AUSTRALIAN Wool Innovation director Meredith Sheil has thrown her support behind AWI chairman Wal Merriman, despite an industry call for her to replace the incumbent leader.
Amid claims the AWI board is divided and dysfunctional, and despite Mr Merriman not being up for re-election in the 2017 poll and not indicating he is ready to stand down, the Australian Wool Growers Association has thrown its support behind Dr Sheil to lead the board after the 2017 election.
Dr Sheil is not standing in the election, but shareholders will decide on November 17 whether the director candidates recommended by the AWI board and Mr Merriman – Colette Garnsey, James Morgan and Will Wilson – should be elected, or contesting candidates Mr Cocking and wool broker Don Macdonald are successful.
“AWGA strongly supports Dr Meredith Sheil as the next chairperson to lead the industry to a stronger scientific and marketing platform of better delivery of levy investment outcomes,” AWGA president Robert McBride said.
“Her experience in commercial product delivery and a strong scientific background, combined with the community’s desire for increased gender equality on public boards makes her the ideal candidate for the next chairperson’s role.”
Sheep Central has confirmed that the call for Dr Sheil to become the next AWI chairman was made without her knowledge. It follows re-standing AWI director Paul Cocking last month indicating his willingness to potentially lead the grower levy-funded body out of its current governance and industry issues.
Dr Shiel told Sheep Central it is an honour receive such comments and support.
“However, as AWGA has noted, the role of chairperson of AWI is no easy task.
“The industry is passionate, divided on many issues, and there is a great tendency — possibly stemming from the very origins of the industry — to play the man and not the ball,” she said.
“The role requires great personal commitment, time and dedication, a deep connection with and understanding of all facets of the industry as well as enormous personal resilience and strong majority based grower support.
“The current chairman has these essential qualities in spades. He has successfully lead the board and the company through difficult and contentious times and has my full support.”
AWGA has industry lobbying record
Mr McBride said the association is one of the nation’s most influential voices in wool politics and has been involved in the changing of three boards and chairmen at AWI. AWGA director Chick Olsson said this included association support for the initial election of Mr Merriman and AWI director David Webster, who are former AWGA members. Mr Olsson said board directors often met after elections to elect a chair of a new board.
Mr McBride said recent media reports and Senate Estimates hearings have led to many questions being raised about AWI’s corporate governance issues.
After admitting to observing a Merino breeders focus group behind a one-way mirror without their permission and swearing at an ABC journalist asking questions about the incident, at a Senate Estimates hearing last month Mr Merriman admitted he had breached the AWI Code of Conduct and damaged the standing of the wool grower-owned levy-funded body.
These issues were “spectres that keep raising their heads during excellent wool prices and strong confidence within the wool community,” Mr MrBride said.
“In this regard, we believe Wally Merriman must be congratulated for a record nine years as chair, fighting hard in protecting the rights of growers to continue breech surgery as well ensuring ongoing voting democracy.
“He has served woolgrowers faithfully and deserves our thanks,” Mr McBride said.
Mr McBride believes that following recent events, Mr Merriman’s position after the election will become “untenable”, with the current board already divided around issues including mulesing, research and development, and governance.
“There are two definitive groups within the AWI board and Wal is trying his hardest to push out anybody who disagrees with him and at the end of the day that’s disconcerting, because it is a dysfunctional board.
“With the voting power that Wal has, and as the Senate Estimates showed, he has potentially got over 50 percent of the voting rights,” he said.
“As our industry restabilises, it’s appropriate to now consider the future and potential new leadership possibilities to take the industry to an even stronger place.
“In this regard, the AWGA would like to encourage the AWI board to look for new leadership as a matter of industry priority, which must happen sooner rather than later to instil confidence in AWI from the wider community,” he said.
“We need stability at the helm and research has to be the future of our industry.”
Mr McBride said the industry needed to provide confidence for the next generation to re-engage in growing wool, to begin the vital task of increasing Merino numbers in Australia.
AWGA had decided against proposing that shareholders support specific candidates in the 2017 election, he said.
“We are not denigrating Wal, but we do believe in change and we ask that shareholders consider the election candidates in that context.
“As long as all the people who can vote, do so, and do not hand over proxies.”
Sheep Central has emailed questions to AWI and Mr Merriman about his intentions while on the AWI board. Mr Merriman has previously told Sheep Central he would stay on the board while he had shareholders’ support, but has not commented on his chairmanship intentions.
Click here to read the AWGA letter.