AWI chairman Wal Merriman admits breach of wool body’s conduct code

Terry Sim, October 25, 2017

AWI chairman Wal Merriman at Senate Estimates yesterday.

AUSTRALIAN Innovation chairman Wal Merriman has admitted in a Senates Estimates hearing that he breached the AWI Code of Conduct and damaged the standing of the wool grower-owned levy-funded body.

At the hearing conducted by the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee in Canberra yesterday Mr Merriman admitted that he had breached the AWI Code of Conduct by telling an ABC journalist to “f#@k off”.

The ABC journalist earlier this month attempted to ask Mr Merriman questions about his covert observation of Merino breeders behind a one-way mirror during an AWI-funded genetics research focus group in Sydney in June. Mr Merriman called the ABC journalist a “useless prick” and told him to “f#@k off, report that”.

Despite not being invited by researchers nor AWI staff managing the project, Mr Merriman, a co-principal of the Merryville Merino Stud, was allowed to observe the MERINOSELECT breeders behind the one-way mirror without their permission, although they had been promised anonymity and confidentiality.  Sheep Central broke the original ‘The Merino man behind the mirror: AWI’s Wal Merriman’ on September 6.

Mr Merriman apologised to wool growers “and anyone else” who was offended by his language.

“I understand it’s irrelevant — his behaviour — and I was recorded unknowingly.

“The language which I used was more fitted to a shearing shed.

“That’s where I come from unfortunately, I’m from the bush — I need a lot more polish to operate in these surroundings.”

Addressing the AWI chairman at the Senate hearing, Senator Bridget McKenzie quoted the AWI Code of Conduct, part 4.4 (f), which states that as part of the implementation of its guiding values, “AWI expects AWI people to treat all other AWI people and other persons with whom they have dealings in performing work for or on behalf of AWI, with courtesy and respect.”

“Did you breach your own code of practice (sic)? the senator asked.

“In that instance, by taking offense at a journalist, yes,” Mr Merriman said.

Mr Merriman said he had told the ABC journalist two hours before the Woolmark Prize celebration that he had nothing further say than what was in Mr McCullough’s letter to shareholders about the Sydney focus group. Mr McCullough also said he had told the journalist that they had nothing to add.

Senator McKenzie also asked Mr Merriman that given the ABC story, the amount of negative press that AWI had received as a result of his behaviour and the reaction of AWI shareholders, would he say that the standing of AWI has been damaged and that there is some repair that needs to be done.

“To an extent, yes,” Mr Merriman said.

“But in our business we have a wonderful thing called freedom and the shareholders will vote on my future and the shareholders will vote in three weeks’ time.”

Mr Merriman conceded that he was not up for election on November 17, “but they will when I come up.”

The AWI chairman said he did not know what the board process was when the Code of Conduct is breached and deferred to AWI company secretary Jim Story.

“That’s right, I don’t know.”

However, Senator McKenzie said she was interested in Mr Merriman’s knowledge of the process because he ran AWI.

“I don’t run it, I’m simply the chair.”

AWI chief executive officer Stuart McCullough said the board will “have a say” to Mr Merriman about his behaviour at its next meeting.

Mr Merriman then agreed that he absented himself when he had a potential conflict of interest and allowed the board to take a decision on the “conflict”.

“Correct, we take advice from the company secretary who knows our register and knows our interests and you leave the room.

“In one case the director gets the papers blanked out.”

When asked if any discussions about his interaction with a journalist came before the board, would it be dealt with in his presence or absence, Mr Merriman said he would be guided by the board and company secretary.

“They might ask me to leave.”

Later in the hearing Senator McKenzie said the fact that Mr Merriman was unsure about how a breach of the AWI Code of Conduct would be dealt with was “an incredible failure of understanding good governance.”

Mr Merriman said he had done two courses at the Australian Institute of Company Directors and Mr McCullough said he was an AICD graduate.


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