AWI in hot seat over alleged election interference

AWI in hot seat over alleged election interference

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NSW woolgrower Chick Olsson.

NSW woolgrower Chick Olsson.

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AWI was in the hot seat at Senate Estimates on Thursday, facing questions of potential board interference in the 2019 election process.

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Australian Wool Innovation Company Secretary Jim Story fronted a Senate Estimates hearing on Thursday to face questions relating to potential board interference in the election of directors in 2019.

Mr Story and AWI chair Collette Garnsey had been asked to present relevant legal advice about text messages Mr Story sent to NSW woolgrower, Chick Olsson, during the 2019 AWI election process.

Mr Olsson had wanted to nominate as a director on a joint candidate ticket but was ultimately disallowed.

He was initially advised by Mr Story via text message that the nomination could proceed before being told months later that he would not be allowed to nominate.

"...it is permissible albeit unusual for you to have several candidates named on the nomination form. That will mean that the signatories on the form will apply for the three candidates as you outlined to me," Mr Story's July 23 text message read.

Mr Olsson was collecting the signatures of 100 eligible AWI shareholders to support his nomination and that of Professor Peter Windsor and Dr Dominique Van Der Saag on one nomination form.

But in August 2019, after already gathering a number of signatures, Mr Olsson was informed by Mr Story that a joint ticket would not be allowed.

At a Senate Estimates hearing in March, AWI failed to present the relevant legal advice pertaining to the multiple candidate nomination form.

Mr Olsson is now claiming board interference in his nomination process and says AWI manipulated the voting system, in contravention to AWI's Statutory Funding Agreement with the federal government.

"Based on the AWI's Statutory Funding Agreement which forbids agri-political activity, I'd like to know was Mr Story giving me his own advice or was he influenced by board members?" Mr Olsson said.

"This is an extremely serious issue of potential board interference in an election process."

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Labor Senator Glen Sterle said AWI responded to the Senate following the March hearing with a letter penned by Mr Storey stating there was no written legal advice in relation to allowing a joint ticket or later disallowing it.

"What changed between the text going to Mr Olsson saying he could run on a joint ticket to the verbal legal advice that he couldn't?" Mr Sterle asked.

Mr Story said different facts had emerged.

"Looking into it, I came up with with nothing to substantiate or negate that assertion. In that context I rang our lawyers who confirmed the rules and procedures document was, at the time, 'silent' on the point," Mr Story said.

"The rules didn't envisage someone going down this course. There was however a provision in the rules allowing procedure irregularities should they arise."

Mr Story said when he texted Mr Olsson on July 23 he was working on the belief that if there was a precedent for joint ticket nominations, AWI needed to honour it.

However, Mr Story said he then spoke to a previous company secretary, several weeks later, who was adamant that it was not to happen.

"Further, if he had gotten any wind of someone attempting a multi person nomination form he would have put a stop to it right there," Mr Story said.

Ms Garnsey, who is not due to resign as AWI chair until later this year, failed to show at Thursday's hearing, drawing several complaints from participating senators.

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