myself, were elected, will he take that as a vote of no confidence from shareholders?”
The letter has been refuted by many in the industry, including National Council of Wool Selling Brokers of Australia president John Colley.
Mr Merriman claimed “brokers, buyers and growers unanimously agree (the WEP) proceed”, which Mr Colley said was “misleading”.
“NCWSBA is agnostic,” Mr Colley said.
“NCWSBA has raised issues and questions about the WEP but has consistently remained silent on support or otherwise. This silence should not be taken as tacit support for the WEP.”
In the letter, Mr Merriman also claimed the current wool price was a reflection of AWI’s “strides”, with the Eastern Market Indicator increasing from 764 cents a kilogram to 1568c/kg under his leadership.
Mecardo market analysts debunked this and reported prices had been underpinned by falling supply.
AWI has lost 18pc of shareholder levy payers since 2010, falling from 29,347 in June 2010 to 24,059 last financial year.