NATIONAL wool producer bodies have backed MERINOSELECT Merino ram breeders who believe an Australian Wool Innovation-funded focus group session in Sydney earlier this year has failed AWI’s own ‘wool grower test’.
The performance-recorded ram breeders at the June 15 focus group session were assured anonymity and confidentiality and asked to give honest and frank feedback on their businesses and industry genetic issues, including AWI’s own programs.
However, several of the MERINOSELECT breeders at the session believe many wool growers would find it unacceptable that they were observed behind a one-way mirror without their knowledge by AWI chairman Wal Merriman, the co-principal of the Merryville Merino Stud and a ram-selling competitor.
AWI’s last two strategic plans and chief executive officer Stuart McCullough have indicated the “wool grower test” – which asks the question ‘would this action be acceptable to wool growers?’ — underpins the AWI’s day-to-day operations and ensured accountability to wool growers.
Deloitte’s 2015 independent review of AWI’s performance said the company consistently applied the ‘wool grower test’ when considering all actions and investment activities, to ensure that all investment activities align to its strategic plan.
The performance-recording breeders invited to the focus group are all users of MERINOSELECT, the national genetic information and benchmarking service, which utilises Australian Sheep Breeding Values as estimates of an animal’s true breeding value, based on pedigree and performance information. As managing director of the Merryville Merino Stud, Mr Merriman is known to favour traditional Merino breeding techniques, utilising bloodlines, visual assessment and objective measurement rather than ASBV or science-based genetic selection.
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WoolProducers Australia chief executive officer Jo Hall said the focus group incident highlighted the need for reform of the current wool industry structure.
“WoolProducers Australia do not believe that this incident passes AWI’s self-proclaimed ‘wool grower test’.
“As the wool industry services body responsible for the expenditure of a compulsory wool grower levy, there is a requirement that AWI’s governance and conduct is nothing short of transparent and accountable,” she said.
“This recent incident goes to the very crux of what WPA has been publicly calling for over the past 12 months – that the current wool industry structure needs reform.
“There must be arm’s length, independent oversight of AWI to ensure that grower’s money is being spent in accordance with their priorities and in a manner consistent with growers’ expectations.”
Ms Hall said this is the second incident in 12 months – the first was AWI’s redundancy payouts to retrenched staff members — where WPA “strongly believed” AWI’s actions would not pass the ‘wool grower test’.
Australian Wool Growers Association chairman Rob McBride also said the June 15 focus group did not pass the ‘wool grower test’ and the AWI board did not represent the full wool industry.
“It doesn’t represent the grass roots wool grower like ourselves.
“We need fresh ideas, we need fresh approaches,” he said.
Leahcim Merino Stud principal Andrew Michael said he was concerned about Mr Merriman’s attendance at the focus group, because of his personal Merryville Merino Stud interests and sheep breeding philosophy, and his role as an AWI director voting on the investment of millions of dollars of growers’ levy funds in sheep genetic programs.
He believed the June 15 focus group situation would not be acceptable to many wool growers and would therefore not pass AWI’s ‘wool grower test’.
“The attendance of just Neil Judd would have been the proper process which AWI could have assessed the thoughts of the focus group in a very transparent way.
“For all of us to sit down and disclose how many rams we sell and how we go about our breeding openly and honestly was a big commitment for all the participants,” Mr Michael said.
Trigger Vale Poll Merino Stud principal Andrew Bouffler said the June 15 focus group would “probably not” pass AWI’s ‘wool grower or pub test’ because of Mr Merriman’s attendance. Although some growers might disagree, considering Mr Merriman was only doing “the extra yards” on behalf of shareholders, he said.
“Because we were there in good faith and we were told it would be anonymous, and to speak openly and frankly – it’s that that doesn’t pass the pub test.
“We were in a workshop situation and we end up having the (AWI) chairman sitting behind a one-way mirror, that doesn’t pass the pub test,” he said.
“It’s just unacceptable really.
“He (Mr Merriman) could have either walked away because he was feeling uncomfortable being undeclared or he could have made sure they declared it (his presence).”
Victorian Merino breeder Phil Toland said wool growers would “generally not” find the circumstance of the June 15 focus group meeting acceptable, although he thought some would not care.
He did not think Mr Merriman’s attendance at the meeting was acceptable because of his roles as a stud breeder and an AWI director.
“He was probably there for the next one as well – who were (ram) clients of MERINOSELECT breeders.
“It is just a bit odd that with such a survey that they said was going to be fully confidential and one of the parties was a non-MERINOSELECT stud breeder,” he said.
“If the (AWI) chairman wanted to be there, he should have disclosed that fact and asked permission.”
Karbullah Poll Merino principal Mark Murphy at Goondiwindi in Queensland said he could not believe that anyone would Mr Merriman’s attendance at the focus group meeting was appropriate.
“I just don’t understand how you could even think that that was OK.
“I’m just sorry it doesn’t tick any boxes, any way you look at it, for love nor money.”
Mr Murphy said Mr Merriman being able as an AWI director and competing ram breeder to observe MERINOSELECT users assured of anonymity without their knowledge did not come “even close” to passing the so-called AWI wool grower test.
“I’m still incredulous that he could even think it was OK.”
Centre Plus Merino Stud principal Mark Mortimer said he would liked to have known if Mr Merriman was behind the one-way mirror.
“If I was the AWI chairman I wouldn’t be behind the mirror, I would have waited for the research – you would want to keep yourself completely separate.
“If you are looking to do this kind of work and get an unbiased opinion from industry, keeping yourself separate is a good way of achieving that.”
Western Australian Woodyarrup Merino stud principal Craig Dewar said he was extremely disappointed with Mr Merriman’s conduct in viewing the focus group meeting without declaring his presence.
“I think he is totally out of line.
“One, he (Mr Merriman) shouldn’t have been there and if he was going to be there, he should have been declared and we should have been given the opportunity to say yes or no.”
Hazeldean Merino Stud principal Jim Litchfield said he wasn’t aware Mr Merriman was behind the mirror.
“None of us were aware prior to the meeting that there was going to be a one-way mirror.
“I think we all felt this only happened at police stations,” he said.
AWI was contacted about the application of the wool grower test to the focus group research, but chose to not comment. An AWI spokesman has previously said that attendance of Mr Merriman’s attendance, as an AWI science and welfare sub-committee member, at company-arranged meetings as an observer, was not an unusual occurrence.
Western Australian Merino stud breeder Lynley Anderson also attended the June 15 focus group meeting, but declined to comment.
Click here for more comments from the MERINOSELECT focus group breeders.