IN the same fortnight that the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation celebrates 25-years of success, Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) Chair Wal Merriman has added another black stain to his record leading the industry’s research and marketing agency.
Mr Merriman was due to face a torrid political examination at Senate estimates hearings in Canberra next week to suffer scrutiny for his now infamous one-way mirror incident which was exposed via a breaking news report last month.
That was on the back of concerns aired at recent hearings about “extremely generous” payouts to staff during AWI’s restructure process.
But now, the long-serving AWI Chair has further tarnished his reputation and that of the wool industry’s levy-paying growers who he purportedly represents by lashing out with a verbal tirade at ABC rural media, during an industry event last week in Adelaide.
Now he won’t be the first or last rural leader to feel like venting pent-up feelings at inquisitive journalists, by offering free, unfiltered advice on how to travel or to re-produce in a way that’s unrelated to scientific information about improved live-stock breeding techniques.
But good leaders know when to hold their emotions, bite their tongues and just say nothing, to avoid bringing on unwelcome scrutiny at sensitive times.
They also understand when and how to seize the moment and speak out diplomatically for their people, rather than just pollute the air waves to serve their own agendas.
This latest AWI indiscretion also indicates the actions of someone who seems to believe their authority is beyond any normal form of fair scrutiny - never mind the sort of selfless, ethical leadership befitting of an agency that gains millions of dollars in federal taxpayer funding each year.
The combination of these troubling incidents can only serve to intensify the already heated political focus mounting on not only AWI but all rural Research and Development Corporations (RDCs) that are co-funded by ever-tightening public and grower dollars.
According to a recent ABARES report, AWI received $12.48m in federal government funding in 2014-15 and $19.36m in levy-payer contributions.
Overall in that time-period, the 15 rural RDCs received $252.72m in government matching contributions, $296.02m in levy contributions and $43.81m in voluntary industry contributions.
In other words, AWI gains about 5pc of the government money that’s handed out to RDCs each year but right now Mr Merriman’s mouth is seemingly consuming close to 100pc of the negative public and political focus.
Grain, sheep, cattle, dairy, pork, sugar, horticulture, and other farm levy-paying producers should be equally as concerned about Mr Merriman’s escalating antics, as if he was elected to the Chair’s positon on their RDCs by their votes too.
AWI levy-payers may well get to cast a vote and have a say on Mr Merriman’s board fate in the near future, if the board itself doesn’t first raise a spill motion at an upcoming meeting.
He is also odds-on to face a repeated blow-torch of questions seeking to fleece the uncomfortable truth from his leather-like skin, by the likes of NSW Senator John “Wacka” Williams and Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan during Senate estimates.
But the true leadership challenge is how the man in the spotlight self-reflects and determines his own direction and ultimate fate, before it gets too late.
Will he quit before his next act of reputational vandalism towards wool growers occurs or will he continue along the pathway of greater denial?
Or will the Council of Rural RDCs seek to intervene and pull one of their own leaders into line before another blooper occurs that reflects poorly on them all?
Or will the Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce be forced to make a stand, if the negative media reporting persists, at a time when he doesn’t need any more needless distractions?
Mr Joyce has noted that confidential feedback to AWI to help guide research priorities must be respected and that he understands the AWI Chair has said the one-way-mirror incident won’t happen again.
But one more incident would surely reflect an operating culture with a form of “grower-control” that needs immediate attention before it potentially escalates to an AWB-like wheat-for-weapons scandal.
Right now, the absence of a collective statement from the Council of RDCs condemning Mr Merriman’s actions can only leave others to speculate on the silence and think that perhaps they secretly support his belligerent behaviour, in using taxpayers’ dollars.
AWI has seemingly sought to justify Mr Merriman’s antics by pointing to his apparent God-like reign of taking the wool industry from one that was worth $1.9 billion in 2010 to one valued at $3.3b today.
But flashing those apparently big numbers will mean very little to the groups and individuals that AWI seems to be constantly picking fights with, for virtually little reason, other than having the fight.
What’s deeply troubling about the current state of events is that Mr Merriman has actually failed to step up and properly explain himself directly to levy-payers or apologise for his actions, over the off-beat one-way mirror incident.
Instead, responsibility was hand-balled to AWI CEO Stuart McCullough to write a letter detailing the organisation’s watered-down view of events.
Mr McCullough’s feeble correspondence boosted AWI’s avoidance and prevarication by blaming it all on the facilitator who was representing Axiom Research, for having directed the Chair to sit behind the one-way mirror in an adjoining room, to where the grower focus meeting on genetics was being held.
“Unfortunately, as an oversight, the facilitator did not directly inform the participants of Mr Merriman’s arrival or individual presence,” he said.
“Axiom accepts this as an inadvertent error and has written to participants to apologise.”
Two letters of apology but nothing as yet from the man, the Chair, who actually chose to sit behind the one-way mirror and observe the meeting occurring which was seeking to provide anonymous feedback, which he knew he also wasn’t invited to.
Surely gut instinct about what’s right and wrong should have been enough to override any instructions given by a third party.
No doubt nobody will be holding their breath waiting for a humble letter of apology for abusing a journalist and the latest incident subsequently being reported across the globe, via the internet.
Failing to face the media to answer questions weeks after the bizarre one-way-mirror incident was revealed, despite repeated requests, also clearly shows the AWI Chair either can’t be adequately stage-managed to answer questions coherently and politely or maybe he has something to hide.
Either way, his bull in a china shop approach to resolving the matter is not an example of astute leadership or the kind that’s been backed by the Rural Leadership Foundation over a quarter of a century or what’s needed to serve the greater good and credibility of the farming and rural sector.
As they say, the cover up is always worse than the crime and one can only wonder when and where this runaway train will end, with another derailment, without any semblance of admission of fault by the person at the centre of the crash.