AUSTRALIAN Wool Innovation chair Colette Garnsey has retired prematurely to usher in grower Jock Laurie as the levy-funded body’s new leader, just months before key 2021 elections and the WoolPoll levy ballot.
After an out-of-sessions board meeting today, AWI announced Mr Laurie’s appointment, heralding him as “a champion of Australian agriculture.”
The appointment, which is effective immediately, follows the decision of Ms Garnsey to step down from the role to ensure a smooth transition and knowledge transfer ahead of the annual general meeting on 19 November, AWI said.
However, the move is seen by some in the industry as an attempt by Ms Garnsey to avoid attendance at future industry and Senate Estimates hearings, and/or to potentially bolster Mr Laurie’s prospects in the 2021 director election.
Ms Garnsey has not acceded to two recent invitations to give evidence on 2019 election, governance issues and AWI performance issues, and not attended major industry engagements, including the recent MerinoLink conference. Mr Laurie attended the most recent Senate Estimates hearing on AWI instead of Ms Garnsey, and he is expected, with fellow director Don Macdonald, to stand for re-election at the 2021 election, but this has not been publicly confirmed by AWI.
When asked why Ms Garnsey had stepped down now rather than at the AGM in November, an AWI spokesperson said “the board is perfectly stable and this change allows for orderly transition and succession planning with an orderly hand over.”
The spokesperson said Ms Garnsey’s decision was not aimed at releasing her from accepting invitations to appear at Senate Estimates hearings or other grower events.
“No, not at all the change now is to facilitate an orderly transition.”
The spokesperson also rejected suggestions that Mr Laurie’s elevation was an agri-political move by the current ruling board bloc to give Mr Laurie more exposure and improve his chances in the 2021 election.
“No, not at all.”
Former AWI chair avoided two Senate appearances
However, Australian Wool Growers Association director Chick Olsson believed the appointment of Mr Laurie was “more” than an attempt to maintain the board status quo through the coming election.
“I think it is more than that; I think it is about the pressure from the Australian Senate into the way that AWI has behaved in recent years, my election (nomination) in 2019 and with the 82 2018 review of performance recommendations still there.”
“She (Ms Garnsey) didn’t turn up two times (at Senate Estimates) as requested and she had a duty to turn up to the Senate under the Statutory Funding Agreement with the Federal Government.
“And obviously, why would she want to be tied up with the (2019) election interference issues, that are still ongoing,” he said.
“I can’t think of any other reason why she would stand down now rather than do what she proposed to do, retire at the AGM.
“I don’t think she wants to front Senate Estimates.”
Mr Olsson has claimed that there was agri-political interference in his failed nomination to become a director candidate in the 2019 AWI election, with AWI recently having to step back from its claims it had legal advice allowing and then disallowing Mr Olsson’s proposed multi-candidate nomination form and subsequently changing its rules to accommodate its actions.
Mr Olsson said he believed AWI has been seriously compromised by its performance at recent Senate Estimates hearings, but he considers Ms Garnsey has been a tremendous director.
“But her reputation may be at risk if she hangs around any longer in there.
“It’s a great pity that she is going now, because I think she has been a very good director and has brought a lot of talent and experience to the board, but you’ve got to give her credit because she is abiding by the (proposed) 10-year tenure rule.”
Mr Olsson said if he stands in the 2021 election, Mr Laurie could become the shortest standing chairman in AWI’s history.
WoolProducers Australia president Ed Storey said he hoped that Mr Laurie’s appointment was not an attempt by Ms Garnsey to avoid the Senate or to improve his election prospects, although he conceded it would improve his chances of re-election.
He said the process of Ms Garnsey’s retirement and Mr Laurie’s appointment was a matter for the AWI board.
“It is what it is, there could be a number of reasons it was done, one could be to avoid Colette Garnsey having to go to Senate Estimates, one could be to boost Mr Laurie’s chances in director elections, but that would all be speculation.
“I take Ms Garnsey at her word where she said it was done for continuity and turnover, given we have director elections that is a little presumptuous,” he said.
“I hope this isn’t just another example of AWI board making it all about themselves.”
Mr Storey said Mr Laurie would have a number of key tasks in leading the AWI board and had a good understanding of the issues concerning WPA.
“So I would hope that he is cognisant of the benefits to wool growers, in a number of areas, or working more constructively with WoolProducers Australia, than they have in the past.”
Mr Storey welcomed AWI’s response that his proxies would support the tenure motion.
Ms Laurie honoured and Ms Garnsey is proud
Ms Garnsey has served on the board for 10 years, the last three years as chairman, and had previously announced her intention to retire at the AGM. She will remain on the board as a director until the AGM to ensure an orderly handover to Jock Laurie, AWI said.
Mr Laurie was elected unopposed to the AWI board in 2015. He and his family have a farming business that consist of wool, lamb, beef and grain on properties in Walcha, Bendemeer and Gunnedah in New South Wales. Mr Laurie is also a past president of the National Farmers Federation and the NSW Farmers Association.
“I am honoured to be given the opportunity to lead AWI given its critical role in supporting an industry I have been involved in all my life,” Mr Laurie said.
“I look forward to working with the board, management and the entire AWI team to continue our mission to support Australian woolgrowers on farm and in international markets.
“On behalf of Australian wool growers, I would like to thank Colette for her contribution to the wool industry through her role as chairman and as a director of AWI,” he said.
“Colette’s understanding of the industry beyond the farm gate has been of great value to the industry.”
Ms Garnsey said she was proud to have served Australian woolgrowers on the AWI board for the past decade.
“AWI is blessed with wonderful people on the board and among the whole team, working every day for Australian wool growers.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to have served this very fine industry and for the honour of serving as chairman of AWI,’ she said.
“AWI has important work to do and I am certain we are well positioned to do it.
“I will stay on as a director until the AGM to provide board continuity and to support Jock as he transitions into the chairman’s role,’ she said.
“I have every confidence that Jock will be a tremendous leader of AWI given his depth of experience and passion for our industry.”
The AWI spokesperson would not disclose if there were there any other nominations for the chair position.
“That is a matter for the board.”
The AWI spokesperson said Mr Laurie’s appointment would not affect the direction of the AWI chair’s proxies in regards to the 10-year director tenure resolution at the annual general. In March this year, AWI said the chair’s proxies will be directed to supporting the tenure motion.
“No change to the chairman’s proxies,” the spokesperson said.
AWI said Mr Laurie will be available in the near future for media interviews. Sheep Central was told Ms Garnsey is not taking interviews.