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AWI director reserves legal action right over WoolProducers’ views

by Terry Sim, 06 July 2018
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Dr Meredith Sheil.

AUSTRALIAN Wool Innovation director Meredith Sheil has reserved her right to take legal action over a submission by peak grower body WoolProducers Australia to the current AWI performance and governance review.

After the ABC this morning reported that Dr Sheil had emailed WPA president Richard Halliday complaining about allegedly damaging and defamatory material in the WPA submission, Dr Sheil told Sheep Central she was saddened her “letter of concern” had been leaked to the media.

The ABC reported that Dr Sheil’s five-page statement claimed WPA’s submission made unfounded, highly derogatory and frankly defamatory statements regarding the governance of AWI and the conduct of the board and individual directors, including herself, and the competence of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.

Dr Shiel’s statement was also emailed to the National Farmers Federation, AgForce, NSW Farmers, the Department of Agriculture and the AWI reviewer, EY, formerly known as Ernst & Young. EY’s AWI review report is expected to be released next week.

Dr Shiel refused to release her statement to WPA, but said she had asked WPA to retract its submission from the department AWI review website and to issue an apology.

“I asked, and hoped that they would correct what I perceived to be grave factual errors in it, that damaged trust, and issue an apology.”

Dr Sheil told Sheep Central she is most concerned regarding the potential on-going and worsening unwarranted potential damage to trust and while her concerns are not addressed she reserved her rights to take legal action.

What did WPA say about AWI

Although not naming Dr Shiel in its AWI review submission, WoolProducers argued that the manner in which AWI’s biennial director elections and the triennial vote in WoolPoll were conducted, despite being managed in accordance with relevant requirements and regulations, are heavily influenced and controlled by the AWI board.

“This diminishes the genuine ability of shareholders to exercise influence on the company, but also demonstrates that the current governance and regulatory frameworks that AWI operates in are deeply flawed.

“The current governance arrangements employed by AWI are flawed (as) demonstrated through the lack of transparency and accountability across a range of important activities that AWI engage in, from industry consultation through to levy expenditure decisions,” the submission said.

WPA has recommended there be a complete overhaul of AWI’s corporate governance policies and procedures, including conflict of interest, business ethics, codes of conduct and independence.

The WPA submission also said although AWI’s Statutory Funding Agreement with the Federal Government has strict requirements for AWI not engaging in agri-political activities, “there are many examples of undertakings by AWI that could be argued to fit this criteria.”

WPA also said although consultation is a requirement under the SFA, “there is an inability by AWI to distinguish between consultation, communication and engagement.”

WPA said the lack of independent oversight over AWI has caused many issues with the operations of this organisation since its inception, and has proposed the establishment of a formalised Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between AWI and WPA.

WPA also said the power of the AWI board is disproportionately large and there is inadequate accountability or transparency to monitor this control.”

WPA said there have been “a number of high-profile, unsavoury incidents over the past 12 months involving AWI which reflect on the conduct and operations of the AWI board.”

“These incidents, and the subsequent lack of response from the board, raise questions over the culture of the organisation.”

Click here to read the full WPA submission to the AWI review.

Sheil says it is a personal matter

Dr Shiel said her statement to WPA is a very personal matter between herself as a wool grower and long-standing member of NSW Farmers, “and thereby also represented as a member of WoolProducers in their submission”.

“It pertains to the fact that my role as a director and representative of wool growers on the board of AWI relies heavily on the trust people place in me.

“I have always been humbled by the trust and support I have received from growers in the past, and felt that this trust had been damaged in an unwarranted way by their submission,” she said.

“I asked, and hoped, that they would correct what I perceived to be grave factual errors in it, that damaged trust, and issue an apology.

“Unfortunately instead, it appears it has been leaked to the press,” Dr Sheil said.

“I have always had good constructive relations with the executive of WPA.

“I was therefore shocked by the nature of their submission which I perceived to contain grave factual errors and undermine wool growers faith and trust in me in my role as one of their elected representatives on the board of AWI.”

Dr Sheil said she wanted to understand what processes WPA  went through to make sure its submission was factual and not unnecessarily hurtful or damaging to individuals in a way that is not warranted.

“Since, I was claimed as a member of WPA in the submission (along with all other 30,000 SFO members) – and yet I had not received any opportunity for input or feedback prior to the submission, and clearly would not have supported it if I had.

“I wanted to understand what processes and procedures they went through to make sure that their submission truly reflected the majority view of their members,” Dr Sheil said.

Dr Sheil said WPA’s AWI review submission made it evident that body is seeking to be placed in a position of supervisory and directorial control over the wool grower-elected board of AWI.

“While I accept that this is their right to pursue this objective if they wish, I believe it is in danger of putting them in a vested interest position to undermine faith and trust in the elected directors of the company to achieve their objective.

“I therefore believe that they should be extremely responsible in their communications and submissions not to use incorrect facts or besmirch people’s character and undermine trust in a manner that is unfair and unwarranted,” she said.

“I have always had an open door policy for people to contact me if they have any concerns regarding the manner in which I represent their interests and I felt, that if they had concerns truly of the nature they expressed, it would have been most fair and reasonable for them to have contacted me about them.”

WoolProducers Australia chief executive officer Jo Hall said the body had no comment to make on the issue, pending legal advice. The WPA submission was still on the web page reserved for AWI Review submissions, click here. The Australian Government reserves the right to refuse to publish submissions, or parts of submissions, which contain offensive language, potentially defamatory material or copyright infringing material.

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Reader's Comments


Comment
  • Martin Oppenheimer July 6, 2018

    That is the best ‘non’ story for a long time. Well done WoolProducers, keep up the pressure for positive change. It’s growers hard-earned money that funds AWI.

  • Peter Small July 8, 2018

    Reading the Sheep Central report and reading WoolProducers Australia’s submission to the AWI review, it is hard to fathom out what on earth is going on here. While the WoolProducers submission may well be uncomfortable to the AWI board and its individual members, including Dr Sheil, they must all surely know that the WPA submission is reflecting the widespread concerns of many growers.
    Is this an attempt by AWI to hobble the growers’ voice or perhaps AWI has some weird notion that because they are elected by some growers they are the voice of growers and should therefore go unchallenged?
    If either is the case, then it is deeply disturbing.

  • Jock MacRae July 11, 2018

    Yes, best non-story since Terry’s excellent article (misinterpreted by the unhappy ones) on the failings of a “professional” consultancy firm employed by AWI when the chairman turns up unannounced to say gooday to a group of wool growers. Oh panic…..
    There is much quantification about with the terms “many” or “several”or “some”…when the critical thing is what the majority thinks. Even EY has had trouble with this scenario. The Australian Association of Stud Merino Breeders has left a big hole in the picture by electing not to forward a submission to the AWI review. Growers are fortunate to have a sound democratic construct around our R&D company. All will be resolved in the fullness of time and the truth will then be revealed.

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